Feel the burn. It’s something anyone hitting the gym or the pavement for a workout has told themselves (and likely more than once). In the masochistic world of fitness, the fiery sensation of lactic acid building up in our muscles is typically regarded as positive; evidence that our hard work is paying off. No pain, no gain, right?
But that post-workout burn often translates into hours, or even days, of muscle soreness after a hard workout, and that’s especially true when we’re first starting out with a fitness routine. The discomfort can be annoying, and sometimes it’s even enough to discourage us from getting back up off the couch.
But we all know that exercise is good for us. Better cardiovascular health, stronger lungs, more energy, better brain health, the list goes on. Suffice to say, exercise is almost always the right idea.
That’s where supplements like curcumin might play a small, but pivotal role. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound has been shown in multiple studies to reduce muscle soreness post-workout, and maybe even boost physical performance. That’s in addition to research suggesting curcumin has anti-cancer effects and other general health benefits.
A recent scientific review rounded up the evidence for how curcumin could help ease post-workout pains (Campbell et al., 2020). Though more study is needed, the bulk of the evidence suggested that people who used curcumin supplements before and after workouts were in less pain later on. That could translate to more and better exercise in the long run, something that’s good for all of us.
The benefits of curcumin for exercise
You’ve probably encountered curcumin before. It’s a major component of the spice turmeric, found in curries and other Indian and Asian dishes. Curcumin gives the spice its distinctive yellow color, and it’s been a part of Chinese and Indian traditional medicine for centuries.
In traditional medicine, turmeric is reputed to help alleviate a range of maladies ranging from urinary tract diseases and parasitic skin infections to flatulence and dyspepsia (an old-time term for bloating after a meal) (Aggarwal et al., 2007). Additionally, there are no major side effects to turmeric and curcumin, and health authorities find they are safe for most everyone to consume.
If you’re taking a curcumin supplement, it’s important to find one that includes fats or oils. That’s because curcumin is absorbed by the body poorly without any fats present.
(Read more: Curcumin: Miracle or Myth?)
More modern research has focused on curcumin’s antioxidant activities. Like other antioxidants, curcumin reacts chemically with the body’s damaging free radical molecules, rendering them less harmful. Free radicals are highly reactive, and left alone they can tear apart delicate cell membranes, DNA and other important body building blocks. Scientists think free radicals contribute to diseases such as cancer and processes including aging by harming cells and tissues (Lobo et al., 2010).
Our muscles make some kinds of free radicals when we exercise, too. At low levels, studies indicate this might not be a big deal, and may even be part of the process that signals our muscles to build back stronger after exertion (Sachdeva & Davies, 2008). But after a really hard workout, enough free radicals can build up that they overwhelm our body’s natural ability to neutralize their negative effects. That surplus of reactive molecules may be one reason we’re so stiff and sore after a grueling workout.
Giving our bodies an antioxidant boost might be just the thing to counteract that surge of damaging reactive molecules. A number of studies has tested just this by giving participants a dose of curcumin before a workout, and then testing them later to see how well their muscles performed, and how sore they were. In the review, researchers rounded up the handful of studies assessing the effects of curcumin on exercise and recovery to see if a consensus about its effects would emerge (Campbell et al., 2020).
While the effects varied somewhat from study to study, most found that those people that ingested curcumin fared better after a workout. Not only did people that got curcumin perform better on physical tests in many cases, lab work showed they had fewer markers of inflammation and reported less soreness afterward. The effects seem to be strongest for sustained exercises like running and cycling.
Curcumin fights free radicals
One study gave participants 400 milligrams (mg) of curcumin a day for two days and then had them run “downhill” on an inclined treadmill for 45 minutes, which every runner knows can lead to brutal shin pain. Post-workout, the researchers saw fewer signs of muscle damage, as assessed using an MRI, and also found lower levels of a marker of inflammation when compared to a group that just got a placebo (Drobnic et al., 2014).
In other work, researchers had participants do a leg press at their maximum capacity, and gave them 400 mg of curcumin for two days before and four days after the workout. Compared to a placebo group, the people that took curcumin had lower levels of a few different inflammation-signaling molecules in their bodies (McFarlin et al., 2016). A similar test that used squats and curcumin supplements asked participants how sore they were afterward. Those who took the supplement reported significantly less pain and tenderness in their legs after the workout (Udani et al., 2009).
Another study looked specifically for free radicals in the body after a workout to compare people who took curcumin to those who didn’t (Takahashi et al., 2013).
Participants got 90 mg of curcumin before running on a treadmill for an hour, and some got 90 mg of curcumin afterwards as well. The researchers also took blood samples both before and after the workout to measure how much of a free radical called reactive oxygen species (ROS) their bodies had. In the control group that didn’t get any curcumin, researchers found higher levels of ROS after the workout. But those who took curcumin saw no increase in free radicals — but they did have elevated levels of antioxidants in their bloodstream, a likely explanation for why they had so few free radicals.
Other curcumin benefits
There are a few other reasons you might consider adding a curcumin supplement to your diet. Years of studies are building a case that curcumin is associated with lowered cancer risk (Giordano and Tommonaro, 2019), something scientists think stems from its ability to alter how cells within the body communicate. The compound might help downregulate some processes that help tumor cells grow.
Another recent study found that regular doses of curcumin helped alleviate knee pain from osteoarthritis. People taking a turmeric extract supplement for 12 weeks noted less pain compared to a placebo group, the researchers report (Wang et al., 2020).
That’s on top of the more general anti-inflammatory effects curcumin provides (Aggarwal et al., 2007), and which might provide a basis for some of the other claims doctors and patients have made for centuries about the spice. But many of these purported benefits have little in the way of hard science to back them up. Still, we can say confidently that curcumin acts as an antioxidant and likely benefits aching muscles and joints.
There are few known side effects to taking turmeric and curcumin, and scientific evidence points to a range of benefits, including reduced pain and soreness after workouts. Because exercise is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle, anything that helps get you up and moving can make a big difference in your life.
While adding some turmeric to your meals isn’t a bad idea, unless you’re eating a lot of curry, a supplement is the best way to get a healthy dose of curcumin in your diet.
Aggarwal, B. B., Surh, Y. J., & Shishodia, S. (Eds.). (2007). The molecular targets and therapeutic uses of curcumin in health and disease (Vol. 595). Springer Science & Business Media.http://ndl.ethernet.edu.et/bitstream/123456789/42405/1/6.Bharat%20B.%20Aggarwal.pdf#page=12
Campbell, M. S., Carlini, N. A., & Fleenor, B. S. (2020). Influence of curcumin on performance and post-exercise recovery. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 61(7), 1151-1162. https://doi.org10.1080/10408398.2020.1754754
Drobnic, F., Riera, J., Appendino, G., Togni, S., Franceschi, F., Valle, X., Pons, A.,, &J. Tur. (2014). Reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness by a novel curcumin delivery system (MerivaVR ): A randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 31. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-31.
Giordano, A. & Tommonaro, G. (2019). Curcumin and Cancer. Nutrients, 11(10), 2376. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11102376
Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 4(8), 118. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.70902
McFarlin, B. K., Venable, A. S., Henning, A. L., Sampson, J. N. B., Pennel, K., Vingren, J. L., & Hill, D. W. (2016). Reduced inflammatory and muscle damage biomarkers following oral supplementation with bioavailable curcumin. BBA Clinical 5, 72–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbacli. 2016.02.003
Sachdev, S., & Davies, K. J. A. (2008). Production, detection, and adaptive responses to free radicals in exercise. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 44(2), 215–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2007.07.019
Takahashi, M., Suzuki, K., Kim, H., Otsuka, Y., Imaizumi, A., Miyashita, M., & Sakamoto, S. (2013). Effects of Curcumin Supplementation on Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress in Humans. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(06), 469–475. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0033-1357185
Udani, J. K., Singh, B. B., Singh, V. J., & Sandoval, E.. (2009). BounceBackTM capsules for reduction of DOMS after eccentric exercise: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover pilot study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 6(1),14. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-6-14
Wang, Z., Jones, G., Winzenberg, T., Cai, G., Laslett, L. L., Aitken, D., Hopper, I., Singh, A., Jones, R., Fripp, J., Ding, C., & Antony, B. (2020). Effectiveness of curcuma longa extract for the treatment of symptoms and effusion-synovitis of knee osteoarthritis: A randomized trial. Annals of internal medicine, 173(11), 861–869. https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-0990