Lovers of Indian food, take a second helping.

Otherwise, select a smart supplemental substitute for curry.

Why so? Turmeric is a common, colorful component of curry spice blends — one that's long been prized in South and East Asian medicine.

Copious consumption of turmeric throughout India may partially explain why — compared with Western countries — that nation enjoys lower average rates of Alzheimer’s disease, and better average cognitive performance (Ng TP et al. 2006).

Turmeric gets its color, and many of its health benefits, from a complex of yellow-orange antioxidants, collectively called curcumin.

Curcumin offers broad brain and body benefits. And in a recent clinical trial, it boosted memory and mood.

Before reviewing the encouraging results — which echo and bolster prior findings — we'll cover the basics of curcumin.

What is curcumin?
Curcumin is just one of a trio of “curcuminoids” in turmeric.

These antioxidants are unique to turmeric, and proven to fight oxidation and inflammation.

Both lab and clinical studies suggest that curcuminoids support immune, mood, and brain health in potentially powerful ways.

Late last year, a researcher from Central Michigan State University summarized the evidence this way:
“[curcumin] … aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia [high blood fat and cholesterol levels]. It may also help in the management of exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness ... a relatively low dose … can [even] provide health benefits for people that do not have diagnosed health conditions.” (Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS 2017)

However, supplemental curcumin is not well-absorbed — unless absorption is enhanced by one of three basic methods:

  • Delivered within one of various costly chemical “carriers” or "envelopes", which was the case this trial*.
  • Mixed with a pepper extract called piperine, which also increases absorption and potency of pharmaceutical drugs.
  • Accompanied by other turmeric components, including its essential oils, which bring additional health benefits. This approach generally beats the other methods on a cost-per-amount-absorbed-basis (Jäger R et al. 2914; Aggarwal BB et al. 2013).

*This trial used a supplement called Theracurmin, which delivers it in a nano-sized, microencapsulated form, along with an emulsifying agent.

What the clinical trial found
A team from UCLA set out to test the effects of a well-absorbed curcumin supplement on memory performance in people without dementia.

They also wanted to see whether curcumin might affect the microscopic plaques and tangles found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Psychiatrist Gary Small, M.D., led the study, and said this about curcumin: “Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain, but it may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer’s disease and major depression.”

The double-blind, placebo-controlled UCLA study involved 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 who had mild memory complaints.

The participants were randomly assigned to take either a placebo pill or 90mg of well-absorbed curcumin, twice daily for 18 months.

All the volunteers took standard cognitive tests at the start of the study, and at six-month intervals.

The researchers also tested the participants’ blood curcumin levels at the start of the study and after 18 months, to gauge the extent of absorption.

In addition, 30 of the volunteers underwent positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to measure the levels of amyloid plaque and tau tangles in their brains at the start of the study, and after 18 months.

The results showed these advantages for the curcumin group versus the placebo group:

  • Mild improvements in mood.
  • Memory improved by 28%, along with significant improvements in attention.
  • Significantly less amyloid plaque and fewer tau tangles in the amygdala and hypothalamus — the brain regions most important to mood and memory.

As Dr. Small said, “These results suggest that taking this relatively safe form of curcumin could provide meaningful cognitive benefits over the years.”

And there’s good evidence that curcumin may alleviate depression: see Curcumin Tied with Prozac in Depression Trial, Curcumin Eased Depression & Deflected Diabetes, Curcumin Enhanced Seniors' Brains, Mood, and Energy, Turmeric Targets Stubborn Depression, and Curcumin May Curb the Fearful Memories that Fuel PTSD.

The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up clinical trial with a larger number of people, including some people with mild depression.

As they said, a larger trial also would allow them to analyze whether curcumin’s memory-enhancing effects vary along with people’s genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, their age, or the extent of their “brain fog”.

The study was supported by several foundations, and by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.



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