Worried about losing your mental edge? If so, join the club!
The encouraging results of an Australian clinical trial add more evidence that curcumin from turmeric root can bring memory, thinking, and mood benefits.
Before getting to the new clinical findings, we’ll cover the basics about curcumin — and then we’ll address the critical fact that curcumin brands vary widely in terms of absorption and efficacy (see “All curcumin isn’t created equal”, at the end of this article).
What is curcumin?
Turmeric root contains a trio of unique polyphenol-type compounds called “curcuminoids” that are proven to fight oxidation and inflammation.
This dynamic antioxidant trio — diferuloylmethane (curcumin), demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin — is collectively called curcumin, probably because that member of the group gives turmeric root its bright yellow-orange color.
As well as combating oxidation and inflammation, lab and clinical studies suggest that curcumin promotes immune-system, mood, and brain health in exceptional and powerful ways.
Why would curcumin protect the aging brain?
First, curcumin triggers the release of immune-system proteins (cytokines) that inhibit excessive or chronic, “silent” inflammation.
Chronic, unnoticed inflammation promotes and aggravates major health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and depression.
Psychologist Adrian Lopresti of Australia’s Murdoch University co-authored several clinical trials that successfully tested curcumin as a depression therapy.
As professor Lopresti recently told Psychology Today, “There’s a lot of evidence that people with depression have greater levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. That may be how curcumin works to improve mental health.” (Anti-inflammatory effects probably contribute to the clinically proven anti-depressant effects of seafood-source omega-3s, especially EPA.)
This may explain why numerous studies indicate that curcumin can help delay, deter, or diminish dementia and milder forms of age-related cognitive decline.
Second, curcumin appears to enhance the structure and functions of our mitochondria: the energy-producing organelles found within every cell.
That effect of curcumin matters because “mitochondrial dysfunction” is strongly implicated in the development and severity of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other degenerative brain conditions.
Curcumin’s broad brain-supporting powers may help account for the fact that people in rural India — who consume copious amounts of yellow/orange-hued, turmeric-rich curries — enjoy exceptionally low rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Australian clinical trial found cognitive benefits from curcumin
The recently published clinical trial was led by Andrew Scholey, PhD, director of the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology at Melbourne, Australia’s Swinburne University.
Four years ago, professor Scholey’s research team reported that volunteers who took 80 mg of supplemental curcumin daily for four weeks enjoyed gains in memory and mood, compared to a placebo group (Cox KH et al. 2015).
For their longer 12-week trial, the Australian researchers divided 80 healthy adults aged 50 to 80 years into two groups, each assigned to a different daily regimen:
The participants completed questionnaires designed to measure their emotional states and cognitive performance at the outset of the study, after four weeks, and finally after 12 weeks (Scholey AB et al. 2019).
After 12 weeks, the people assigned to the curcumin group performed significantly better on three measures of “working memory”, compared to the people in the placebo group.
Working memory is the capacity to briefly retain information for quick retrieval. This brain function enables tasks like remembering where you just left your keys, or the name of a person you just met.
In addition, the people in the curcumin group showed improvements in mood, in the form of reduced anxiety, anger, and confusion after four weeks.
Those mood benefits were most pronounced after four weeks and then faded or plateaued, suggesting that these benefits are concentrated during the first month of beginning to take curcumin.
Of course, different people’s moods may respond differently to daily curcumin, depending on the source of any mood problems.
Curcumin also eased fatigue
Versus the placebo group, the participants assigned to the curcumin group also reported less fatigue.
The curcumin group reported less fatigue after four weeks and after 12 weeks, indicating that the effect lasts at least three months.
Significant brain-aging benefits seen
Dr. Scholey told Psychology Today that memory and mood rank as the two most pressing concerns among his aging patients.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his older patients express strong desires for clearer memory and extra energy — and his team’s findings suggest daily supplemental curcumin could deliver real improvements in both realms.
For example, while memory recall for someone taking curcumin may only improve by milliseconds, that gain can make a big difference. As he told the magazine, “Ten or 15 milliseconds doesn’t mean that much to most people. But if you’re driving a car, it could save your life.”
All curcumin isn’t created equal
While the curcumin in turmeric root is quite well-absorbed, curcumin that’s been extracted from turmeric root is not — unless its absorption has been enhanced using one of three basic methods:
The third approach — mixing curcumin with turmeric’s volatile oils — has two advantages:
The absorption of curcumin is up to nine times better when it’s accompanied by turmeric volatile oils, which provide separate health benefits.
And while curcumin enveloped in certain chemical carriers is the best-absorbed form, the cost per milligram of absorbed curcumin is extremely high, making volatile-oil-enhanced curcumin far more cost-effective.