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An astounding number of people experience inflammation or have inflammation-related health conditions, and curcumin and fish oil are two of the most researched supplements that can sometimes help.

The consumer interest in curcumin has gone unrecognized by the industry. Curcumin is used in pill supplements, but it is also being used in cosmetics that claim to help treat a number of skin conditions, including dry skin, and slow down the aging process. According to some reports, the global curcumin market size could reach $191m by the year 2028.

The doses of curcumin required to give benefit are very high – typically about 1,000mg a day

The ground rhizomes of the turmeric plant are commonly found in curry powder, but they have also been used in traditional Indian medicine for hundreds of years, and at some point in the last decade they worked their way out of the spice.

The new cure-all is turmeric. It has been subject to a lot of wild and wonderful health claims, including the ability to relieve allergies, prevent cancer, improve heart health, reverse cognitive decline, cure depression and increase longevity.

It's not easy to separate the hype and the truth of a supplement, since not all of the claims are true. Curcumin, which is found in theTurmeric, has been shown to be a potent anti-Inflammatory andAntioxidant.

Rhizomes of the turmeric plant

Rhizomes of the turmeric plant, Curcuma longa, from a garden in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The plant is native to Asia and grown in many tropical regions. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

This is where it gets more complicated. By weight, the proportion of curcumin is 3%. The scientific studies that have made positive health associations use either pure curcumin orTurmeric extract that has been designed to contain mostly curcumin. The amount of curcumin needed to give benefit is typically about 1,000mg a day. Adding a little extra spice to your meals won't get you the necessary dose, despite what manufacturers might claim. Heavy metals such as lead can have adverse effects on your health, and some turmeric products have been found to be contaminated with lead.

There is genuine interest from scientists around the world in the potential of curcumin as a natural treatment for a wide range of chronic illnesses. There is a huge unmet need for a drug that can relieve joint pain in people with osteoarthritis because of the limitations of NSAIDs.

Kristopher Paultre is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Miami.

This is just one of many areas of investigation. There are 70 clinical trials around the world that are either active or seeking patients, and are looking at the potential of curcumin to treat a variety of diseases.

Advances in drug-delivery techniques

Jack Arbiser and Nancy De More were at Harvard Medical School in the mid 1990s researching new treatment options for cancer when they came across some research suggesting that Curcumin could be used to block the growth of different types of cancer cells in a test tube.

Intrigued by this, they discovered that curcumin could prevent the formation of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis, which all tumours need to survive.

We were very excited about this initial finding. There are several studies showing that there is a benefit to using curcumin in clinical trials.

aerial view of an indian turmeric field

An aerial view of a turmeric field in India. Photograph: CR Shelare/Getty

When scientists moved from testing curcumin in the lab to testing it on humans, there was a catch. The low rate at which the body absorbs a substance makes it nearly impossible to get high concentrations of curcumin into the blood. The commercial difficulties of patenting natural products meant that scientific interest in curcumin waned, and would remain so for more than a decade.

Advances in drug delivery techniques have renewed interest in curcumin. There are ways to get high amounts of curcumin to tumours. Although it still remains to be proven, research has shown that combining curcumin with piperine can enhance its absorption into the blood, although it still remains to be seen whether this can help yield benefit in humans. There are still challenges for scientists looking to use it medically, despite the fact that there are a lot of off-the-shelf supplements that combine curcumin and piperine. One of these is that piperine has been shown to interfere with a variety of enzymes that aid in metabolising drugs, and it remains to be seen whether this could cause an increased risk of side-effects in patients also taking prescription medicines.

In the world of sport, curcumin has gained a reputation as an aid to muscle rehabilitation

The problem of absorption of curcumin has been addressed by a number of supplement companies and researchers.

This has been accelerated by a drive for more natural alternatives to painkillers, but also by the fact that in the world of sport, curcumin has gained a reputation as an aid to muscle rehabilitation. In the US, Paultre is already seeing the rise of curcumin as a sports supplement, while scientists at Northumbria University are planning a clinical trial to study this.

He says thatCurcumin has seen a significant increase in use in athletics for recovery after workouts and after games. Athletes tend to avoid chronic NSAID use due to side-effects. There is still work to be done despite the evidence being positive.

Turmeric lattes are promoted as a healthy alternative to coffee but the evidence is questionable.

Turmeric lattes are promoted as a healthy alternative to coffee but the evidence is questionable. Photograph: Larisa Duka/Alamy

Potential new delivery methods have sparked interest once again in the potential anti-cancer properties of curcumin, with researchers interested in exploring its uses in patients in the early stages of the disease, as an add-on treatment to more conventional cancer drugs.

A clinical trial will be launched to see if breast cancer patients taking a formula of curcumin specially designed to enhance its absorption into the blood experience a decrease in tumours proliferation.

The University of Rochester Medical Center in New York state is running a trial to see if adding piperine to Curcumin can stop disease progression in patients with low-grade prostrate cancer.

Even if the trials produce positive results, more proof will be needed before the drug can be used for cancer patients. Even if the data from De More's study shows that curcumin reduces the rate at tumours are growing, it would require a full randomised control trial to prove that it is true.

Turmeric powder in capsules

Supplement firms claim to have fixed the curcumin absorption problem with pepper, or soy compounds. Photograph: Pixel-shot/Alamy

Many of the natural products have not been through the traditional clinical trials to evaluate whether or not they are effective.

Much of the research on the compound has been done through small studies that have been funded by the nutraceutical industry, which has created a perception of curcumin as a miracle cure. There is always concern for bias in these studies, which produce amazing results.

There is a lack of concrete evidence for the benefits of curcumin for conditions such as cognitive decline, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and chronic pain beyond osteoarthritis, while there are claims that it could meaningfully reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

There are hopes that the anti- inflammatory properties of curcumin could help with depression. Laura Fusar-Poli, a psychiatry researcher at the University of Catania, Italy, describes a number of theories, including that curcumin may be able to restore levels of serotonin in the brains of depressed patients. There is no evidence of this in humans.

Paultre is hoping that the current interest in curcumin will help develop a gold-standard way of delivering it into the body as well as agreements on the best dose to use, which could all make it easier for scientists to quantify its benefits in the future.

There is no consensus on the appropriate levels of curcumin for therapeutic use. It is a bit like the wild west in this regard. There is still a lot of work to be done, even though there is evidence that Curcumin is helpful in some conditions.