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Curcumin and Brain Health

July 8, 2016 (Updated: August 4, 2021)
Lily Moran

If you’re a fan of Indian cuisine, you must be familiar with turmeric—the golden yellow spice used to make curry. Turmeric is more than just a flavorful spice though. It contains a medicinal compound, curcumin, that boasts remarkable health benefits.

A large amount of the research associated with curcumin has to do with its ability to reduce inflammation, which is the root cause of many of the most terrible diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative conditions. And when it comes to the brain, research on curcumin is really starting to shine.

In every brain with Alzheimer’s, you’ll find protein clusters called plaques and tangles.

Plaques, which disrupt cellular communication in the brain, are caused by the accumulation of a sticky protein called amyloid beta.

Tangles are formed by the accumulation of another type of protein called tau. Tau causes twists and turns in the normally straight pathways that deliver nutrients to the brain. Distorted and tangled, they’re no longer able to transport essential materials to brain cells. As a result, brain cells starve and eventually die.

What do plaques and tangles have to do with inflammation?

Whenever you experience any kind of infection or illness, your body initiates an inflammatory response to attack and kill the foreign invader (viruses, bacteria, parasites, etc.) that’s causing it. This totally normal acute reaction promotes healing and, in many cases, can be life-saving.

Similarly, when the body detects that something is awry in a brain riddled with plaques and tangles (aka foreign invaders), it sets off an inflammatory response to “gobble up” the harmful proteins and the cells they’ve damaged.

You’d think this would be beneficial—and to a limited degree, it is, but problems arise when this inflammatory process becomes chronic and never ends. Chronic inflammation leads to sustained damage that can actually accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s.

The injury to the brain caused by this nonstop inflammation may even play a role in the formation of new plaques and tangles. Inflammation releases compounds that are toxic to neurons. These compounds damage and destroy brain cells and eradicate important communication pathways. In short, this entire process causes the brain to slowly die, bit by bit. It’s truly a vicious cycle.

The Time for Prevention Is Now

There is a bright side. You can actually do things to ward off inflammation, which can lower your risk of developing plaques and tangles, and therefore Alzheimer’s.

But here’s the kicker…the time to start is now. One of the major problems with Alzheimer’s disease is that it begins years, sometimes even decades, before signs and symptoms rear their ugly head.

Furthermore, the typical American lifestyle (poor diet, lack of exercise, environmental toxins, and excessive stress) is notoriously pro-inflammatory. So just your everyday habits can unknowingly set the stage for chronic inflammation in the body and brain.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

Research shows, though, that along with following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle, taking supplemental curcumin is one of the most important things you can do to reduce inflammation and prevent diseases related to it, like Alzheimer’s.

Curcumin is especially beneficial because it can easily cross the blood-brain barrier—a semi-permeable layer that prevents potentially harmful substances from entering the brain. Curcumin’s ability to bypass this protective mechanism is one of its most important attributes. It’s what makes curcumin succeed where so many drugs fail.

Curcumin reduces inflammation by several different mechanisms of action. For one, it inhibits compounds that activate genes involved in inflammation. It also blocks the effects of specific inflammatory enzymes, such as COX-2—the enzyme typically targeted by prescription anti-inflammatory drugs.

According to one study published in 2018, “The effect of curcumin on Alzheimer’s disease involves multiple signaling pathways: anti-amyloid and metal iron chelating properties, antioxidation and anti-inflammatory activities. Indeed, there is a scientific basis for the rational application of curcumin in prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Curcumin Is More Than a Preventive

Curcumin can help people who already have cognitive decline as well.

One particularly exciting double-blind study, which was published in 2018, involved 40 adults (aged 50-90) who had mild memory problems. The participants were divided and randomly received either placebo or curcumin twice a day for 18 months. All participants took cognitive tests every six months, and 30 of them underwent PET scans to determine their levels of plaques and tangles at the beginning and conclusion of the study.

The results showed that the people taking curcumin experienced a 28% improvement in memory tests after 18 months, and their scans indicated significantly fewer plaques and tangles than the placebo group.

Curcumin isn’t a cure. But it’s perhaps the most promising compound available for brain protection and Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment—and it could potentially be a key to defeating this awful disease one day.

How to Use Curcumin

Curcumin does have one major downside. Oral supplements have notoriously low bioavailability—meaning it’s hard for your body to absorb it.

To get around this, look for a product that contains a standardized form of curcumin created to be much more bioavailable than other brands. Some brands include black pepper extract, which research shows makes curcumin bioavailability “skyrocket” up to 2,000 percent.

Meriva is one form that’s 29 times more bioavailable than ordinary curcumin. Cavacurmin is another good choice. Research shows that Cavacurmin has 40 times better absorption than standard curcumin.

Choosing a brand that contains a proprietary formulation such as one of these guarantees that more of the compound will be absorbed by your body—and brain—delivering benefits far more efficiently.

The typical curcumin dose is 500 mg two to three times per day.


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