Curcumin is widely used and well recognized as a highly valued component of the turmeric root. Used extensively in India for cooking and medicinal purposes, it boasts many health promoting chemicals and has been the subject of intense research over the last few years. It is now well established that curcumin protects against inflammatory disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, among other health issues.1 More recently, the health promoting properties of curcumin have been further investigated to determine how they affect exercise performance. Curcumin is not only a potent antioxidant that helps to protect cells when they are
Now that curcumin is the hottest thing since sliced bread, it’s time to set the record straight, and get down to the nitty gritty science-based facts of what makes a truly superior, effective curcumin formulation.
So, let’s take a few steps back and start at the beginning. Curcumin—one of the active ingredients in turmeric root, is one of three bright pigments that give turmeric its beautiful golden colour. As a whole, these pigments are known as curcuminoids.
Traditionally, turmeric root has many medicinal uses: as a digestive aid, preservative, and blood purifier, but it’s best known for its anti-inflammatory abilities. It’s also widely recognized as a potent antioxidant.
Unfortunately, turmeric’s success as an anti-inflammatory requires extremely high doses, because it’s insoluble in water and many fats. This means that it has a hard time dissolving, making absorption exceptionally difficult.
For example, when turmeric powder is added to water or pressed juice, you are often left with this yellow sediment at the bottom of your glass, because it has so much trouble dissolving. This results in poor bioavailability, which refers to how much of a substance is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Practitioners of Ayurveda figured this out quickly, and came up with ways to assist in absorption by slightly altering it. Turmeric was usually boiled or heated before ingestion, or heated and suspended in a fat, such as clarified butter or milk. While these noted methods are helpful at improving the medicinal benefits of turmeric, they do little to increase the absorption of actual curcuminoids, the substances mostly responsible for its anti-inflammatory activity. This is because turmeric’s curcuminoids only make up about 2-6% of the total content of the root. Furthermore, because curcuminoids are little “powerhouses”—particularly curcumin, researchers wanted to find a way to increase their concentration for maximum benefit. These factors led the industry to create more bioavailable curcumin formulas with a higher concentration of curcuminoids.
FIGURE 1. Turmeric and its curcuminoids: Turmeric Rhizome (Curcuma longa L.), Turmeric powder, Curcuminoid extract. Turmeric’s 3 Curcuminoids: Curcumin, Demethoxycurcumin, and Bis-demethoxycurcumin.
The first in a series of “altered” curcumin formulations is standardized Curcumin-95. Here, turmeric undergoes an extraction process, where the curcumin is standardized from 2% to 95%. Although this produces a stronger curcumin formulation, the buck doesn’t just stop here. Granted, the higher amount of curcumin is now concentrated and therefore more potent, but the issue of absorbability/bioavailability has not been correctly addressed.
The human body is a complex organism that undergoes extremely finite processes each second. Many of these processes are governed by the liver—the metabolic centre. It is responsible for many things, most importantly detoxification. Simply put, the liver breaks down and removes substances from the body. One step in this process is known as conjugation, where specific liver enzymes essentially “tag” a substance by attaching themselves to it; readying the substance for removal from the body. Conjugation is often referred to as biotransformation because not only is the structure altered, but the substance also loses its original potency (i.e. strength in effect).
Moreover, the body loves to readily conjugate curcumin and seal its fate as what we call “broken” and or “chained” curcumin. We use this analogy because it’s as if the body literally takes curcumin prisoner and shackles it with a ball and chain during conjugation, ensuring that it’s not free to incite a healing revolution within. Thus, a clear understanding of this process of rapid breakdown sets the stage for what is known as free-form Curcumin, aka unbroken, unadulterated curcumin, with AOR being the first company in Canada to bring it to market back in 2006.
FIGURE 2. Breakdown of Biotransformation: The structure of free-form Curcumin vs. curcumin conjugates resulting from biotransformation by the liver. Conjugates are much larger than their free-from counterparts.
What kind of curcumin do you want coursing through your veins? One that is “broken and chained,” or one that is whole and free to move around uninhibited?
Now here’s the real deal—the skinny. To date, the only two curcumin formulations in the world that successfully evade rapid breakdown by the liver and produce free-form Curcumin are Longvida® and CurQfen®. These two raw materials are the only ones with peer-reviewed clinical trials to prove this. Also, study results for numerous curcumin formulations are often skewed when it comes to naturally occurring free-form Curcumin vs. conjugated curcumin. In many cases, an enzyme is used to literally deconjugate the tagged curcumin in the blood samples taken from study participants!.
Unfortunately, this practice generates manipulated test results, and does not accurately reflect the process curcumin undergoes within the body. This has also led certain companies to claim that the body naturally undergoes this process at a site of inflammation, resulting in all curcumin formulas producing free-form Curcumin. Not only is this extremely unlikely, it has never been proven in humans regarding curcumin, and goes against the laws of human biochemistry. However, this is not to say that many of the curcumin formulas on the market don’t work. They do, and many have excellent ingredients and well-designed studies to boot; they’re just not as effective, fast acting and long lasting as their free-form counter parts.
These formulas miss the mark with their claims to higher absorbability/bioavailability because they are producing conjugated curcumin—not free-form Curcumin, regardless of how much better absorbed each formula is. So, although more curcumin is absorbed, it’s in a form that is less active, and therefore less therapeutic, which inevitably results in a less effective product.
So, what kind of curcumin do you want coursing through your veins? One that is “broken and chained,” or one that is whole and free to move around uninhibited? That said, let’s explore the truth about curcumin.