What is curcumin.. and how is it different from turmeric?
To start things off I feel like it’s important to clear up some common confusion. Curcumin and turmeric are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Turmeric is a plant from the ginger family.
Curcumin is a plant chemical found primarily in turmeric.
Curcumin has a plethora of wonderful medicinal qualities that have been tested in numerous studies. Although I generally like to recommend whole plants or herbs as the best option (rather than an extract), turmeric only has about 3% of curcumin by weight  and most of the research I’ve seen is centered around the curcumin molecule specifically, rather than the Turmeric plant.
Therefore, in this case it might be best if you take an extract in order to reap the full benefits (but more on that at the bottom of the post).
If you Google “curcumin” and “pain”, “skin”, “cancer”, “stress”, “sleep”, “digestion” or “liver”… you’ll find a curcumin-based folk remedy for any illness containing the terms above and hundreds more. Because of its curcumin content, turmeric definitely sounds like a wonder-spice if you count every traditional and folk use, with so many properties that it just barely stops-short of reviving people from the dead.
- Examine.com (the online nutritional encyclopedia) has 234 study references on the various benefits of curcumin.
- A search for “turmeric” at greenmedinfo.com truns up more than 8 thousand results with research and articles.
- PubMed has more than 7,000 peer-reviewed articles.
With this much research around one plant chemical, I think it’s time athletes took notice. Sounds like there might be something to the claims that curcumin can be an effective cure to nearly any illness. I think the key point here is that it works on so many levels, naturally with your body, that in a sense this single supplement gives you more benefits than an entire synthetic supplement stack.
However, I trust in science (with a pinch of personal experimentation) and amidst all the chaos of information and paraphrased articles about detoxing your liver, I had to see how curcumin can benefit the athlete and what does modern/western science have to say about it.
Benefits to Athletes of Curcumin and Turmeric
Curcumin Is A Natural Anti-Inflammatory
Inflammation isn’t always a red bump or swelling in a localized area. To put it simply inflammation is a natural defense of your body – it helps the body to heal naturally. The symptoms of that are swelling, redness and … inflammation of the area. This is most certainly OK and almost necessary when you have an injury that requires rest and recovery.
Inflammation (especially in athletes) is often mild, but enough to hold us back and negatively affect our training process. Being sore after a heavy workout is a form of inflammation, but even a relatively mild injury is a cause for concern. Specifically inflammation has a nasty side effect known as “secondary muscle damage” , the very thing that causes you to feel sore after a workout. 
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response. At first, it’s beneficial when tissues need care and protection. But, in chronic cases, inflammation can cause further inflammation; it can become self-perpetuating. More inflammation is created in response to the existing inflammation.
For many athletes the issue of inflammation is never resolved, it’s an ongoing struggle. Piling up on top of each other are little injuries, followed by waves of inflammation, which cause more and more damage overtime. Acute inflammation is OK, chronic inflammation is a serious problem.
Curcumin, just might contain the answer. Let’s take a look at what the research says.
First of all, curcumin is more potent than some anti-inflammatory drugs, and I prefer to opt in the favor of natural vs. synthetic if the race is even close. Although the process isn’t yet well understood, the general consensus is that curcumin actually inhibits inflammation at the molecular level.
Here’s a possible, if not yet fully tested, explanation:
It seems that curcumin can block NF-kB, a molecule that travels into the nuclei of cells and turns on genes related to inflammation. , , 
But Curcumin doesn’t just prevent damage from chronic inflammation, it helps you to actually recover from and undo the damage.
Curcumin Helps Damaged Muscles Recover Faster
While the anti-inflammatory and protective properties of curcumin are pretty impressive, is it possible that this plant chemical can also promote and speed up the healing of a damaged tissue? Do you acquire wolverine-like powers if you eat a pound of curcumin? No. Can curcumin help athletes recover from slightly damaged muscles? One animal study suggests it can. It was found that mice treated with the optimal dose [20 microgram/kg/day] showed muscle recovery after 4 days that untreated mice only obtained after 20 days. So curcumin sped up muscle recovery by a factor of five.
Recovery is an important cycle in your training regiment. Simply “not working out” is not an efficient way to restore what you’ve lost during a grueling practice. Although taking time off is important, underutilizing your time off (especially if you are a competitive athlete) is often overlooked. Get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water and eat well is all sound advice.
Combine it with improved muscle recovery and increased anti-oxidative activity and you have a real edge over the average recovery method.
At this point it’s important to point out that physical recovery is much tougher if your mind isn’t in the right place… and, indeed, curcumin can help us there too.
Curcumin For Better Sleep And Less Stress
It goes without saying that we cannot overlook the mental benefits that Curcumin provides. I’ve already talked about the importance of sleep. If the goal is to achieve the state of flow, the state optimal performance, then improved sleep and reduced negative stress are exactly what we need.
It seems impossible to achieve clarity, focus and gentle curiosity required to excel at any task be it competition or practice, while deprived of sleep, groggy and pumped on energy boosters. We might be able to do stupid things faster with a jolt from a Redbull, but that’s not really the goal.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a very interesting protein. It’s a nerve growth factor found in the brain and is naturally produced for neuron protection, new neuron growth and the creation of new synapses.
However, if you’re under a lot of constant stress (perhaps induced by competition) BDNF production is inhibited and your ability to evolve and grow as well as your mental alertness and overall health are negatively impacted. Curcumin actually alleviates the effects of stress by blocking these stress-induced decreases in BDNF  and even increasing BDNF levels .
As far as sleep goes, Curcumin can actually reverse some of the symptoms associated with sleep deprivation (anxiety-like behavior and oxidative stress).
So far we have looked at three various, yet hugely important areas of improvement where a single natural supplement can be of tremendous value. Restorative, protective and de-stressor properties of this plant are truly wonderful, and as you see backed by both years of research and use in Ayurvedic medical system as well as western science.
What’s the best way to add Curcimen to your diet?
This is one of those questions that I’ve wrestled with the most. On one hand you have a myriad of health-boosting Turmeric-based recipes from teas, to cakes, to curry (my favorite), to wonder-drink “elixers“.
However, when I look at the research, I keep coming back to the fact that by weight turmeric is only about 3% curcumin. Furthermore, curcumin is poorly absorbed when taken orally. So, it would be really difficult to get the minimum effective dose from diet alone. The alternative is a curcumin supplementation.
Unfortunately there is isn’t enough conclusive science to suggest that one method is truly better than the other. Bioavailability in the blood has been studied to some degree, but it doesn’t always prove that the extract alone is more beneficial than the Turmeric plant when used as a whole.
All-in-all there’s absolutely nothing wrong with combining the delicious recipes with well thought out supplementation. Drink your turmeric-based tea in the morning, add recommended dosage of high quality supplement to your daily food intake and then enjoy a post-workout shake with curcumin and black pepper to minimize inflammation.
A Couple Of Things To Keep In Mind:
- If making a meal, turmeric should be exposed to cooking heat, when used as a whole or ground up, as this increases bioavailability.
- black pepper (or more specifically piperine) should be included to improve curcumin absorption. This applies to both supplements and cooking. Studies show that when combined with piperine the bioavailability of curcumin is increased by about 20 times.
- A healthy fat (such as coconut oil) can be consumed with turmeric to prevent exposure of curcumin to harsh stomach acids on its way to the small intestines. Other healthy fats that can be added include: ghee, olive oil, goat, almond or cow milk.
Curcumin is considered very safe  and when I compare the known side effects to those of of aspirin or ibuprofen [14,15] I feel comfortable recommending it. In fact, in phase I clinical studies, curcumin with doses up to 3600-8000 mg daily for 4 months did not result in discernible toxicities except mild nausea and diarrhea. That being said, some people can experience stomach upset, nausea, dizziness, or diarrhea (as noted by WebMD). Still, natural does not mean completely harmless and you should always consult with your doctor or health-care professional before starting any supplementation course.
Curcumin is not an overnight cure for a sprained ankle, but it’s pretty clear that steady supplementation with curcumin in combination with teas, drinks and food prepared with turmeric is a responsible and beneficial way to take your recovery and performance to the next level.
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