Curcumin (Turmeric) For Depression?

Turmeric is an Indian spice used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese herbal medicine for many conditions. It comes from the rhizomes (underground roots) of the plant curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family. In traditional Chinese medicine, turmeric has been used for centuries to treat depression. Curcumin, a plant polyphenol, is believed to be the medicinal ingredient of turmeric. But does it actually work?

Studies show that curcumin is beneficial in osteoarthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and it may have cancer-fighting actions. In 2012 our newsletter featured an article about turmeric for Alzheimer’s disease. We concluded that there was not enough evidence that turmeric works to recommend it to patients. There still isn’t.

But it may work for depression. Curcumin has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. It also improves release of brain-derived neurotrophic protein, inhibits monoamine oxidase (several, older, and very effective antidepressants work by doing this), and modulates the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Scientists believe that these actions all may be relevant in antidepressant action.

A recent study shows that curcumin helps patients with major depressive disorder, a severe form of depression. Researchers tested curcumin in middle-age patients with depression who were on antidepressant medications, but not improving. Adding curcumin to these patients’ treatment brought about clear improvement.

This is very promising, but also very preliminary. More research is needed to confirm that curcumin is effective for depression. Fortunately, curcumin appears to be very safe. There are no known severely toxic effects. Curcumin does have side effects. These include diarrhea, rash, headache, and yellow-colored stools. Blood clotting may be slowed somewhat, so patients taking warfarin (Coumadin), or other blood thinning agents, should use turmeric with caution, and it is prudent to stop taking it a few weeks before having surgery.

So, should your try curcumin?  It may be a reasonable choice for some older adults with depression. If you have very mild depression and strongly prefer nutritional supplements to psychotherapy or antidepressant medications, curcumin might be worth trying. But first get a good medical checkup. And if you don’t get better, be open to seeing a healthcare professional for treatment. Your health and life might depend on it (read my book Beat Depression to Stay Healthier and Live Longer to learn more about this).

If you have more severe depression, do not count on curcumin alone. It won’t help, and you’ll be delaying badly needed medical treatment. Sooner or later you’ll regret it. Unfortunately, not all patients who take antidepressant medications respond to them fully. If you are receiving treatment for depression, and you are not improving enough, adding curcumin might be worth trying before changing your medication. If you decide to try curcumin, always let your doctors know.

How much curcumin should you take for depression? We don’t know for sure. Five hundred milligrams per day probably is not enough, but 500 mg twice a day may do the job, so this is a good place to start. Curcumin is not absorbed well from the intestines, and penetrates into the brain poorly. Taking curcumin along with piperine (brand name BioPerine), an ingredient found in black pepper, improves the absorption substantially. So look for a curcumin product that also contains piperine or BioPerine.

REFERENCES

Joseph Bergman, et al., “Curcumin as an Add-On to Antidepressant Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Clinical Study,” Clinical Neuropharmacology 36 (2013): 73-77

Jayesh Sanmukhani,et al., “Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Phytotherapy Research 28 (2014): 579-585

Yunes Panahi, et.al., “Investigation of the Efficacy of Adjunctive Therapy with Bioavailability-Boosted Curcuminoids in major Depressive Disorder”, Phytotherapy Research 29 (2015): 17-21

Updated October 2016

Moak Center for Healthy Aging