Spice up your life – Can turmeric help your RA symptoms?

Blog by Victoria Butler

Many health benefits have been attributed to turmeric. It has been found to have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Some studies have even suggested it can help in the treatment of certain types of cancer.

So, what is turmeric? Does it help RA? What are the downsides to this supplement? And how should it be taken?

Let’s start by getting an understanding of what turmeric is. Turmeric is a plant from the ginger family. A yellow powder, derived from the root stalks from this plant is commonly used as a spice in cooking, especially in Asian cuisine and most notably in curries. It has also been used as a dye and its active ingredient (curcumin) has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.

How well turmeric can benefit RA is a little harder to conclude. Its anti-inflammatory properties certainly give it the potential to help treat arthritis. However, there have been relatively few human studies looking into this, study sizes have been small and most based on osteoarthritis. The results of one study, looking specifically at turmeric’s effects on RA patients showed that it significantly improved morning stiffness, walking time and joint swelling.

So, what are the potential downsides to turmeric? The good news is that, for the majority, there seem to be relatively few and only minor potential side effects to taking turmeric, with the most common being gastrointestinal effects, such as diarrhoea, constipation or nausea. Turmeric/curcumin supplements are not recommended in patients with pre-existing liver conditions and, as with any supplement, it is always worth having a conversation with your rheumatology team before taking this regularly.

One of the biggest issues with turmeric, and specifically its active ingredient, curcumin, appears to be its poor ‘bioavailability’. Bioavailability refers to the amount of a drug or other substance that is absorbed and enters the circulation, as opposed to exiting the body as a waste product. Studies into the use of curcumin for health conditions have tended to show little or none of the supplement is detectable in blood tests and it is estimated that around 90% of curcumin exits the body as waste. This can make determining an optimal dose tricky, but a review of various studies on its use in arthritis has concluded that a supplement of about 1000 mg/day of curcumin appears to show benefit to joint symptoms.

The majority of studies looked at the use of supplements rather than incorporating turmeric into diet, perhaps because it is easier to get a more accurate dose this way. Supplements of curcumin will often also include black pepper, which has been seen to increase its absorption.

The conclusion, as is so often the case for supplements is that more research is needed to determine the specific benefits of turmeric, how it works and the optimal dose to help with RA symptoms. It has not been demonstrated to be an adequate replacement for RA medication, but there is evidence that it could help improve RA symptoms.

Should you decide to start taking turmeric for your RA, the best approach would be as follows:

  • Discuss with your rheumatology team.
  • Buy supplements from a trusted source.
  • To determine whether it works for you: Keep a diary of your symptoms before and once starting turmeric. This can be as simple as a score from 1-10 of how you feel each day. Try not to start taking it at a time where you are making other changes, such as a change to your regular diet or exercise regime or a change to your medication, as you may wrongly attribute any changes in your RA symptoms to being an effect of turmeric.
  • Regularly re-assess whether this is working for you. This could involve stopping the supplement for a period of time, whilst continuing to monitor symptoms.
  • Be mindful of the amount that this and any other supplement you try is costing you, and whether the level of benefit is worth the regular expenditure.

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