What is curcumin?
Turmeric, from the curcuma longa plant, is the easily distinguishable, golden spice used throughout Asia as a main ingredient in curries. While turmeric packs a delicious punch, the spice has more to offer than flavour.
Turmeric contains a variety of active, health-promoting components. The most potent of these is curcumin, the key active compound which given turmeric it’s distinct colour and flavour. Curcumin carries some potent anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. The compound has been shown to have a body-wide anti-inflammatory effect, but reducing levels of the major players in inflammation, COX-2 and NF-kB.
These anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects protect neurons from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and delay age-related cognitive decline. Many studies also suggest curcumin can improve heart health and may help prevent cancer. Curcumin can also help with glucose metabolism, which helps to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
Research suggests curcumin might have some powerful effect on our brains. Curcumin may be able to improve memory, cognition and delay the aging process.
Brain Benefits and Mode of Action
Enhances Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Ability
As we know, turmeric and its important active ingredient, curcumin, are famous for their signature colour and taste in curries. In 2003, scientists actually found that regular curry consumption was related to better cognitive performance.
There is some biological basis for this cognition-boosting effect.
Studies have shown that curcumin and turmeric can modulate the levels of a vital neuronal growth factor, called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is a key player in neuronal survival, synapse formation, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. This molecule is enriched in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, the main brain regions involved in ‘higher order’ cognitive tasks such as memory, decision-making and problem-solving.
BDNF has been robustly shown to increase mental acuity, memory and learning ability. Using a curcumin supplement can stimulate the production of this molecule and boost your mental ability.
Other studies have shown that curcumin can activate cellular signalling cascades (such as ERK) which are known to be involved in the regulation of plasticity, along with short-term and long-term memory storage.
Animal models have shown that administration of curcumin to mice increased the number of newly generated neurons in the hippocampus (the ‘memory centre’ of the brain). Curcumin can enhance neurogenesis, and appears to be able to enhance neuroplasticity. Two important factors which improve our memory and keep us mentally sharp.
As we get older, curcumin may also help to delay the aging process. Curcumin inhibits a cellular pathway known as mTOR. This pathway is related to aging and longevity, and mTOR inhibition may contribute to healthier cognition in the elderly. Preliminary studies have also shown that curcumin supplementation can mitigate cognitive decline in elderly people over the course of 6 months.
Mode of action: Curcumin extract can enhance levels of the neuroplasticity-supporting growth factor, BDNF. BDNF enhances the health and survival or new neurons, stimulates neurogenesis and synaptogenesis. This results in stronger and more elaborate neuronal networks, which improve mental ability, creativity and intelligence.
Boosts Mood, Reduces Stress and Fights Depression
Curcumin increases levels of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain. This boost provides a huge uplift in mood. It can also boost alertness, improve decision aiming, cognition and memory.
Studies have also found that curcumin inhibits monoamine oxidase enzymes (both MAO-A and MAO-B) in the same way that popular prescription antidepressant drugs do. Inhibiting these enzymes stops dopamine being broken down, meaning there is a larger pool of this neurotransmitter available in the brain. In fact, curcumin can be a potent anti-depressant when combined with ingredients which increase its bioavailability, such as piperine.
Research shows that curcumin or turmeric can also boost the effects of some popular antidepressants.
Scientist have also shown that curcumin may combat some damaging effects of chronic stress. Chronic stress is associated with a variety of physiological responses. This includes, adrenal gland weight, increased thickness in the adrenal cortex, elevated cortisol levels, and reduced glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA expression. In animal models of chronic stress, curcumin has been shown to reverse all of these damaging effects. It’s also been shown to block some physiological responses to stress, such as blocking the down regulation of BDNF.
Mode of action: Curcumin acts similarly to anti-depressants, but blocking the break-down of dopamine, and increasing the pool of this neurotransmitters available to neurons. Curcumin can also boost neurotransmitter such as serotonin, without affecting and stress-related neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine. Curcumin can also combat the effects of stress. Scientists hypothesise that this effect is cause by curcumin modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis, which becomes dysregulated under situations of chronic stress.
How to use
Although it’s delicious, you can’t reap the therapeutic and nootropic benefits of curcumin by simply adding some turmeric to your meals. Turmeric root only contains about 3% curcumin.
In order to experience the benefits, it’s best to consume a high quality, 100% organic turmeric or curcumin extract, which contains at least 95% curcuminoids.
Curcumin has very poor bioavailability, meaning that it is not well absorbed by the gut. In order to boost the absorption, it’s best to pair curcumin with peperine. Curcumin is also fat-soluble, so it’s important to take the supplement with some healthy fats for maximal absorption.
Recommended dose: Between 80-500mg
It’s important to make sure you’re obtaining this dose from standardised curcumin extract (95% curcuminoids) to obtain cognitive enhancement, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Since the substance has poor bioavailability, it’s recommended that you take curcumin extract in combination with black pepper extract (piperine) and some healthy fat (e.g. olive or coconut oil) to increase absorption.
Classification: Cognition, Memory, Mood
We’ve classified curcumin extract as a memory and mood enhancer. Curcumin supplementation can improve neurotrophic growth factor levels which enhance neuroplasticity, synapses growth and increase survival of neurons. This aids with cognition, learning and memory. Curcumin extract can also increase dopamine levels and lift your mood.
APA Marín, Yarí E.a; Wall, Brian A.a; Wang, Sua; Namkoong, Jina; Martino, Jeffrey J.a; Suh, Junghanb c; Lee, Hwa Jina; Rabson, Arnold B.b c; Yang, Chung S.a; Chen, Suziea; Ryu, Jae-Had Curcumin downregulates the constitutive activity of NF-κB and induces apoptosis in novel mouse melanoma cells, Melanoma Research: October 2007 - Volume 17 - Issue 5 - p 274-283 doi: 10.1097/CMR.0b013e3282ed3d0e
Menon V.P., Sudheer A.R. (2007) ANTIOXIDANT AND ANTI-INFLAMMATORY PROPERTIES OF CURCUMIN. In: Aggarwal B.B., Surh YJ., Shishodia S. (eds) The Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Uses of Curcumin in Health and Disease. ADVANCES IN EXPERIMENTAL MEDICINE AND BIOLOGY, vol 595. Springer, Boston, MA
Preetha Anand, Chitra Sundaram, Sonia Jhurani, Ajaikumar B. Kunnumakkara, Bharat B. Aggarwal,
Curcumin and cancer: An “old-age” disease with an “age-old” solution”. Cancer Letters, Volume 267, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 133-164, ISSN 0304-3835,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.canlet.2008.03.025.
Mishra, S., & Palanivelu, K. (2008). The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer's disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 11(1), 13–19. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-2327.40220
Ma Q.L., Zuo X., Yang F., Ubeda O.J., Gant D.J., Alaverdyan M., Teng E., Hu S., Chen P.P., Maiti P., Teter B., Cole G.M., Frautschy S.A. “Curcumin suppresses soluble tau dimers and corrects molecular chaperone, synaptic, and behavioral deficits in aged human tau transgenic mice.” Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2013 Feb 8;288(6):4056-65
Cox K.H., Pipingas A., Scholey A.B. “Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population.” Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2015 May;29(5):642-51.
Bhat, A, Mahalakshmi, AM, Ray, B, et al. Benefits of curcumin in brain disorders. BioFactors. 2019; 45: 666– 689. https://doi.org/10.1002/biof.1533
Ng T.P., Chiam P.C., Lee T., Chua H.C., Lim L., Kua E.H. “Curry consumption and cognitive function in the elderly.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 2006 Nov 1;164(9):898-906.
Wang R., Li Y.B., Li Y.H., Xu Y., Wu H.L., Li X.J. “Curcumin protects against glutamate excitotoxicity in rat cerebral cortical neurons by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor level and activating TrkB.”Brain Research. 2008 May 19;1210:84-91.
Kim S.J., Son T.G., Park H.R., Park M., Kim M.S., Kim H.S., Chung H.Y., Mattson M.P., Lee J. “Curcumin stimulates proliferation of embryonic neural progenitor cells and neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus.” Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2008 May 23;283(21):14497-505.
Kulkarni S.K., Bhutani M.K., Bishnoi M. “Antidepressant activity of curcumin: involvement of serotonin and dopamine system.”Psychopharmacology (Berlin). 2008 Dec;201(3):435-42.
Xu Y., Ku B., Tie L., Yao H., Jiang W., Ma X., Li X. “Curcumin reverses the effects of chronic stress on behavior, the HPA axis, BDNF expression and phosphorylation of CREB.” Brain Research. 2006 Nov 29;1122(1):56-64. Epub 2006 Oct 3.