This spicy kitchen secret could keep you cool, calm, and collected even under the most extreme stress… without mood altering drugs!
Decades ago, I had the opportunity to study with one of the foremost practitioners and teachers of Ayurvedic medicine of his time, Dr. Vasant Lad.
Part of Dr. Lad’s treatments included prescribing various plant-based powders whose healing powers have been proven through this ancient Indian medical practice for ages.
And there was one in particular, a yellow-coloured spice, that showed up in practically every prescription.
That’s how I was first introduced to the wonders of turmeric, a common ingredient of curries and other flavourful foods of India.
Dr. Lad extolled its healing properties, telling me that it was common for Indian families to take a little turmeric daily to stay healthy and free of pain, digestive disturbances, and fatigue.
Years later, I’ve learned to also include turmeric (or curcumin, as we refer to its major constituent, in medical terms) in my prescriptions.
Curcumin is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and it has been proven useful as a treatment for pain, arthritis, and inflammation of all sorts.
And now it seems that these anti-inflammatory powers extend even into your brain… as more and more research is showing how this spice can be used as an anti-anxiety and antidepressant treatment.
Here’s what I’ve learned about this exciting new treatment so far.
Tame the flames in your brain
The reason that curcumin can be so effective in treating these mental health conditions (including bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) is that they show many of the same biochemical characteristics as other major “physical” illnesses.
That is, they result from inflammation that has become uncontrolled… imbalances in the message centres of the brain and nervous systems that lead to that inflammation… and oxidative stress.
For instance, I see many patients in my practice with a diagnosis of anxiety who can’t pinpoint any psychological issues or situational events that may have triggered their anxiety. Panic attacks may even occur out of nowhere.
More often than not, these patients also have signs of inflammation elsewhere: in the joints (arthritis), stomach (gastritis), the skin (dermatitis), breathing passages (sinusitis and bronchitis), or even the gums (gingivitis).
My explanation is simple: They have unchecked inflammation, and, since everything in the body is connected, each of their organs manifests the inflammation differently.
The skin becomes red and itchy… the stomach suffers from heartburn… the gums are swollen and sore… the joints become tender and painful… and the brain becomes anxious.
So, it makes sense that a compound that can affectively help alleviate physical symptoms will also positively effect the neurotransmitter system.
Putting the brakes on inflammation
After reading an exhaustive review of peer-reviewed journals throughout the world, I discovered some of the most astounding facts about this remarkable spice and its effects on mood disorders.1
The authors included 58 studies of curcumin for various psychiatric disorders in their meta-analysis…and, of these, 41 looked at the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects of curcumin. Most of the studies were performed in a lab dish or with animals, but some involved human clinical trials as well.
The animal studies were usually performed by stressing the animal (largely mice or rats) to the extreme with temperature, chemicals, or surgery. Those extreme stresses, not surprisingly, led to depressive or anxious behaviour in the animals.
Many of the studies tried to explain the mechanisms of curcumin’s positive effects. And, according to the review, there were a number of interesting findings.
Some studies focused on the ability of curcumin to lower the release of stress chemicals, such as corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) and cortisol, therefor controlling the stress response which would otherwise manifest as anxiety and depression.
In one mouse study included in the review, the anxiety response was not only reduced after treatment with curcumin, but the brains of the mice also showed “marked increases in serotonin and noradrenaline in both the frontal cortex and the hippocampus.”2
Dopamine levels also increased, and monoamine oxidase (MAO) was inhibited in the mouse brain. And you know what the first drug class used to treat depression in humans was called? MAO inhibitors!
In another mouse study, curcumin appeared to increase 5-hydroxytyramine (serotonin) levels in the brain.3 And guess what the most popular class of antidepressant drugs is today? Serotonin reuptake inhibitors and they increase the amount of free serotonin floating around in your brain.
One step at a time
So, does that mean that you could toss all your antidepressants and mood elevating drugs out the window and replace them with curcumin?
Well, curcumin HAS been deemed to be as effective for bipolar illness as the drug lithium chloride.4 For PTSD, curcumin lowered the elevated cortisol levels at least as much as generic Prozac,5 and similar findings were reported when looking at curcumin versus Prozac for OCD.6
That’s all good news, but I don’t expect the conventional medical world to suddenly give up on the drugs that they’ve so freely prescribed for nearly every condition under the sun.
The real question here, however, seems to be whether or not this natural compound could enhance the effects of pharmaceutical antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs.
And what researchers have found is promising in terms of not only helping those drugs work better, but also making it easier to take them.
In one study, again with mice, when researchers added curcumin to a subclinical dose of fluoxetine (the generic form of Prozac), it significantly improved the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effect of the drug.7
And in one human trial, curcumin plus escitalopram (Lexapro) was more helpful than the drug alone in fighting depression.8 In that study, curcumin lowered levels of the inflammatory substances IL-1 beta and TNF-alpha as well as serum cortisol (the “stress hormone”).
Curcumin even demonstrated numerous modulating effects on brain chemistry and stress response messengers in a schizophrenic study model… AND it lessened the side effects of the antipsychotic medication haloperidol.
Yellow spice does more than beat the blues
Even if you’re not depressed, anxious, or stressed, any one of curcumin’s benefits can really lift your spirits!
Curcumin also protects your brain from dementia-associated inflammation. And as if that wasn’t enough, studies support the use of curcumin to help boost traditional cancer treatments and to ease their side effects.
One study even showed that starting curcumin therapy two days before sleep deprivation significantly reduced the negative impact, which often includes weight loss, difficulty in movement, and anxiety when performing common tasks.
How to get the most out of this exotic spice
Since almost all antidepressant drugs today function by either raising the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin or inhibiting MAO, finding a safer and more natural way of doing this is very exciting.
Of course, more research is needed.
But given the safety of curcumin as a supplement, we’ve begun to add this to our “bag of tricks” to treat mood disorders at my private clinic.
Since your body doesn’t readily absorb curcumin from your digestive tract and into the blood stream when you take it orally, we try to improve absorption somewhat by using a liposomal form.
For inflammatory disorders like fibromyalgia, we’ve also begun to administer curcumin intravenously.
We haven’t yet used IV curcumin in depression, anxiety, or OCD, but we may give it a try as the evidence of its usefulness accumulates for this remarkably versatile medicinal spice.
We like to combine curcumin with other natural treatments — like a diet high in alpha linolenic acid, a precursor for omega-3 fatty acids, which are also anti-inflammatory.
Curcumin in conjunction with piperine, an extract of black pepper, has also worked better than curcumin alone in reversing the effects of stress.
While it’s generally considered safe, it does have the tendency to thin blood…so, check with your doctor before taking it if you’re already taking pharmaceutical blood thinners or have any bleeding disorders or issues with slow blood clotting.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.