Spices have been used for centuries to ease common health complaints. The medicinal use of turmeric (the plant’s Latin name is Curcuma longa) dates back thousands of years, according to a review published in October 2017 in the journal Foods. Many people have turned to this golden yellow spice (sometimes referred to as “Indian saffron”) over the centuries to relieve arthritis symptoms, aid digestion, and increase overall energy, according to a review in the book Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Edition.
There is also some evidence that suggests daily turmeric supplements may even help improve asthma, largely thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects. Here’s what we know.
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The Potential Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin for Asthma
Research studies have mostly looked at the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of curcumin, turmeric’s main active compound, says board-certified allergist Maeve O’Connor, MD, chair of the integrative medicine committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and an allergist at Allergy Asthma & Immunology Relief in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For example, past research has shown curcumin to be more effective at lowering inflammation than ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and aspirin. And a review published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine suggested the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of curcumin may help prevent diabetes by lowering blood sugar, improving insulin resistance, and reducing levels of fat in the blood.
Research has also shown turmeric (and more specifically, the curcumin in it) may even help lower the airway inflammation that characterizes asthma.
In a study published in the August 2014 issue of the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, adults with asthma who took 500 milligrams (mg) of curcumin daily for 30 days — in addition to standard asthma treatments — had less airway obstruction after using their bronchodilator (a medication to help open the airway) compared with the control group who used standard asthma treatments alone. Airway obstruction was measured via forced expiratory volume (FEV1), a test that measures how much air a person can forcefully exhale in one second.
The curcumin group also saw greater improvements in blood parameters like erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and total leukocyte, or white blood cell count (TLC). According to the study authors, these effects on blood parameters likely demonstrate the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin.
These findings suggest that curcumin may help people with asthma breathe better, though curcumin didn’t have any effect on asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. There were, however, no significant adverse events reported, which suggests that curcumin may be a safe add-on treatment for asthma, the study authors note.
And an earlier study, published in the journal PLoS One, revealed that people who consumed turmeric in spice form in curry-style dishes (which are prominent in Asian cooking) at least once per month had significantly greater FEV1 scores than those who ate curry less often — even among a group of people with asthma, as well as smokers.
The Potential Risks of Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric (and the curcumin in it) — either eaten in food or taken as a supplement — is mostly safe, but there are some potential risks you should be aware of.
“The main thing is, make sure you’re not taking blood thinners,” says Malcolm B. Taw, MD, director of the Center for East-West Medicine in Westlake Village, California, and associate clinical professor in the department of medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles. The reason: Turmeric may heighten the effects of blood-thinning drugs (such as warfarin, clopidogrel, and aspirin), thereby increasing your risk of bleeding, according to Penn State Hershey.
Research has also suggested that turmeric may limit iron absorption, increase your risk of kidney stones, and interfere with antidepressants, antibiotics, antihistamines, cardiac medication, and chemotherapy treatments, according to a review published in September 2017 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Check with your doctor if you take any medication or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding before upping your intake of turmeric significantly, such as if you’re considering taking supplements or high doses. (The turmeric you consume in curries or turmeric drinks, however, is unlikely to pose health risks because the spice does not absorb well into the bloodstream, and that small a dose is unlikely to have much of an effect.)
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“Every patient is different. We have to look at the composite history, not just the asthma history, but the other conditions that they're dealing with,” Dr. Taw says. From there, your doctor can help you decide if it makes sense to add turmeric to your asthma treatment plan.
And while turmeric doesn’t have many reported side effects, a past study found that taking curcumin in a range of doses (from 500 to 12,000 mg) led to diarrhea, headache, skin rash, and yellow stool in some study participants.
There aren’t clear guidelines in place for knowing how much turmeric or curcumin is unsafe, but the Joint United Nations and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the European Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend sticking to 0 to 3 mg of curcumin per kilogram of body weight per day. To put that into perspective, a 150-pound (or 68.18 kilogram) person should take no more than 205 mg (or 0.2 grams) of curcumin per day under JECFA and EFSA guidelines. However, up to 12 grams of curcumin per day has been generally shown to be safe, according to a review published in November 2015 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Should You Use Turmeric and Curcumin for Asthma?
Turmeric and curcumin are generally safe, and research shows taking turmeric in spice or supplement form may help lower inflammation and reduce airway obstruction. “I support that curcumin is effective and safe as an add-on therapy for the treatment of asthma,” Dr. O’Connor says.
That said, there may be better, more effective add-on treatment options for asthma. Turmeric has been found to help with inflammation, which for some people with asthma may improve symptoms or symptom severity. But that latter point has not been well-established in clinical trials, Taw says.
Taw instead recommends patients try complementary therapies (in addition to regular asthma treatment) that have specifically been proven to improve asthma symptoms, such as acupuncture and cupping, per previous research.
Plus, turmeric and curcumin may interfere with certain medicines and health conditions. So, it’s best to talk with your doctor to find out what types of complementary therapies (like turmeric) make the most sense for you.