Boosting the Bioavailability of Curcumin

Boosting the Bioavailability of Curcumin
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Dietary strategies, including the use of black pepper (piperine), can boost blood levels of curcumin from the spice turmeric by up to 2,000%.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Historians from [all] around the world have produced evidence to show that apparently all primitive peoples used herbs—often in a sophisticated way. Quinine from Cinchona bark was used to treat the symptoms of malaria long before the disease was identified and the raw ingredients of a common…aspirin tablet have been a popular painkiller for far longer than we have had access to tablet-making machinery. Indeed today many pharmacological classes of drugs include a natural product prototype…which [we] originally discovered through the study of traditional cures and folk knowledge of indigenous people.”

There’s a plant in South Asia called adhatoda. Adu means goat, and thoda means not touch— because it’s so bitter even the goats won’t eat it. But, it has compounds that help open one’s airways, and as such, adhatoda tea has been used traditionally to treat asthma—where the leaves are steeped with black peppercorns. That sounds kind of gross to me; why would they do that? Because they’re smart. Back in 1928, scientists discovered what the people evidently already knew, which was that adding pepper “increased the antiasthmatic properties” of the leaves. Black pepper alone didn’t work; it was the combination. And now, we know why.

Just like approximately 5% of the spice turmeric is an active compound called curcumin, about 5% of black pepper by weight is this compound called piperine. Curcumin is responsible for the yellow color of turmeric, and piperine for the pungent flavor of pepper, and it’s a potent inhibitor of drug metabolism. One of the ways our liver gets rid of foreign substances is by making them water-soluble so they can be more easily excreted, but this black pepper molecule inhibits that process.

And, it doesn’t take much. If you give people a bunch of turmeric curcumin, within an hour, you can see a little bump in the level in their bloodstream. The reason we don’t see more is that our liver is actively trying to get rid of it. But, what if you suppress that process by taking just a quarter teaspoon’s worth of black pepper? Then, you see curcumin levels like this in the bloodstream. Same amount of curcumin consumed, but the bioavailability shoots up 2,000%. Even just a little pinch of pepper—1/20th of a teaspoon—can significantly boost levels. And, guess what a common ingredient in curry powder is besides turmeric? Black pepper.

Another way to boost the absorption of curcumin is to consume it as the whole food, turmeric root (fresh or dried), and powdered as turmeric, because natural oils found in turmeric root and turmeric powder can enhance the bioavailability of curcumin seven- to eight-fold. When eaten with fat, curcumin can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lymphatic system, thereby in part kind of bypassing the liver.

And, how is it prepared in India? With fat and black pepper. Amazing how they could figure that out without double-blind trials, though maybe it just tasted good, and was a coincidence? Their traditional knowledge certainly failed them with ghee, though, which is practically pure butterfat, which may explain their relatively high rates of heart disease, despite all their turmeric.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Marxfoods.com and Steven Jackson photography via flickr, and Choij and Jonathunder via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise, and Jeff Thomas for his Keynote help.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Historians from [all] around the world have produced evidence to show that apparently all primitive peoples used herbs—often in a sophisticated way. Quinine from Cinchona bark was used to treat the symptoms of malaria long before the disease was identified and the raw ingredients of a common…aspirin tablet have been a popular painkiller for far longer than we have had access to tablet-making machinery. Indeed today many pharmacological classes of drugs include a natural product prototype…which [we] originally discovered through the study of traditional cures and folk knowledge of indigenous people.”

There’s a plant in South Asia called adhatoda. Adu means goat, and thoda means not touch— because it’s so bitter even the goats won’t eat it. But, it has compounds that help open one’s airways, and as such, adhatoda tea has been used traditionally to treat asthma—where the leaves are steeped with black peppercorns. That sounds kind of gross to me; why would they do that? Because they’re smart. Back in 1928, scientists discovered what the people evidently already knew, which was that adding pepper “increased the antiasthmatic properties” of the leaves. Black pepper alone didn’t work; it was the combination. And now, we know why.

Just like approximately 5% of the spice turmeric is an active compound called curcumin, about 5% of black pepper by weight is this compound called piperine. Curcumin is responsible for the yellow color of turmeric, and piperine for the pungent flavor of pepper, and it’s a potent inhibitor of drug metabolism. One of the ways our liver gets rid of foreign substances is by making them water-soluble so they can be more easily excreted, but this black pepper molecule inhibits that process.

And, it doesn’t take much. If you give people a bunch of turmeric curcumin, within an hour, you can see a little bump in the level in their bloodstream. The reason we don’t see more is that our liver is actively trying to get rid of it. But, what if you suppress that process by taking just a quarter teaspoon’s worth of black pepper? Then, you see curcumin levels like this in the bloodstream. Same amount of curcumin consumed, but the bioavailability shoots up 2,000%. Even just a little pinch of pepper—1/20th of a teaspoon—can significantly boost levels. And, guess what a common ingredient in curry powder is besides turmeric? Black pepper.

Another way to boost the absorption of curcumin is to consume it as the whole food, turmeric root (fresh or dried), and powdered as turmeric, because natural oils found in turmeric root and turmeric powder can enhance the bioavailability of curcumin seven- to eight-fold. When eaten with fat, curcumin can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lymphatic system, thereby in part kind of bypassing the liver.

And, how is it prepared in India? With fat and black pepper. Amazing how they could figure that out without double-blind trials, though maybe it just tasted good, and was a coincidence? Their traditional knowledge certainly failed them with ghee, though, which is practically pure butterfat, which may explain their relatively high rates of heart disease, despite all their turmeric.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Marxfoods.com and Steven Jackson photography via flickr, and Choij and Jonathunder via Wikimedia. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise, and Jeff Thomas for his Keynote help.

Doctor's Note

Why would we care about boosting curcumin levels? I started talking about this golden spice pigment in Which Spices Fight Inflammation? and Spicing Up DNA Protection, and then moved on to treating actual clinical conditions in Turmeric Curcumin & Rheumatoid Arthritis and Turmeric Curcumin & Osteoarthritis. Next, I’ll end this video series with some cautionary notes in Who Shouldn’t Consume Curcumin or Turmeric.

I’ve previously covered this topic of food synergy in videos such as Apples & Oranges: Dietary Diversity and Garden Variety Anti-Inflammation, which emphasize the importance of eating a variety of plant foods to take advantage of some of these interactions.

The black pepper mechanism reminds me of the grapefruit (see Tell Your Doctor if You Eat Grapefruit) and broccoli (see The Best Detox) stories. A testament to the power of plants (see Power Plants).

The painkilling properties of aspirin mentioned in the video are actually found throughout the plant kingdom (see Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods).

In some circumstances, traditional medicine wisdom seems incredible (see The Tomato Effect); in others, dangerous (see Get the Lead Out). But that’s what we now have science for!

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