Does Turmeric Need a Warning Label?

Many of the more popular pseudoscience websites have a standard article about the powerful benefits of turmeric. Claims about its benefits range anywhere from treating cancer to diabetes, and they abound in these articles, usually followed by a tiny warning at the end of the article that what they said isn’t really medical advice, though the tone of the article might say otherwise.

Turmeric root and powder via Wikimedia

Turmeric root and powder via Wikimedia

One commenter on the Skeptoid blog pointed out another of the claims, and included a very specific description of the claim. The comment stated that according to some of these websites, turmeric is one of the most powerful NSAIDs known to man. I checked a few of the woo websites, and they all state something similar in mentioning both the pain relieving miracles and the fact that all disease is just inflammation (note: it is not). Stephen Propatier has a great post addressing the shortcomings of a couple of the studies whence these anti-inflammatory claims originate. The comment really stuck out to me.

It is important to note that inflammation is not always a bad thing. In fact, inflammation is part of the body’s response to infection and injury, which is what it needs to do to help fix the issue. Too much inflammation can be bad, such as in a disease like arthritis. Inflammation is also complex and very interconnected to other body processes. Dr. Harriet Hall has a great summary on Science-Based Medicine if you want a good scientific summary on the issue.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has a great summary of what an NSAID is and how they work. The most common ones that can be purchased over the counter work by blocking both types of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes. While the target is COX-2, which is what helps trigger inflammation, many of these medicines also end up targeting COX-1, which helps protect the stomach lining. This is why many doctors recommend taking the medication with milk or food, and also recommend avoiding alcohol while taking the medication.

One of the claims made by some popular websites is that turmeric is also good for stomach ailments like IBD and Crohn’s disease. From one such woo website:

For many patients with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) corticosteroids reduce their pain symptoms, but damage the intestinal lining over time actually making the condition worse.

However, supplementing with curcumin did not have these side effects and, because of its anti-inflammatory properties, actually helped heal the gut and supported the growth of good bacteria (probiotics).

What?

If we assume for a second that turmeric doesn’t have the negative stomach effects because it is specifically a COX-2 inhibitor, I would think it would deserve more close scrutiny. Over a decade ago, the few specific COX-2 drugs on the market all started to show a trend of increased cardiovascular events in those that were taking these medicine. The FDA requires a much stronger warning on the specific ones that are still on the market. So if turmeric is a similar acting medicine, it carries a risk not currently being disclosed.

Even if we assume it is a more general NSAID, the FDA is now seeing a small but measurable increase in cardiovascular events in people taking OTC versions of these drugs. If we again assume the comment and the woo sites are correct, then as an NSAID the risks of taking turmeric should be discussed, and it should not be treated as a miracle cure.

One other thought experiment is one of supplementation with turmeric. If one assumes turmeric is as powerful as these other medications, as claimed, then use should only be done under the advice of a doctor, or at least be labeled as to how much and how long it should be taken before seeking a doctor’s advice. Since these woo websites claim taking medicine is bad, why would one want to take medicine daily just because it happens to taste good on food?

The point I want to make is turmeric cannot have it both ways. Either its effect is so small that supplementing with it is more or less a waste of time, or its effect is large enough that at supplementary doses it needs to have more labeling warning people of the risks associated with it.

And it appears there are some possible drug interactions, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center:

Blood-thinning medications: Tumeric may make the effects of these drugs stronger, raising the risk of bleeding. Blood-thinners include warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), and aspirin, among others.

Drugs that reduce stomach acid: Turmeric may interfere with the action of these drugs, increasing the production of stomach acid.

Drugs for diabetes (that lower blood sugar): Turmeric may make the effects of these drugs stronger, increasing the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Only about 1/3 of patients disclose their supplements to their doctors. This means there is an increased risk for complications from interactions between drugs and supplements.

We often come down hard on supplements in scientific skepticism circles, and for good reason. Very often, they have very little if no benefit, some carry undisclosed risks, and there are several significant cases of shoddy production. They are often pitted against medicine as an alternative, leading to a mistrust of doctors. This could lead to a delay in real medical treatment. Listen to Dr. Novella’s recent story about a patient with undiagnosed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and how reliance on supplementation may have hastened the patient’s death (the story is at about the 16-minute mark of the podcast).

I will end with some standard statements for making reasonable decisions on supplements.

  • If you have a medical condition, or think you do, talk to your doctor. Don’t get advice from the Internet.
  • If supplements worked or do work, your doctor might recommend them based on scientific evidence and should be willing to discuss that evidence.
  • If supplements work, science will find a way to concentrate the key ingredients and provide more consistent and effective results.
  • Don’t forget that supplements can have effects, just not always the ones claimed. Don’t forget to tell your doctor and pharmacist about large amounts of anything you take regularly. It is for your safety and health.

I might also recommend a sprinkle of turmeric on fried eggs. It is delicious!

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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7 Responses to Does Turmeric Need a Warning Label?

  1. mudguts says:

    I think that if you want to devolve the entire situation.. Pizza is nice (if its a proper pizza). Its round like a tablet.

    Thus pizza is as good as a tablet. Even if its a homeopathic tablet right?

    The “food is medicine” craze is not only overblown.. Its wrong. If you like an astounding array of cuisines that include turmeric.. go for it.

    root flavourings have had a hell of a bash over the years… turmeric, gingers, galangals (lenkuas), ginseng, parsnips, carrots, radishes… all fine additions to food. try prepping food with them. Delivered the same way as the wobbity woo preps of yore.

    Think of it as a pascals wager if you have to force yourself to eat them.

    Boys and girls.. acupuncture starts at home.. learning how to convince yourself of wobbities

    Remember, the difference between snot and broccoli is.. kids wont eat broccoli. (no, its not a conspiracy)

    BTW.. those who hate turmeric stains on the kitchen tops and cutting boards… drizzle some bleach over the stain.. It goes red and water soluble… wash – rinse as all bleached objects

    • Mirjana says:

      My son works in the hospital as a pharmacist. Patient was admitted for high blood pressure and he did a review of her medication, she was on 18 herbal supplements all given to her by her “herbalist”. Words of my son – all those herbs taken together can give her high blood pressure.
      I often see “if you eat this every day”, blah blah, where is a common sense of eating variety? People in India consume turmeric and still have inflammation, so what is all this about I don’t get.
      Sure, I use acupuncture if and when I need it but I know that people in Japan and China don’t live forever. Few times in my life when it was “burning under my feet” I was in doctor office as soon as possible.

      • Noah Dillon says:

        Well, contraindications can be acute and sudden, right? My mom has been warned against taking aspirin by her doctor because of a blood condition. My mom complains about this because she’s taken aspirin regularly for decades. It’s hard to explain that just because she’s been OK for a long time doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to continue to take this particular medicine. Likewise with supplements and the like. And people often times do get excited by the possibility of a thing treating them and will take it religiously. The comment threads on this blog seem to testify to that pretty concretely.

      • mudguts says:

        I dont waste time aat all.. Acupuncture is a religion.. so its stays in the over there box in my world..

        Always has since I was mad aware of it in about 1972.. An acupuncture operation news report on TV.. ‘That has to be b******t son’..

        and so it was..

  2. Will says:

    Excellent assessment, thanks.

  3. Mark Brophy says:

    You should never take the advice of a doctor because they’re often wrong. Figure it out yourself, that’s why the Internet exists.

    • mudguts says:

      Yep.. I have my lemon sand hard water nuclear reactor running the house myself.. works on chemtrail emissions.. whoopee!

      Every now and then a few insects crash into it tho.. must fix that..

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