I was recently asked by a magazine (more on that soon) for a few quotes on foods for brain health and was prompted for opinions on the usual suspects salmon, blueberries and… turmeric. While I can anecdotally recall many benefits of turmeric, this is all from unchecked online sources. I am well aware of over hyped research that for all I know may have come from one study on a mouse 30 years ago, that then wriggles into dogma over the years. Tell a lie long enough and it becomes the truth. Right?
It’s time to put my detective hat on and trawl through the literature.
Turmeric is a commonly used plant spice in Asian cooking, that has an annoying habit of staining everything in your kitchen yellow. Most of the benefits come from the polyphenol curcumin.
A recent study from Melbourne University investigated in 60 patients between 60-85 years old how supplementing 80mg of curcumin daily over 4 weeks affected their cognition and mood. Curcumin is approximately 2% of turmeric, so 80mg is equivalent to about 4g turmeric (~1tbls). As the results show (below) “curcumin has the potential to improve important cognitive functions, reduce fatigue and improve resilience to the detrimental effects of psychological stress on mood”. While there is much more research needed to validate these results, it’s great to see studies like this not just in animal models.
Ever fancied some turmeric for breakfast? No? Me neither, but maybe it’s worth giving it a try. Just 1g of turmeric a day (about a quarter of a teaspoon) can help boost your working memory. In the same study, they showed that cinnamon has no effect on short term memory. Switching cinnamon for turmeric may sound like a bizarre choice, but I know someone who puts it in their porridge every morning. More tellingly, turmeric tea is already a popular beverage in Asia.
I've been giving it a whirr in my coffee along with butter and coconut oil, so far so good, minus the last few dregs at the bottom.
Another study showed, in rats, prolonged treatment with curcumin, increased neurogenesis that leads to the enhancement of learning and memory. This ties in well with epidemiological studies which have reported better cognitive performance in aging populations as a result of curry consumption.
The science - how does it work?
While the exact mechanism of action has yet to be found out, it is likely to be multi-modal, with several studies showing it activates different pathways in the brain. Curcumin also activates cell pathways known to be involved in the regulation of stress responses and neuronal plasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, e.g. when learning). Curcumin also has been shown to interact with copper and iron, so may suppress inflammatory damage in the brain. Another effect it has is to reduce interleukin B1 that has been shown to impair cognition. New Research from UCLA shows that curcumin can increase the amount of DHA, one of the Omega-3s, in the brain. DHA is a vital part of neuronal cell membranes that can increase cognition and reduce the incidence of depression.
Turmeric also contains another compound called tumerone, that can increase the growth of your neural stem cells which are vital for brain repair.
Spice up your memory
- Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population
- Curcumin Enhances Neurogenesis and Cognition in Aged Rats: Implications for Transcriptional Interactions Related to Growth and Synaptic Plasticity
- Curry consumption and cognitive function in the elderly
- Curcumin interaction with copper and iron suggests one possible mechanism of action in Alzheimer's disease animal models
- Curcumin reduces interleukin B1, that has been shown to impair cognition and is high in alzheimers.
- Aromatic-turmerone induces neural stem cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo
- Curcumin reverses impaired cognition and neuronal plasticity induced by chronic stress
- Nutrition, adult hippocampal neurogenesis and mental health
- Turmeric improves post-prandial working memory in pre-diabetes independent of insulin
- Curcumin boosts DHA in the brain: implications for anxiety disorders