Turmeric's Role In Reducing Oxidative Stress

  • Pranjal Yeole BSc in Biological Sciences, University of Warwick

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Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced and the body’s ability to eliminate them.1 An imbalance can happen when there is an excess of ROS due to excessive production or a lack of antioxidant defence mechanisms.2

ROS are unstable molecules and an excess of these in the body can damage DNA, cells and proteins.2,3

Antioxidants are protective against ROS.3 This article will discuss turmeric’s antioxidant properties, which have been examined in numerous scientific studies.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress can occur when the body’s detoxification methods and the production of ROS are not balanced. 

ROS are small molecules containing unpaired electron/s and one or more oxygen molecules.

They have many valuable roles in the body but when present in an excessive amount, they can have harmful effects.4

Endogenous sources of oxidative stress are those which manifest within the body. Normal metabolic processes in the body create ROS as a byproduct. For example, the production of energy in the mitochondria of cells.5 Other factors including infection, inflammation, cancer, excessive exercise, mental stress and ageing are also endogenous sources of free radical production.6

Oxidative stress may also occur due to external or lifestyle factors outside the body. These are called exogenous sources. Some exogenous sources of ROS which contribute to oxidative stress are: 5

  • Exposure to environmental pollutants, pesticides, organic solvents and heavy metals
  • Radiation - Chemotherapy and ionising radiation e.g. x-rays
  • Food - Dietary iron, copper and trans fatty acids generate ROS. Lipids (fats) from vegetable and animal sources generate free radicals when heated in a microwave
  • Cigarette smoke - tobacco smoke contains free radicals
  • Alcohol - Ethanol generates ROS and may contribute to alcoholic liver disease and alcoholic pancreatitis
  • Drugs - Certain medications may induce oxidative stress by the formation of ROS e.g. aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen

Effects of oxidative stress

Oxidative stress has a hand in several diseases due to its negative effects on DNA. It can also cause the body to age quickly.6

Some diseases related to oxidative stress include:6

  • Cancer 
  • Neurological disease e.g. Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, memory loss, multiple sclerosis
  • Respiratory disease e.g. asthma and COPD
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Renal disease 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Delayed puberty 

The role of antioxidants

The purpose of antioxidant substances is to protect the body from the potential damage-causing free radicals by neutralising them. Some examples include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene. Substances which have antioxidant properties can be endogenous (produced in the body) or exogenous (from the human diet). 

What is turmeric?

Turmeric is a yellow-coloured spice native to Southeast Asia. It is used in cooking and has been implemented in traditional medicinal practices. 

Turmeric as an antioxidant 

A component of turmeric called curcumin is known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.7

Curcumin itself is not beneficial as it is poorly absorbed and rapidly eliminated from the body.8 When combined with piperine, the active component of black pepper, increases its bioavailability by 2000%, but, according to the NHS Specialist Pharmacy Service, it may have implications on its safety.8

Studies have looked at the potential beneficial effects of curcumin on neurodegenerative diseases, alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, chronic kidney disease, bone disorders, eye conditions, and psychological conditions.7

However, curcumin is still not well understood and there is little research into its long-term effects and associated risks.6,7,9 Thus, more research into curcumin is required to better understand its activity in the body and its effect on oxidative stress. 

Turmeric supplementation

Turmeric is also available in the form of a supplement. However, supplements are not regulated in the same way as conventional medications and there is a risk of contamination with other substances. 

According to the NHS Specialist Pharmacy Service, the safety of these supplements for children, adolescents and pregnant women is not known so should be avoided. 

Side effects

The most common side effects of curcumin are gastrointestinal. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal distension
  • Dyspepsia
  • Flatulence

Turmeric may also lead to the following:

  • Hepatitis
  • Liver injury
  • Heart rate or rhythm disorders
  • Blood thinning effect 
  • Pitting oedema
  • Itching
  • Weak oestrogen-like actions

Medication interactions

Turmeric, or curcumin, may interact negatively with conventional medications. 

The NHS Specialist Pharmacy Service lists interactions between turmeric and the following medications:

  • Herbal supplements
  • Anticoagulants
  • Antiplatelets
  • Antidiabetic medications
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Statins
  • Norfloxacin 
  • Sulfasalazine 
  • Loratadine
  • Losartan
  • Midazolam
  • Verapamil 
  • Medicines metabolised by the CYP450 enzyme

You must seek the advice of a medical professional before starting any dietary supplements, including curcumin/turmeric. 

Summary

Though turmeric may have some antioxidant effects, it is not yet well-researched. It is not known exactly how the compound works or its risks. It can interact with many commonly taken medications and can have unpleasant side effects. Further research is required into turmeric’s safety and its role as an antioxidant. 

References

  1. Betteridge DJ. What is oxidative stress? Metabolism. 2000 Feb;49(2 Suppl 1):3–8.
  2. Reactive oxygen species - an overview | sciencedirect topics [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/reactive-oxygen-species
  3. Https://www. Cancer. Gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/antioxidant [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/antioxidant
  4. Jakubczyk K, Dec K, Kałduńska J, Kawczuga D, Kochman J, Janda K. Reactive oxygen species - sources, functions, oxidative damage. Pol Merkur Lekarski. 2020 Apr 22;48(284):124–7.
  5. Bhattacharyya A, Chattopadhyay R, Mitra S, Crowe SE. Oxidative stress: an essential factor in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal mucosal diseases. Physiol Rev [Internet]. 2014 Apr [cited 2024 Feb 9];94(2):329–54. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4044300/
  6. Pizzino G, Irrera N, Cucinotta M, Pallio G, Mannino F, Arcoraci V, et al. Oxidative stress: harms and benefits for human health. Oxid Med Cell Longev [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Feb 9];2017:8416763. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551541/
  7. Sathyabhama M, Priya Dharshini LC, Karthikeyan A, Kalaiselvi S, Min T. The credible role of curcumin in oxidative stress-mediated mitochondrial dysfunction in mammals. Biomolecules [Internet]. 2022 Oct 1 [cited 2024 Feb 9];12(10):1405. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9599178/
  8. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its’ effects on human health. Foods [Internet]. 2017 Oct 22 [cited 2024 Feb 9];6(10):92. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5664031/
  9. Jakubczyk K, Drużga A, Katarzyna J, Skonieczna-Żydecka K. Antioxidant potential of curcumin—a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Antioxidants (Basel) [Internet]. 2020 Nov 6 [cited 2024 Feb 9];9(11):1092. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7694612/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Humayra Master

Medicine MBChB (Hons) – Keele University, UK

Humayra is a medical doctor with experience in different specialities. Her interests include digital health, health tech, medical communications, and medical writing.

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