Turmeric, Curcuma longa, has emerged in recent years as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent with reports that it may reduce pain and inflammation for some people on par with prednisone. Those of us who are dealing with joint and muscle aches are gobbling up the orange, pungent-flavored spice in every sort of preparation from capsules to “golden milk,” and even turmeric-flavored chocolate!
Interestingly, recent studies have pointed to inflammation as a key player in the development of depression, and we now know that ongoing inflammation following injury or illness can be a risk factor for chronic depression. Due to it’s powerful anti-inflammatory effects, some researchers have been inspired to investigate turmeric as a potential natural antidepressant.
In many cases, turmeric was found to equal or even surpass the effects of prescription antidepressants.
According to the monoamine-deficiency theory of depression (which we now know is only part of the story) the underlying cause is a depletion of neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine and/or noradrenaline in the central nervous system. Curcumin, the flavonoid in turmeric, has been shown in animal studies to modulate brain serotonin and dopamine levels in the central nervous system. These two neurotransmitters are key to a sense of optimism, motivation, and well-being. However, turmeric’s antidepressant actions go further. Turmeric has a positive influence on serotonin production in the brain by blocking the action of an enzyme called indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO). IDO is activated by pro-inflammatory cytokines, released in the body during stress, or infection, or following an injury. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS), an endotoxin from gut bacteria, can be detected in the bloodstream in those who suffer from leaky gut. Once in the blood stream this molecule creates significant inflammatory issues, and activates the IDO enzyme as well. Once activated, IDO converts tryptophan into kynurenin, reducing serotonin synthesis, and increasing kynurenine neurotoxic metabolites…definitely not a good thing! Several studies have also demonstrated the ability of curcumin to reduce the lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced immune response, as well as IDO . Research into the effects of curcumin on IDO expression is still in the early stages, but outcomes are hopeful.
Even more interesting turmeric has demonstrated immune-modulating effects, lowering Th-17 autoimmune activity, as well as Th-1. Both Th-17 and Th-1, which are inflammatory immune responses, have recently been shown to be upregulated in major depression, as well as some autoimmune conditions. Many people who face the chronic, debilitating effects of autoimmunity also struggle with feelings of hopelessness, discouragement and depression. Turmeric may take a key role in mitigating both the depression as well as the autoimmune reaction.
One drawback of taking turmeric as a supplement is it’s poor oral bioavailability. This means that most of the turmeric you ingest stays in the digestive tract (where it does a lot of good, by the way!). Taking turmeric in an emulsified, micronized form in combination with piperine (black pepper) may enhance bioavailability. Once in the bloodstream, curcumin, the active flavonoid in turmeric, is easily absorbed across the blood-brain-barrier where it can do it’s work. As always, consult your healthcare provider who is knowledgeable in both plant medicine and conventional medicine when considering whether turmeric is right for you.