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Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks the joints, causing inflammation that presents as joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, and may lead to lasting damage. While there is, unfortunately, no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, there are ways to manage the symptoms by reducing inflammation. In recent years, turmeric has gained popularity in popular culture as a potential anti-inflammatory treatment, but does the science back this up? In this article, we’ll explore the research being done to determine if turmeric really can reduce inflammation, as well as ways to incorporate turmeric into your diet to help you reduce inflammation naturally.
What Is Turmeric?
It may seem as though turmeric has just recently entered popular culture, but this golden yellow spice has actually been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Turmeric comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant, which is a member of the ginger family. It contains a compound called curcumin that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is commonly used in Chinese, Indian, and Japanese medicines, but is growing in popularity in Western natural medicine. (Source)
Does Turmeric Reduce Inflammation?
Given the popularity and long history of turmeric use, a fair number of studies have investigated whether this spice actually reduces inflammation. Many of these studies have been in animals or laboratory cell cultures, but we’re most interested in knowing how curcumin works in humans. To evaluate the evidence of turmeric’s purported anti-inflammatory effects, we’ll look at a few meta-analyses, which systematically collect and combine data from several previously published studies to find common trends in their conclusions.
A 2021 meta-analysis looked at the effects of supplementation with curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Six randomized controlled trials (the gold standard for research studies) were included in the meta-analysis. The researchers found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis who took curcumin supplements in doses of 250 mg to 1500 mg per day over 8–12 weeks had decreased inflammation compared to patients who did not take the supplements. A longer duration and larger dose were both associated with a greater decrease in inflammation. (Source)
A different meta-analysis from 2022 looked at randomized controlled trials that investigated curcumin and Curcuma longa extract as a treatment for 10 types of autoimmune diseases. The study found that, in the 5 trials that specifically looked at rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin decreased a marker of inflammation called C-reactive protein and improved disease activity overall. (Source)
Another meta-analysis looked at how effective and safe curcumin was for treating symptoms of arthritis. The analysis included clinical studies on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and gout/hyperuricemia. Doses of curcumin ranged from 120 mg to 1500 mg, and patients took curcumin for anywhere from 4 to 36 weeks. The researchers found that, in general, curcumin decreased inflammation and pain levels in patients with arthritis and was safe to take for this purpose. (Source)
Studies Conclude Turmeric Helps
So, when we look at the findings from these meta-analyses of clinical trials, the science does suggest that the curcumin in turmeric can have anti-inflammatory effects in people with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other types of autoimmune conditions. Ideally, we would like larger high-quality studies to confirm these results, but the majority of available evidence suggests turmeric can reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
How Does Turmeric Reduce Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection, but when it becomes chronic, it can lead to a range of health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis. The curcumin in turmeric is thought to reduce this inflammation by blocking the production and action of proinflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that play a key role in the development and disease progression of rheumatoid arthritis. By blocking these proinflammatory cytokines, the inflammation and related arthritis symptoms are decreased. (Source, Source)
Turmeric Is Also an Antioxidant
Another way curcumin may reduce inflammation is through its ability to act as an antioxidant. Antioxidants are substances that protect your cells against free radicals — molecules with an unpaired electron in their outer orbit that makes them unstable and reactive. Your body has natural defenses against damage from free radicals, known as oxidative stress, but curcumin can support your natural defenses by providing additional antioxidant support. As oxidative stress can also increase inflammation, by acting as an antioxidant turmeric can also indirectly reduce inflammation. (Source, Source)
Turmeric can be incorporated into your diet in a variety of ways.
As a Spice
One of the simplest and most common ways to include turmeric in your diet is to use it as a spice in your cooking. It has a warm, slightly bitter taste and is commonly used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cuisine. Turmeric can be added to many other foods, such as soups, stews, and curries.
Here’s an easy recipe for using turmeric in a simple, everyday meal.
Kitchari (Turmeric Spiced Dal with Rice)
1 tbsp oil
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 yellow onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 tbsp minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 cup basmati or jasmine rice
1 cup dried red lentils or yellow split peas
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
chopped fresh cilantro
Heat oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and toast, stirring, for about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the onion, carrots, ginger, and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the salt, turmeric, cloves, and black pepper and stir so the spices coat the vegetables, then add the rice, lentils, broth, and water. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and simmer for about 20 minutes. If after 10 minutes you notice the liquids have been completely absorbed, feel free to add additional water.
Check to see if the rice is cooked. If the kitchari is looking too runny, let it simmer, uncovered, for a few more minutes. If the kitchari is too thick, turn off the heat and stir in more water as needed.
Serve as is or, as an optional add-on, serve with cilantro, a pinch of salt, and some lemon.
As a Tea
Another way to incorporate turmeric into your diet is to make turmeric tea.
To make tea with turmeric, bring a cup of water to a boil, add a teaspoon of turmeric, and simmer for 5–10 minutes. You can also add ginger, honey, and lemon to taste. A more luxurious variation of turmeric tea is called golden milk, which is essentially a turmeric latte. Here’s an easy recipe!
Golden Milk Latte
1 cup nondairy milk (e.g., light coconut milk or unsweetened almond milk)
sweetener of choice (e.g., maple syrup, coconut sugar)
Add all ingredients to a small saucepan over medium heat and whisk to combine. Once heated, pour into a mug (without the cinnamon stick) and enjoy. For more drinks like the golden latte, check out our article on 9 anti-inflammatory drinks.
As a Supplement
If you don't like the taste of turmeric, you can also take a curcumin supplement. Be sure to choose a high-quality supplement and talk to your health care provider first, especially if you are taking medications or have a medical condition.
Is a Certain Type of Turmeric Best?
Turmeric supplements are available in various forms, including capsules, powders, and extracts. When choosing a turmeric supplement, look for a product that contains at least 95% curcuminoids, the active compounds in turmeric. It is also important to choose a supplement that is tested for quality and purity by a third party, such as USP. We know it can be difficult to choose a supplement out of the many options available — our WellTheory care team can provide personalized treatment recommendations to help ensure you’re taking the best supplements for your specific situation.
Are There Any Risks to Using Turmeric?
Turmeric is generally considered safe for most people when consumed in amounts typically found in food or as a spice in cooking. However, some people may experience side effects, especially if they consume large amounts or use turmeric as a dietary supplement.
Several clinical trials have investigated the safety of curcumin, and have found it to be generally safe in doses up to 1500 mg per day. However, it’s important to note these studies were conducted on relatively small sample sizes, and larger studies may be needed to fully assess the safety of turmeric and curcumin. It’s important to consult with your health care provider before significantly increasing the amount of turmeric consumed in your diet or starting turmeric supplements. (Source, Source)
Some potential side effects of turmeric include:
digestive issues such as bloating, gas, nausea, or diarrhea
increased risk of bleeding or bruising due to its blood thinning properties
interaction with certain medications, such as blood thinners
allergic reactions, especially in people who are allergic to ginger or other members of the ginger family
In addition to turmeric, there are other foods and spices that can help reduce inflammation and manage the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Some examples include:
Ginger contains compounds called gingerols and shogaols, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. A 2013 literature review found that ginger was able to decrease inflammation in the body by reducing the levels of certain inflammatory markers, although most studies were in animals or laboratory cells. (Source)
Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale, are rich in antioxidants, which can then have anti-inflammatory effects. A 2021 study found that patients who consumed a diet high in dark green leafy vegetables had decreased levels of inflammation. (Source)
Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are also rich in antioxidants due to anthocyanins and carotenoids, the bioactive compounds that give the berries their bright red and blue colors. (Source, Source, Source)
Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. A comprehensive review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that consuming omega-3 fatty acids decreased inflammation in the body. The researchers recommended at least 250 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day, or at least 2 servings of oily fish per week. (Source)
The Bottom Line on Turmeric and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Turmeric has been used in Eastern medicine for centuries, and has recently grown popular in the West as a potential anti-inflammatory treatment. Many clinical studies have investigated the anti-inflammatory potential of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, and studies generally show that turmeric is safe and effective for reducing inflammation and improving symptoms of arthritis.
There are many ways to add turmeric to your life, from including it in your food and drinks to adding a supplement to your daily routine. There are also other specific foods that can help decrease inflammation in your body, which can ultimately improve your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. If you’re ready to learn more about other complementary approaches from a perspective that is highly personalized to you, the WellTheory care team is here to help by providing evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle coaching to reduce autoimmune symptoms.