Turmeric and Its Targeted Anti-Inflammatory Action

Atlanta, GA, USA – July 4, 2014: A senior woman runs toward the finish line in the Peachtree Road Race on Independence Day.

Whether you’re a competitive athlete, weekend warrior or active adult tackling a busy day filled with errands, you may be on the lookout for a natural remedy to help relieve the achy soreness that comes with overexertion. (Scientists call this delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.) If so, you’ll want to know about one key anti-inflammatory action of turmeric that is making research news. Why? It’s an action that can help you stay in the comfort zone.

Curcumin and its TNF-alpha target

Turmeric has long been recognized for its ability to help moderate the body’s natural inflammatory response. It’s an action that has been largely attributed to the plant’s most recognized bioactive polyphenol: Curcumin.

One key way curcumin exerts its soothing action is by inhibiting the production of a messenger protein (cytokine) called tumor necrosis factor-alpha, more commonly known as TNF-alpha. When it comes to your body’s ability to balance its inflammatory processes, this cytokine is a molecular quarterback.

Here’s how it works. Overexertion can activate cells to release TNF-alpha. This, in turn, sets in motion a biochemical cascade of pro-inflammatory actions. If you’ve ever wondered why an overly strenuous aerobic class, an extra long hike or any activity that tests your physical limits can leave you feeling achy, stiff and sore the next day, you can place much of the blame of TNF-alpha.

Enter curcumin to help block the production of TNF-alpha and its pro-inflammatory action.

Clinical research reveals a powerful effect on TNF-alpha

Results from a recent meta-analysis reveal just how effective curcumin is for keeping your body’s TNF-alpha production in check.(1) For this study, researchers limited their analysis to well-designed clinical trials published in the peer-reviewed literature. All studies were required to include one important measurement, the blood level of TNF-alpha. Eight randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (the gold standard of clinical research) met the researchers’ strict inclusion criteria. The participants took a variety of curcumin supplements ranging from 300 mg to 1.5 grams per day for one to three months.

The results? Compared to placebo, curcumin supplementation not only showed a statistically significant reduction in the circulating blood level of TNF-alpha, but supplements formulated for optimal bioavailability (such as the addition of black pepper extract) performed better than plain curcumin supplements.

As a natural source of piperine, black pepper extract helps overcome the poor bioavailability of plain curcumin by both enhancing absorption and slowing down how the body metabolizes and eliminates curcumin.

While the exact mechanism by which curcumin affects TNF-alpha production has yet to be confirmed, researchers believe that it may work by binding directly to TNF-alpha itself, interfering with the cytokine’s ability to signal cells into a pro-inflammatory mode. Curcumin may also interact with protein kinases, transcription factors or other compounds involved in the inflammatory pathways associated with TNF-alpha.

Emerging research suggests benefits beyond curcumin

The ability of turmeric to help modulate the body’s natural inflammation mechanisms is an exciting area of turmeric research. For now, curcumin seems to be the compound capturing the attention of researchers thanks to its versatile chemical structure. Yet, preclinical research indicates other turmeric compounds like bisacurone or turmerones also inhibit the production of TNF-alpha and other pro-inflammatory cytokines.(2,3) More research is needed to confirm these benefits in humans, but these preliminary findings suggest turmeric’s ability to promote a healthy inflammatory response may very well extend beyond curcumin. Stay tuned.


1. Sahebkar A, Cicero AFG, Simental-Mendía LE, Aggarwal BB, Gupta SC. Curcumin downregulates human tumor necrosis factor-α levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Pharmacol Res. 2016;107:234-242. Review. PMID: 27025786.
2. Uchio R, Higashi Y, Kohama Y, et al. A hot water extract of turmeric (Curcuma longa) suppresses acute ethanol-induced liver injury in mice by inhibiting hepatic oxidative stress and inflammatory cytokine production. J Nutr Sci. 2017;6:e3. PMID: 28620478.
3. Singh V, Rana M, Jain M, et al. Curcuma oil attenuates accelerated atherosclerosis and macrophage foam-cell formation by modulating genes involved in plaque stability, lipid homeostasis and inflammation. Br J Nutr. 2015;113(1):100-13. PMID: 25391643.

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