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Can Turmeric Improve Memory and Cognitive Function?

memory & cognitive

We all forget things from time to time. Think back to a time when you were looking for your sunglasses and they were sitting on your head. Or a time when you ran into a past acquaintance and forgot their name. How did that make you feel?

As we get older or when we feel overwhelmed, we might experience these “senior moments” or “brain farts.” If these mental lapses get worse, they might indicate an onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

But what if you could improve your memory as you get older? We know from neuroscience research that our brains exhibit a characteristic called neuroplasticity. This means our brains are capable of forming new neural connections throughout our lifetime.

Neuroplasticity provides us with an opportunity to train our brain and feed it with the right nutrients to gain intelligence, knowledge, memory recall, and mental clarity.

There is emerging research showing that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric can boost memory and cognition through its powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric is a yellow spice that has been used for thousands of years in India, Central America, and Asia. It’s part of the ginger family.

It’s been a part of herbal medicine in these countries for various conditions.

Some of the traditional uses of turmeric include:

• inflammatory conditions

• diabetes

• high blood pressure

• high cholesterol

• cancer

• snake bites

• protozoal infections

• fertility problems

• blood clots

• viral and bacterial infections

• skin and wound healing

• arthritis

• fatigue

• breathing problems

If you use the real herb while cooking, you’ll be working with turmeric that looks like what’s in the picture above. The largest piece in the middle of the photo is the raw version. The four smaller ones are the dried version. Most people who cook with turmeric will use the raw version of the plant.

You can also find turmeric extract or powder at the market. The extract contains 95% curcuminoids whereas turmeric powder contains only 4-6% curcuminoids. You should know your purpose in using turmeric along with which version of the plant would be your best option.

Turmeric, like other herbs, contains a plentitude of medicinal ingredients that have actions in the body. One of the most well known components used to treat arthritis and inflammatory diseases is the curcuminoids.

This group of polyphenols includes one called curcumin. Other members of this group include demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. There are many other plant chemicals in turmeric that also have medicinal actions, and these are called non-curcuminoids. Studies are not nearly as plentiful on these ingredients.

Turmeric Extract is a Potent Antioxidant

One of the actions of turmeric that makes it so effective is that it’s an antioxidant. When you consider whether or not an herb or its ingredients are powerful antioxidants, you always need a good model for testing.

One model is to see if something is good enough to counteract the oxidative damage encountered in the injured brain.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, scientists exposed rats to either a regular diet or a diet high in saturated fat, with or without curcumin for 4 weeks. Then they induced a mild brain injury.

Usually what happens is that a high fat diet will worsen the effects of traumatic brain injury on cognitive function and the brain’s ability to adapt – called synaptic plasticity.

When curcumin was supplemented in the diet, there was a dramatic reduction of oxidative damage in the brain. The curcumin normalized levels of BDNF, synapsin I and CREB that the brain injury had altered. That’s a great antioxidant for the brain!

Memory, Cognitive Function and Turmeric

Because of the antioxidants, turmeric benefits memory and cognitive function. Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and later recall information that is stored in the human brain. You can think about it as the ability to use what has happened to you in the past to influence how you act now.

The word cognition means the mental abilities that work together while you are awake and help you process what’s happening in the world and subsequently make decisions.

Cognitive functions include the following:

• memory
• perception and attention
• executive functions (making decisions, problem solving, doing things sequentially, withholding urges, pattern recognition, and flexibility)
• language
• processing speed
• visual and spatial abilities
• motor skills (moving a body part)
• social skills

Turmeric for Memory

There have been quite a few research studies on turmeric for memory. One of the most recent studies was a systematic review of randomized, placebo-controlled trials in older adults given curcumin. Dosages were between 90 and 4000 mg per day of curcumin. Researchers detailed three different studies that were quite effective within this set of studies.

Study 1 showed that a dose of 90 mg curcumin twice daily improved visual memory, attention, and selective reminding in those without dementia. The study lasted 18 months.

Study 2 tested a dose of 1,500 mg curcumin/day for one year. Researchers used the Montreal Cognitive Assessment tool and found overall improvement.

Study 3 found improvements in the ability to do mathematical subtraction tasks after only four weeks.

Turmeric for Alzheimer’s Disease - Link Between Inflammation and Brain Health?

In Alzheimer’s disease, the aggregation of amyloid-beta proteins in the brain is the culprit for why there’s so much memory loss and inability to think and process information correctly. Once these protein aggregations form, the brain identifies them as abnormal and starts the process of inflammation to remove them. The problem is that often the brain doesn’t have the tools it needs to remove them.

The brain wants to heal itself. Inflammation always starts the healing process. However, if inflammation goes on for long periods of time, this then can become another type of problem.

Studies with animal models of Alzheimer disease have shown that curcumin benefits the brain in certain ways. It lowers the number of oxidized proteins in the brain – an antioxidant function. It also lowers the cytokines that cause inflammation in the brain as well – an anti-inflammatory effect.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many human studies with Alzheimer’s patients that meet satisfactory scientific standards. Most of them simply don’t have enough patients to find statistical significance.

However, one Japanese study reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2019 gave patients with dementia and cognitive impairment a supplement of Huperzine A and curcumin. The Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-cognitive subscale (Japanese version) scores were significantly improved at 6-12 weeks. The supplements worked.

Genetic studies have shown that curcumin decreases the expression of genes that inflamed the microglia of the brain, COX-2, and IL 1B. It reduced levels of miR-155, a micro-RNA that drives neurodegeneration of the microglia. It was also found to restore neuroinflammatory networks that are disturbed in diseases of the brain and nervous system. That shows a lot of hope for those with memory and cognitive disorders.

Turmeric’s curcumin also protects the brain by inhibiting the formation of the amyloid-beta fibrils but it doesn’t stop there. If the fibrils have already formed, curcumin breaks them up.

Curcumin also inhibits tau phosphorylation. Tau is a group of proteins that play a key role in regulating how microtubules work in the cells, axonal transport and growth of the nerves. Tau accumulations in the neurofibrillary tangles of those with Alzheimer’s disease have been reported in the literature. If there is a disruption of normal phosphorylation, then the tau proteins don’t work properly. But with curcumin at work inside the brain, tau proteins won’t be phosphorylated and won’t accumulate, thus preventing dementia to occur.

You can learn more about the benefits of turmeric for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by reading this article:

Turmeric for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Turmeric Effects on Inflammation, Memory and Cognition

Animal studies have shown that curcumin prevents memory deficits, cognitive decline, and according to the scientists, it suppresses behavioral deficits.

In humans these behavioral deficits include the whole set of unusual behaviors seen in those with Alzheimer’s disease. These behavioral deficits are worsened by greater amounts of inflammation in the brain.

A 2019 systematic review of 24 animal studies showed that curcumin was provided benefits for both short and long-term memory when taken for up to 84 days. The authors of this review also noted that the results of these studies were not due to a placebo effect from the curcumin indicating that curcumin’s promising role in preventing memory loss and cognitive decline should be investigated further in humans.

Additional Benefits of Turmeric Extract

Cardiovascular benefits

The medical literature is full of studies on other benefits of turmeric. Some of them you might not expect. For example, turmeric prevents heart failure. Heart failure patients always seem to have a corresponding depression and memory deficits, most likely due to the poor circulation.

When middle-aged patients with hardening of the arteries took 80mg curcumin once daily for a month, results showed benefits in reducing the pathological process of the disease.

Blood vessels need adequate levels of nitric oxide to stay healthy and youthful. Supplements that increase nitric oxide levels are often recommended for heart disease patients. In one animal study, curcumin was found to restore the decline in nitric oxide levels in the endothelial cells of the blood vessels.

This added nitric oxide would also benefit high blood pressure, which has been confirmed in human studies. The dosage used for kidney disease patients with high blood pressure was 500mg turmeric three times daily. This is equivalent to about 66mg curcumin daily.

You can learn more about the benefits of turmeric for cardiovascular disease by reading this article:

Turmeric for Heart Health: Benefits and Precautions

Benefits for blood sugar and cholesterol

Every diabetic wants to have lower blood sugar, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, weight closer to ideal, and lower body fat percentage. Curcumin has a particular action in the body – to activate Adenosine Monophosphate Kinase (AMPK) equally as well as Metformin. This improves insulin resistance and helps a lot of the goals the diabetics want to accomplish.

The anti-inflammatory action of curcumin is what helps improve insulin resistance. In one study, curcumin supplements given to prediabetics for 9 months improved insulin sensitivity, pancreatic function, and adiponectin. During that time period 16.4% of the control group developed diabetes but none of the ones taking curcumin did. This shows great effectiveness.

Studies also show cholesterol-lowering and triglyceride lowering activity from turmeric and curcumin. Most diabetics with high cholesterol are prescribed statin

drugs, which decrease the amount of cholesterol in the brain. This interferes with memory.

A better way to decrease cholesterol may be to use curcumin. In one study, a dose of 500mg curcumin daily lowered total cholesterol by 17% and triglycerides by 47%.

These types of results mean smiles from the doctor at the next office visit.

Another study showed that Type 2 diabetics were able to reduce protein loss in the urine within 2 months of supplementation.

All these effects from curcumin that are seen for diabetics and heart disease will indirectly contribute to better memory and cognitive functions.

You can learn more about the benefits of turmeric for cholesterol by reading this article:

Turmeric for Cholesterol: Benefits and risks

Reducing pain
Natural pain relief is always a good reason to consider a nutritional supplement. In one study, patients who had their gallbladder removed were given 500mg curcumin once every 6 hours. When their pain levels were measured at the week 1 and week 3 time intervals after the operation, there had been a 50% reduction in pain. High doses in cases of postoperative care gives results that are comparable with currently used painkillers.

A 2019 study showed that 1500 mgs of turmeric extract per day helped reduce knee pain in people who had knee osteoarthritis. A 2014 study showed that 1500 mgs of turmeric extract per day reduce knee pain similarly to Ibuprofen.

You can learn more about the benefits of turmeric for knee arthritis by reading this article:

How can turmeric help knee arthritis?

Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative colitis, and IBS

turmeric for crohns disease

These conditions are caused by chronic inflammation of the digestive systems resulting in gas, bloating, abdominal pain, poor nutrient absorption, and other health problems.

Curcumin benefits those with ulcerative colitis and IBS. Some researchers found that turmeric increased the short-chain fatty acids in the gut and thus changed the gut flora.

You can learn more about the benefits of curcumin for these digestive problems by reading this article:

Turmeric Benefits for Crohn’s Disease, IBS, or Ulcerative Colitis

What is a Secret Problem with Turmeric Powders?

Stanford University researchers discovered a secret problem with turmeric powders that was reported in the literature in 2019. They collected 524 samples of turmeric, pigments, dust, and soil from turmeric producers in Bangladesh. They tested them for heavy metals.

Lead chromate had been added to the supplement to give it a brighter yellow color in seven of the nine turmeric districts. Those who did this did not understand that lead chromate is very toxic to the body and brain.

Lead causes toxic effects on the brain and nerve function. It also accumulates in the kidneys, causing kidney damage. Reports of lead toxicity in water supplies, food supplies or as herb contaminants is always quite shocking, but it’s especially disturbing when there’s lead in the turmeric.

Turmeric was created to be brain protective but when lead is added to it, all the excellent benefits of the supplement are gone.

Picking the Best Turmeric Supplement

Before you purchase any turmeric supplement, always read the label carefully whether it’s turmeric or curcumin. Compare it to others. Remember that turmeric extract and turmeric powder are different. The extract contains much more of the active polyphenol, curcumin.

Note how much turmeric extract is in each capsule. Many turmeric supplements only contain 50-100mg per capsule instead of 500mg. The dosage that was beneficial in inflammation studies was often >1500mg per day. Active Atom has 750mg turmeric extract per capsule, 15 times more than many company products.

Turmeric powder is poorly absorbed by the body but studies have shown that it can become more bioactive by adding a phytonutrient combination containing piperine called BioPerine. This addition increases the absorption of turmeric by 2000%. Active Atoms contains 5 mg of BioPerine per capsule to improve absorption.

Checking for lead testing is essential if you want a safe supplement. Without a certification that lead has been tested, you don’t know whether or not you are being ‘poisoned’. It doesn’t take much lead exposure to accumulate in the body and become a sometimes-fatal poison. Active Atoms Turmeric is regularly sent to an independent lab to test for lead and the full lab report is available on the homepage of our website.

The takeaway

Turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin are one of the great blessings to mankind and found in nature. Their actions to help reverse traumatic brain injury, provide antioxidant action in the brain, improve memory and cognitive function give us our humanity back, especially appreciated if we need help in these areas.

We can think fluidly, remember easily, make wiser decisions, and socialize better when these areas of the brain are addressed with a simple herb that improves brain functions by antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cognition-enhancing actions.

Improving memory and cognition is often best attacked when a whole-person approach is used. This type of approach includes reversing nutritional deficiencies, exercising, managing stress better, getting full nights of sleep, and working the brain with online brain games.

When adding turmeric extract as part of your nutrition to feed the brain, first ask your physician if it could possibly help. Then give Active Atoms Turmeric Extract a fair trial of at least three months for memory and cognitive benefits.

About Dr. Marc Robinson, PT, DPT, Cert. MDT