Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are two fast growing neurological disorders that affect aging populations across the world. In fact, over 50 million people1 suffer from dementia globally and that number grows by 10 million cases each year. About 44 million people2 suffer from Alzheimer’s disease with an estimated 5.5 million of those cases occurring in the U.S.
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that slowly degrades a person’s memory, cognitive functioning, the ability to perform daily activities, and overall mental performance over time. If you know someone who has been struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s, then you know how scary and debilitating it can be.
A lot of the conventional treatments available for these neurodegenerative diseases have not been able to come up with a cure, however, as we learn more about the human brain, we are seeing some success in preventing the devastating effects of these illnesses with alternative and holistic treatments.
Turmeric in particular is one holistic solution that has been shown to help with Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric is a powerful spice that’s been used for centuries in traditional Indian cuisine. It comes from the Curcuma longa plant and belongs to the ginger family. As a very popular cooking spice, you’ve probably noticed it in powdered form in the spice aisle of the grocery store or in whole root form in the produce section.
It boasts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that make it a powerful healing herb for many diseases and chronic health issues, including neurodegenerative diseases.
In this article we’ll explore the top turmeric benefits for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia that gets worse over time leading to impaired cognitive abilities and behaviors. An early warning sign of Alzheimer’s is difficulty learning new information and mild memory loss, but as the disease progresses, family and friends may notice major changes in mood, memory, behaviors, and increased confusion. These symptoms are frustrating for both person dealing with Alzheimer’s and the people supporting them.
In contrast, dementia is an all-encompassing word to describe a variety of medical conditions caused from damage to brain cells. The symptoms of dementia include memory loss, poor problem solving, difficulty remembering day to day tasks, and a decline in cognitive function. Someone with Alzheimer’s is considered to have dementia but someone with dementia does not necessarily have Alzheimer’s until they are diagnosed by their doctor. Currently, there is limited treatment and no way to stop the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s according to the Alzheimer’s Association in the United States
What are the risk factors for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?
Despite what many people might say or joke about, Alzheimer’s and memory loss in general are not simply a part of “getting old.” That is a very common myth that many people take at face value.
The biggest risk factors for developing a neurodegenerative disease are based largely on how we live our everyday lives. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and chronic smoking and drinking all factor into whether or not someone will develop dementia later in life. A history of depression3, metabolic disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, social isolation, and lack of regular cognitive activity are also additional risk factors to consider.
What we eat strongly impacts the brain’s ability to function optimally. When we eat an inflammatory diet that is high in processed foods, hydrogenated oils, conventional meat, refined carbohydrates and added sugars we are not getting all of the proper nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and proteins that our bodies need to thrive.
Of course, genetics are another indicator to consider, but just because you have a genetic predisposition to a disease doesn’t mean you are doomed. Genetics surely load the gun, but environmental and lifestyle factors such as toxic exposure, diet and exercise pull the trigger.
What is the link between chronic inflammation, dementia, and Alzheimer’s?
Certain foods create systemic inflammation in the body, including the brain, and we know that all modern degenerative diseases — including Alzheimer’s and dementia — are diseases of inflammation. This inflammation also creates something known as oxidative stress, which occurs when we experience an imbalance in the body between free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules4 that occur when we exercise as well as during our regular metabolic processes like eating. But a lot of the free radicals we are exposed to today are a result of a toxic environment and unhealthy lifestyle.
Antioxidants are meant to counteract the harmful effects of too many free radicals circulating in the body. We do make antioxidants naturally, but we can also get them from healthy fruits and vegetables. When we lack those antioxidants, the free radicals can create oxidative stress, which causes damage to our cells and leads to chronic inflammation. Over time, oxidative stress contributes to many diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cataracts.
But it actually gets even more complicated than that. Two well-known indicators for Alzheimer’s Disease and the associated cognitive decline are amyloid β plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Additionally, a third pathology5 has emerged in recent years: a sustained immune response that activates the brain’s macrophages (microglia) and other immune cells that exacerbate both amyloid and tau pathology and associated systemic inflammation.
Temporary inflammation has always been a protective mechanism that our immune system activates when it experiences a threat or injury. The same occurs in the brain. You might experience acute inflammation after a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion, or surgery. Certain tissues will inflame to protect the damaged area until our immune system can work to heal us.
However, if our microglia (glial immune cells located in our brain and spinal cord) are constantly being activated, they release pro-inflammatory and toxic products, including a cytokine known as interleukin 1 (IL-1) that can increase the output of harmful amyloid β plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Microglia should remain largely inactive within our central nervous system. With the presence of amyloid β plaques, microglia become activated and if this activation occurs long enough, we will experience a pro-inflammatory cytokine response that releases neurological toxins and damages our neurons. As this process repeats itself in a self-destructive loop, the end result is neurodegeneration.
What is turmeric extract?
When we talk about the powerful health benefits of turmeric associated with Alzheimer’s disease, what we are really referring to are a few chemical compounds present in the spice, known as curcuminoids. The most well studied and popular curcuminoid is curcumin.
While curcumin is present in the traditional turmeric cooking spice, it’s not as highly bioavailable in that form and it’s only present in a very small amount — about 2-5%6. In fact, curcumin is metabolized quickly in the liver and intestinal wall, meaning it isn’t available for absorption elsewhere in the body such as the brain.
That’s why many people will often supplement with a therapeutic dose of high quality turmeric extract that contains 95% curcumin as well as black pepper (piperine). In order to be effectively absorbed and used by the body, curcumin must be paired with piperine, an alkaloid that is present in black pepper. By pairing these two compounds together, you increase the bioavailability7 of curcumin by 2000%, unlocking the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Turmeric benefits for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Over the last decade more research has emerged demonstrating the efficacy of curcumin in preventing neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, making it a fast growing option for nutraceutical intervention. In addition to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, curcumin also has anti-carcinogenic, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, anti-arthritic, anti-infectious and neuroprotective properties.
One study8 shows how curcumin positively impacts a variety of the cells in our brain including neurons, astrocytes and microglia. Consuming a therapeutic dose of turmeric extract can counteract the negative effects of heavy metals, pro-inflammatory cytokines, protein kinases and other enzymes in the body, including amyloid β plaques (Aβ).
In an experiment9 where 214 antioxidant compounds were tested, curcumin showed the strongest inhibitor effect on the formation of Aβ fibrils largely responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, curcumin in vitro reduces the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1α, IL-6 and TNF-α in LPS-stimulated BV2 microglia thereby reducing chronic neuroinflammation associated with neurodegenerative diseases.
We have not yet discussed phagocytes, but they are types of white blood cells that are also part of our body’s natural protective immune response. These are cells in the body that are responsible for eating other cells or particles, typically harmful ones via a process referred to as phagocytosis. It’s known that amyloids can be cleared via microglial phagocytosis in the brain and that curcumin stimulates this process10.
Turmeric’s antioxidant effects are also helpful in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that curcuminoids can inhibit the formation and propagation of free radicals by decreasing low-density lipoprotein oxidation and the free radicals that contribute to neuron deterioration in Alzheimer’s as well as other neurological diseases including Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. One study demonstrated11 just 500mg of curcuma oil given to rats significantly improved neurological deficit and counteracted oxidative stress.
More research12 has identified that natural curcumin can induce hemoxygenase, a protein that provides efficient cytoprotection against various forms of oxidative stress, by halting the activation of the Nrf2-keap1 pathway and binding to no-1ARE. This increase in hemoxygenase activity results in the release of oxidized glutathione13, which is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body that protects our mitochondria against endogenous oxygen radicals.
Turmeric has also been shown to help combat heavy metal toxicity in the body that can exacerbate neurotoxicity and neuroinflammation. Heavy metals such as copper, aluminum, lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury bioaccumulate in the body and have been shown14 to affect brain physiology and immunity. Curcumin interacts with cadmium and lead in particular to prevent the neurotoxicity associated15 with these metals and also binds to essential metals like copper, iron and zinc to suppress inflammatory damage.
What are potential side effects of turmeric?
Although turmeric is generally safe, some people experience an adverse reaction that results in a mild skin rash when exposed topically.
Turmeric can also interfere with some prescription medications, especially anyone taking warfarin or other anticoagulants that thin the blood. It can exacerbate the effect of such anti-clotting medications. As with all supplements, it’s best to consult your doctor first before taking anything new. If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s advised to stop taking turmeric and consult your doctor right away.
For a full list of side effects, read this comprehensive article:
Is it true that lead can be found in turmeric powder?
Higher up in the article we briefly discussed the debilitating effects of heavy metal toxicity in the body, and the brain in particular. Lead is one such heavy metal that increases neurotoxicity, and unfortunately, it can be found in some of the turmeric powders on the market.
In a 2019 Stanford study, researchers uncovered some of the turmeric coming out of Bangladesh, India had been adulterated with lead. In some instances, this contamination was traced all the way back to the 1980s. According to the study17, following a major flood in the area that dulled the color of a lot of the turmeric crops, many processors began adding lead chromate -- an industrial pigment — as a cheap and fast way to restore the vibrant yellow color.
Since then, more than 15 different turmeric brands have been recalled due to excess lead.
Food adulteration is not a new concern and heavy metals are one of the more popular contaminants that can be found in powdered green teas like matcha, farmed fish, many household products and even tap water.
In fact, there are more foods, products and supplements that contain lead than you’d probably like to believe. We have lead in our soil from manufacturing runoff, it’s in our plants, fruits and vegetables, canned foods, spices/herbs and farmed fish, and as I mentioned above, it’s in our drinking water.
There is no acceptable level of lead in the body. Even at seemingly low levels, exposure to lead can lower IQ, disrupt normal cognitive development and cause permanent damage to the central nervous system, especially in children. Because heavy metals bioaccumulate in the body’s bones, meaning they build up over time, this can also cause psychiatric issues18 like anxiety, depression and even chronic fatigue. Other neurological symptoms can occur as a result of chronic lead exposure, including decreased processing speed, fine and gross motor deficits and severe cognitive decline.
The only way to eliminate lead from the body is to go through a careful heavy metal detox protocol with a licensed healthcare practitioner and to do your best to avoid exposure in the future.
Picking the best turmeric supplement
As with anything in life, it’s always best to do your due diligence and research, and this certainly applies to selecting the best turmeric extract supplement for your unique health needs.
Beyond simply reading labels, be sure to research the company. You’ll want to find a trusted and transparent company like Active Atoms that regularly sends their turmeric extract to a third party lab for ongoing contamination testing.
Another factor to consider when choosing a turmeric supplement is the amount per capsule. To achieve the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric extract you’ll want a therapeutic dose of 1500 mg per day or more. Remember, turmeric extract is more highly concentrated than the cooking spice. Most turmeric supplements only have around 50-100 mg per capsule, which isn’t going to cut it! Active Atoms Turmeric Extract contains 750 mg of turmeric extract per serving, which is 15 times more than many other supplement companies.
The last thing to consider when selecting a turmeric supplement is to make sure it includes piperine from black pepper. Turmeric powder is poorly absorbed by the body on its own and it’s metabolized fast in the body. That’s why you want a quality supplement like Active Atoms that includes BioPerine, the active ingredient in black pepper that increases absorption of curcumin by 2000%.
The research is clear in the fact that curcumin provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits that can help reduce neuroinflammation and toxicity associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, we do not exist in a vacuum and there is very rarely one solution to preventing chronic illness.
There are many different factors that impact our overall neurological health. That’s why it’s important to focus on holistic measures in addition to supplementing with turmeric such as making sure you are getting regular exercise, eating a whole food nutrient dense diet that is anti-inflammatory in nature, and getting adequate rest while maintaining stress levels.
If you are interested in adding in a turmeric extract supplement as part of your ongoing health regimen, be sure to consult with your doctor first so that you understand any potential risks. Then, you can add a bottle of Active Atoms Turmeric Extract to your medicine and supplement cabinet to support your brain health. Or you can gift a bottle to a loved one to let them know you are thinking about them.