Turmeric and Depression: Can Turmeric Make You Happier?

Looking to nature instead of the medicine cabinet to lift your spirits? Turmeric may be your friend! Researchers are discovering that the bright yellow, peppery spice, best known for its use in mustard and curry powder, may liven up more than just your taste buds.

A staple seasoning in Indian and Asian dishes, turmeric has spread around the world and today is valued by Eastern cultures as much for its potential medicinal benefits as its savory taste. Turmeric spice is dried and ground from the underground parts of the plant. The turmeric plant grows primarily in Southeast and is related to ginger.

While the entire plant can be used for medicinal purposes and cooking, it’s the underground part (the rhizome) that is prized for its antioxidant properties. The rhizome is often incorrectly described as the root of the plant, but many academic papers, researchers, and individuals who use turmeric refer to the rhizome as the root.

For more than 4,000 years, practitioners of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have used turmeric to ease a variety of ailments, including pain, fatigue, rheumatism, and breathing problems, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Research also shows that the herb has a long history of use as a tonic for other common ills, such as digestive, respiratory, and skin problems.

Scientists have identified hundreds of essential vitamins and minerals in turmeric, including beta-carotene, flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, iron, potassium, niacin, and zinc. But their biggest interest in the spice centers on its phytonutrient content, a type of antioxidants that help to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, as well as providing support for detoxification, and the healthy development of cells and tissues. The most active phytonutrient in turmeric is the polyphenol curcumin, which gives the root its golden hue and optimal concentration of antioxidants.

Curcumin has been the subject of thousands of studies and hundreds of clinical trials in recent years by researchers exploring its potential to support a variety of bodily functions, including joint function and heart health. A 2017 review of curcumin’s effects on human health cites its possibilities for supporting “the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia.” Though studies tend to show positive evidence for the biological effect of turmeric, and curcumin specifically, these bold claims about their capabilities are still inconclusive and call for larger, more comprehensive clinical trials.

Turmeric as an Antidepressant?

Researchers are still trying to understand exactly how turmeric works in the body and how much is needed to cause a medicinal effect. Currently, evidence points to curcumin being capable of supporting by disrupting the corrosion of cells and tissues. This occurs as a result of how curcumin helps to disrupt specific enzymes found in the body that cause immune cells to attack healthy tissue.

From this evidence, researchers formed a theory that turmeric may be useful in helping to ease feelings of depression. Specifically, researchers identified links between oxidative and inflammatory reactions in the brain and symptoms associated with depression. Preliminary studies, mostly in animal models, have shown promise in the use of curcumin as a supplemental option for protecting the brain from oxidation and inflammation, leading to an easing of symptoms related to mild to more severe depression.

Curcumin aids in the health of the brain through several biological mechanisms.Specifically, compounds in curcumin block inflammatory proteins that can inhibit nerve growth in the frontal cortex and hippocampal areas of the brain. These areas of the brain control expression and regulation of emotions and memory. Studies have also explored curcumin’s ability to stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine, two of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters and hormones important for “feeling good.”

A growing number of randomized, controlled studies have found curcumin to be a safe, successful option for easing symptoms of depression. While proponents believe it could one day serve as a novel antidepressant, most agree that more research is needed before it could be considered alongside more traditional forms of treatment. Some of the most pivotal studies on turmeric and depression include:

  • In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, Australian researchers found that people with a major depressive disorder who took 500 milligrams of curcumin twice a day for eight weeks experienced less intense mood-related symptoms as the trial progressed than those who received a placebo. These were particularly true for study subjects with atypical depression. Another small study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2014 and conducted by Indian researchers found that people on a six-week regimen of curcumin exhibited drops in depression rating scores equal to those on the antidepressant fluoxetine. Researchers suggested that “curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with MDD without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders.”
  • In 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, researchers investigated the effects of supplementing antidepressants with curcumin in more than 100 patients. Results showed that doing so “produced significant antidepressant behavioral response in depressed patients” who took two 1,000-milligram capsules of curcumin daily for six weeks in addition to their antidepressant medication. Researchers also observed lower levels of inflammatory enzymes and salivary cortisol in patients who supplemented antidepressants with turmeric. They concluded that further investigation was warranted into curcumin’s potential to help “reverse the development of depression and enhance the outcome of antidepressants treatment in major depressive disorder.”
  • In a 2017 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, researchers examined six clinical trials that compared the use of curcumin in depressed patients to a placebo. They noted that the results “support the clinical efficacy of curcumin in ameliorating depressive symptoms.” Half of the trials reported “significant anti-anxiety effects,” researchers said, with no reported adverse events. Researchers suggested that while “curcumin appears to be safe, well-tolerated, and efficacious among depressed patients,” more randomized, controlled trials with broader sample sizes and follow-up studies over a longer period are needed to confirm its potential benefits.
  • In 2017, Australian researchers evaluated the effect of curcumin, along with saffron, in more than 100 people with a major depressive disorder. The study found that those who took extracts of curcumin combined with saffron for several months “were associated with significantly greater improvements in depressive symptoms compared to placebo.” Results were especially promising in those with atypical depression, the study found.
  • In a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, UCLA researchers observed the effects of curcumin on aging patients with memory loss. Those who took 90 milligrams of curcumin twice a day for over a year experienced better moods and memory than those taking the placebo. A similar study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2015, also revealed that memory and mood - including calmness and connectedness - were “significantly better” for patients taking curcumin for four weeks as opposed to those taking a placebo.

What’s the verdict on turmeric and depression? Can it make you happier? Experts point out that while the best ways to regulate mood include eating a balanced diet, doing moderate exercise and getting enough sleep, incorporating herbs and spices like turmeric into your diet could provide some value in maintaining a cheery outlook. Research suggests that regular use of supplements might be particularly helpful for those with atypical depression, especially when used in conjunction with traditional methods of mental health care.

Starting a Turmeric Regimen

One drawback of using turmeric medicinally is that curcumin is not easily absorbed from the digestive system into the bloodstream, and it tends to be rapidly excreted from the body. Research shows that adding piperine - the key ingredient in black pepper - or a healthy fat such as coconut or olive oil to turmeric can enhance absorption. Most turmeric or curcumin supplements contain piperine or liposomes for this reason.

Curcumin comprises a small percentage of the turmeric root, so look for products standardized for 95 percent curcuminoids - the family of compounds that include curcumin and follow the suggested dosage on the label carefully. If you take antidepressants or other prescription medication, check with your doctor before adding turmeric or curcumin supplements to the mix to avoid any adverse interactions. Supplements can change how certain medications, such as blood thinners, are metabolized in your body.

Turmeric is generally safe as an ingredient in food or when taken orally, but consuming too much can cause acid reflux, an upset stomach, and nausea. Medical experts discourage taking turmeric in any form if you’re pregnant, have an iron deficiency, struggle with gallstones or kidney stones, or take medication for diabetes or high blood pressure.

Cooking with turmeric is easy and still one of the best ways to reap its goodness. Adding just one to two teaspoons of the ground spice, along with a dash of black pepper and a splash of oil, into a few meals a week is all you need. If turmeric is new to you, start with one-fourth of a teaspoon and work your way up to more.

Many people also love using turmeric in their coffee or tea. You can potentially benefit from using it this way in a golden milk drink. This tasty beverage combines many of the ingredients that may promote absorption, as well as being a healthy replacement for snack foods.

Making turmeric a regular part of your diet could bring a smile to your tummy and your face!