Posted On: March 29, 2020
If you like curry, chances are you like turmeric.
If you’ve seen a doctor about a mental health problem any time in the past 10-or-so years, you’ll know a bit about antidepressants. You might even have heard some controversies in the media surrounding these kinds of medicines being over prescribed or of mixed efficiency.
Now. If you haven’t already heard of people using spices to treat depression, then this might sound a little odd to you but just… bear with me.
So essentially, turmeric’s medicinal use dates back around 4,000 years in India. More recently, though, some promising studies have been done for its efficiency in treating a range of ailments from arthritis to diabetes and curiously: depression .
Side note: If you’re wondering if now is the time to double down on the curries then unfortunately I’m going to have to burst your bubble there and tell you that it doesn’t work quite like that (though there’s no harm in trying).
Depression is currently the most diagnosed medical condition worldwide. In 2017, 17.3 million adults in the U.S (that’s just over 7% of the population) had experienced at least one depressive episode.
You probably already know someone who lives with depression. You may even have it yourself.
Currently, treatment for depression consists of medication, therapy or (preferably) both. The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), a class of drugs that is thought to work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
Common side effects of SSRI’s include:
But the extent to which these drugs work is still a matter of contention. The debate is further complicated by bias from pharmaceutical companies and the fact that some antidepressants which work well for some patients may be ineffective in others.
Many of turmeric’s health benefits come from its powerful anti inflammatory properties which it derives from the active compound curcumin: a type of chemical known as a curcuminoid.
Essentially it works similarly to drugs like aspirin and paracetamol (one study even showed it to be more effective than aspirin). Not drugs you normally associate with depression, right? .
You may have heard the commonly repeated explanation that depression is caused by “a chemical imbalance in the brain.”
This is a myth. While medications that affect levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters do appear fairly effective in many cases of moderate or chronic depression nobody is sure exactly how they work.
So if it isn’t a lack of serotonin, what causes depression?
Unfortunately we don’t know with certainty. Serotonin certainly plays a part in the condition, but a large body of research is pointing to a lesser known effect of depression: inflammation.
Inflammation has been linked to depression in an array of studies , they even seem to affect the same parts of the brain (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA) and interestingly this correlation is reflected in the use of antidepressants, which are given both to patients with chronic pain as well as those with depression.
Part of the problem is due to pro inflammatory cytokines: molecules involved in the immune response that cause inflammation.
Studies have shown that higher levels of these molecules can decrease levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain which, in turn, leads to shrinking in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotion.
An atrophied hippocampus is a common effect of depression and is thought to be responsible for some of the cognitive symptoms such as decreases in sustained attention time and memory.
In tests with rats, administration of curcumin was shown to reverse artificially lowered BDNF levels. This could be an explanation for curcumin’s antidepressant activity.
As well as anti-inflammatory action, curcumin at high doses has been shown to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine and even enhance the activity of sub-therapeutic doses of traditional SSRI’s.
While the efficacy of curcumin in depression has not been widely studied in comparison with other antidepressants, one small study showed curcumin to be nearly as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) and a combination of the two to be more effective than either alone.
Curcumin may be especially useful in treating cases of mild depression as common antidepressants have very limited efficiency in less severe cases.
It can also be useful if you find yourself suffering from unpleasant side effects during antidepressant therapy.
The problem with turmeric is that it has awful bio-availability. The unprocessed spice only consists of about 5% of the key chemical curcumin and that is quickly metabolized by the liver, with little being fully absorbed.
A simple trick to get around this is to combine your turmeric with black pepper. When combined with black pepper, curcumin absorption is increased by 2000% . This is due to a compound in black pepper known as piperine (which also has anti-inflammatory effects of its own).
You can also buy curcumin supplements in extract form which contain more of the active compound than regular turmeric. Some formulations are even available as a mixture with piperine extract to ensure you get the most of your curcumin.
 “Clinical Use of Curcumin in Depression – ScienceDirect.com.” 1 Jun. 2017, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1525861016306752. Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.
 “Curcumin Shows Promise as Depression Treatment ….” 14 Dec. 2015, https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/mood-disorders/curcumin-shows-promise-as-depression-treatment/. Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.
 “Mechanistic explanations how cell-mediated immune ….” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763411002120. Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.