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Curcumin supplements: how to choose a bioavailable formula

Article at a Glance
  • Curcumin supplements aren’t well absorbed, so manufacturers are always looking for ways to increase bioavailability.
  • However, some of the common methods used for increasing the bioavailability of curcumin could be dangerous. For example, black pepper, often added to curcumin to increase bioavailability, can throw off the metabolism of different types of drugs.
  • The curcumin phospholipid craze isn’t any better. Some studies show that dissolving curcumin in phospholipids, such as phosphatidylcholine, could be bad for your heart. Proceed with caution. If you want to dissolve curcumin in fat, try a homemade olive oil blend using high quality 95% curcuminoid standardization product.
  • A study funded by the manufacturer, showed CurcuWin, a curcumin blend that uses antioxidants to improve bioavailability, was better absorbed than the fat based blends. Omega Curcumin is another good option as Nordic Naturals uses high quality omega 3 fats to increase bioavailability rather than choline.
Curcumin Supplements

If you’re interested in health and nutrition, you’ve probably heard a good bit about Curcumin as of late, and for good reason. Curcumin is a supplement that has shown some promise in human trials, but as with many nutraceuticals, bioavailability (how much curcumin we can get into our blood stream) has been an issue.

Curcumin is poorly absorbed and quickly metabolized, which critics of supplementation point to as reasons for skipping this turmeric derived antioxidant altogether.

However, there are reliable ways to increase circumin’s bioavailability, and with a Gene Food Science Score of 4 stars for inflammatory conditions like arthritis and for digestive health, looking into ways to use curcumin more effectively could be worthwhile for many people.

Increasing curcumin absorption

For a few years now, the conventional wisdom has been that black pepper and curcumin should be taken side by side, as black pepper has been shown to increase curcumin’s bioavailability by 2,000% over curcumin alone. (R) As this study shows, pairing curcumin with black pepper will increase bioavailability, but as was pointed out in the comments, black pepper has the potential to slow the metabolism of multiple drugs, potentially blunting the health benefits of curcumin by causing the unhealthy accumulation of OTC and pharmaceuticals in the body. (R)

In this post I discuss the latest curcumin bioavailability fad: phospholipids.

New studies have introduced a fresh way of increasing curcumin’s bioavailability even further: pairing it with fat.

Curcumin is fat soluble, but it’s also water soluble

Just like carotenoids, curcumin is fat soluble, meaning it is better absorbed when paired with fat. For this reason, “curcumin phytosome” products, which dissolve curcumin in either phosphatidylcholine or lecithin, are all the rage right now, and some have data to back them up.

For example, this study examining Meriva, a curcumin phytosome product, and its impact on ostearthritis, seems to justify the practice of blending curcumin with phospholipids. Meriva uses a phosphatidylcholine blend produced from sunflower.

To quote the study:

These results show that Meriva® is clinically effective in the management and treatment of osteoarthritis and suggest that the increased stability and better absorption of curcumin induced by complexation with phospholipids have clinical relevance, setting the stage for larger and more prolonged studies.

The Meriva study seems to corroborate others that have looked at ways of enhancing curcumin’s bioavailability. For his post on curcumin’s efficacy as demonstrated by human trials, Aaron put together this chart which shows the various methods developed for adding curcumin to a phospholipid blend, as well as dissolving it in a water based solution:

CurcuminoidCSCTRCPCHC
Curcumin1.02.612.7136.3
Demethoxycurcumin1.00.67.314.2
Bisdemethoxycurcumin1.01.33.55.3
Tetrahydrocurcumin1.01.38.333.5
Total Curcuminoids1.01.37.945.9

CS = standardized curcumin mixture, CTR = curcumin with volatile oils to aid absorption, CP = curcumin with lipophilic phytosomes (lipid loving molecules to aid absorption), CHC = curcumin with PVP and natural antioxidants. Values are relative absorption of various curcuminoids into the blood, actual values are available in the paper (R). Red colored values are the worst performing for each type of curcuminoid, greens the best.

As you can clearly see in the table above, the CHC preparation (which features Polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP) and vitamin C and E) significantly outperforms all other preparations, especially pure curcumin alone. So, while phospholipids elevate the bioavailability of curcumin, the water soluble formula plus antioxidants outperforms them all. Now, keep in kind that both the Meriva and PVP studies appear to have been conducted by interested parties, but I see the willingness to engage in actual clinical trials encouraging, and will take the data at face value (subject to our Science Score of course) until it is supplanted by something better.

Bottom line is this is what we have to go on at the moment.

Lesson: Curcumin is amphiphilic

The bioavailability data cited above demonstrates that curcumin is amphiphilic, meaning it loves fat and it loves water. 

Curcumin pairs well with antioxidants

The table above also suggests that curcumin bioavailability is enhanced when paired with antioxidants.

While phosphatidylcholine blends also increase the bioavailability of curcumin, I don’t use them because there is reason to believe they are not heart healthy.

Let me explain.

Why I avoid curcumin phospholipid products

As consumers of supplements, we all hold our noses and swallow a litany of “other ingredients,” such as magensium stearate or soy lecithin, because they are included in very tiny amounts to facilitate delivery of nutrients we believe are good for us.

However, what happens when those ingredients become part of the main dish? In the world of curcumin supplementation, phospholipids are becoming a bigger part of the pie.

Some brands, like Gaia for example, are dissolving curcumin in phospholipid solutions that contain unknown amounts of soy lecithin. Others, like the Seeking Health Liposomal Curcumin product add curcumin to phosphatidylcholine in a similar fashion to Meriva.

Does the addition of these fats alter the health benefits of curcumin? You could argue they do, and not in a beneficial way.

Phosphatidylcholine and trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO)

TMAO is a metabolite of phosphatidylcholine and lecithin that has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. How? Our gut bacteria break down these phospholipid fats into a substance (TMAO) that is thought to damage our arteries. I generally stay away from lecithin and liposomal supplements because of this TMAO data.

A New England Journal of Medicine study found that increased levels of TMAO were a significant independent risk factor for heart disease, even for people with otherwise normal markers.

To quote the NEJM study:

After adjustment for traditional risk factors and other baseline covariates, elevated plasma levels of TMAO remained a significant predictor of the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events.

The NEJM study calls out phosphatidylcholine directly as a causative agent in producing TMAO:

We recently described the potential role of a complex phosphatidylcholine–choline metabolic pathway involving gut microbiota in contributing to the pathogenesis of atherosclerotic coronary artery disease in animal models.7 We also reported an association between a history of cardiovascular disease and elevated fasting plasma levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), an intestinal microbiota-dependent metabolite of the choline head group of phosphatidylcholine that is excreted in the urine.

Some dismiss the NEJM study saying that eating fish, long thought to be heart protective, causes a spike in TMAO as well. As a result, they reason that we needn’t worry about TMAO. I feel differently. The NEJM study seems very sound to me. Its conclusions are reasonable and do not recommend avoiding phosphatidylcholine altogether.

It should also be noted that choline is a semiessential nutrient and should not be completely eliminated from the diet, since this can result in a deficiency state. However, standard dietary recommendations, if adopted, will limit the intake of phosphatidylcholine- and choline-rich foods, since these foods are also typically high in fat and cholesterol content.

Limit phosphatidylcholine to keep TMAO levels in check, got it.

From where I’m sitting, I want to use my limited choline intake on foods I enjoy, like the occasional steak, or fried egg, not on sunflower oil goo unnecessarily added to a supplement.

As with many issues, including balancing dietary histamine, TMAO levels must be balanced. TMAO can be excreted in urine rendering it harmless. It is only when levels build that problems can arise. What better way to build TMAO levels than to take phosphatidylcholine on a daily basis in the form of a supplement? And the sad part is that most people have no clue what they are taking. We are trained to ignore the peripheral “other ingredients” on our supplement labels.

Ask someone taking Mariva what they are taking and they will answer curcumin, but they are also taking a daily dose of phosphatidylcholine, a type of fat linked to heart disease.

Daily ingestion of a curcumin product like this could contribute to bad outcomes over time for some people.

Furthermore, TMAO isn’t the only issue with choline and lecithin supplements. Many of these fats can raise the body’s omega 6 levels, which is also inflammatory.

The irony for me is that some of the data points to an increase in bioavailability with water soluble, antioxidant solutions that exclude potentially unhealthy fats.

If phospholipids aren’t necessary for proper absorption of curcumin, why use them?

I don’t.

Below, I review some of the most popular curcumin brands on Amazon and give you an idea of what to look for on the labels, and how to choose a good quality product.

Curcumin supplement comparison

Ok, so you know my take on the various curcumin formulas that are out there. Other than for short-term use, say for pain management, I avoid the phospholipid and black pepper formulas because of concerns I have about spiking TMAO. When you factor in that antioxidant preparations have shown greater bioavailability, I opt for “fat free” curcumin, or add my own capsule to a spoonful of good-quality olive oil.

Curcumin supplements on Amazon

BrandPhospholipidsAntioxidantsQuantity
CurcuWin CurcuminNN60 capsules
Omega Curcumin by Nordic NaturalsNY60 capsules
Seeking Health Liposomal CurcuminYY8 ounces
Gaia Turmeric SupremeYN120 capsules
Jarrow CurcuminNN120 capsules
Gene Food Curcumin ProNY30 capsules
Meriva Curcumin by ThorneYN120 capsules

CurcuWin Curcumin

Although it has a terrible name, CurcuWin Curcumin was the type of curcumin that showed the greatest bioavailability in the study we cite above. Granted, that study was funded by the manufacturer of CurcuWin, Omni Active Health Technologies, Inc., but as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, the willingness of a supplement manufacturer to engage in clinical trials at all is usually a good sign. That, and this blend contains no phospholipids or black pepper.

Omega Curcumin by Nordic Naturals

This is a product I mention over and over, including in our fish oil guide, because it’s such a good formula. In this post, we’ve established that curcumin lacks bioavailability and that it needs to be paired with something else, either fat or antioxidants, to increase absorption. The fat blends most supplement manufacturers use are choline-based, which has the potential to spike TMAO, but the Omega Curcumin preparation by Nordic Naturals adds 400mg of curcumin to an omega 3 supplement made from high-quality fish oil. The result is greater bioavailability without the addition of an unhealthy source of omega 6 fatty acids, such as phosphatidylcholine. As an added benefit, glutathione and NAC are added to the formula, which you can read more about here: Glutathione supplements: what you need to know.

Seeking Health Liposomal Curcumin

Seeking Health is a reputable company that makes good quality products, and I like the addition of resveratrol to this blend. The issue with this liposomal curcumin formula is that it only has 200mg of curcumin (very low dose) and uses a phosphatidylcholine blend, which triggers TMAO concerns as well as concerns about inflammation. The goal for many people taking curcumin is to reduce levels of inflammation. Heavy doses of phospholipid fats can raise the levels of omega 6 fatty acids. When omega 6 ratios rise too far above omega 3 levels, inflammation can result. (R)

Gaia Turmeric Supreme

Again, I have sampled this product. If you were to break apart a capsule, you’d find a gooey liquid blend of curcumin, black pepper, and lecithin oozes out. This leads me to believe the product is heavy on the lecithin. For those taking medications, the black pepper could prevent proper metabolism, keeping the drugs in your system longer than is safe. Further, the product does not use 95% curcuminoid standardization.

Jarrow Curcumin

This formula is packed with good-quality curcumin at 95% standardization and is good for daily use. However, I have two problems with the blend. One, there are no antioxidants added to increase bioavailability. Two, the curcumin powder escapes the capsule such that when you touch it, your hands get yellow. If you touch a dress or a shirt after handling the Jarrow product, it will stain.

Meriva Curcumin by Thorne

The study we cited to above shows that Meriva is an effective supplement for relieving short-term inflammation, and this is undeniably a good product. My concern again is the phosphatidylcholine and that the marketing is way out in front of the science. We don’t know how heart healthy these types of products are for people over the long term. Short-term use, for example as an alternative to NSAIDs, could be considered.

See also: 7 genes linked to high homocysteine levels and what to do about it

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food. He is passionate about nutrition, genetics, and wellness and uses this blog to publish self experiments as well as some of the research that the Gene Food team does internally to highlight stories of bio-individuality.

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6 Comments

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  1. Max Dishen says:

    If I put my curcumin capsule in hot tea or coffee with al.ond milk, for the fat, is that a good way to get better a absorbtion

  2. Julie says:

    my Cardiologist wants me to take 500 mg with bioperine for absorption 2 times a day for imflamation. The black pepper bothered my acid reflux. Will the Nordic Naurals with omega be comparable in bioavailability?

  3. William Glavan says:

    I cannot find the 2 top products that you mentioned in the UK.
    to try to replicate the omega curcurin by Nordic naturals, can I just take curcumin with omega-3 and get the same result?

  4. Terry says:

    I put curcin 95% curcumoids into my husband’s smoothie. The smoothie is made with banana, strawberries, blueberries, whey protein powder and 1 TBSP. of Chia seeds. He’s had great results with inflammation with this combo. Do you see any issues with this combination? If so, I will stop the Curcumin.

  5. Casey says:

    Not only are there not really any solid clinical trials demonstrating additional benefits of adding black pepper extract to Curcumin, it is potentially dangerous. Through multiple mechanisms, it can effect metabolism of a long list of both OTC and pharmaceuticals. Unintentionally slowing drug metabolism can lead to dangerous residual levels of these drugs in circulation.

    There is also the “we don’t know” factor many companies don’t take into account when dealing with different raw materials like Turmeric. While the race is on to increase levels of serum curcuminoids and put out attractive marketing ploys, no one is considering the potential loss of long-term efficacy when you alter the way these things interact with the microbiome. Some of the recent data on Berberine attributes at least part of its glycemic regulating properties to its modulation of the gut microbiome. This could be lost by changing solubility and its natural absorption pathways.

    It’ll be interesting to see where the “bioavailability” conversation goes. Marketing is so far ahead of the science in this industry and this conversation, to this point is driven more by sexy marketing campaigns, attempting to differentiate products more than anything else, at least as far as any clinical relevancy.

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