Turmeric and curcumin. Both well known names in the world of herbs and alternative medicine, even in the horse industry. Despite being well known, many do not trust or believe this herb can be of any value in helping their horse. The reason for this disbelief is two-fold, stemming from misinformation or a lack of true desire to investigate the herb and acquire an understanding. When used properly in the horse, both curcumin and turmeric can be of real value, but again, there must be a certain level of understanding in its proper usage.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a well known herb and has been used for centuries in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine protocols. Given it’s traditional history, the majority of usage has been in people, but there is evidence of utilization in horses and other livestock as the need has arisen in time. Turmeric is well-researched, and in truth, likely one of the most heavily researched herbs in current history, noting its ability to significantly modify the inflammatory response.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the mother root or herb, of which there are many active chemicals, referred to as phytochemicals, present within the herb. One of which is the group of curcuminoids, which is composed of curcumin, demothoxycurcumin, and bisdemothoxycurcumin. Aside from the curcuminoids, there are other active chemicals which include the natural volatile and essential oils which are present within the root.
If you purchase or utilize a Turmeric compound, which is the entire herb, this powder would include all of the above, along with proteins and nutrients that are naturally found, including resins. However, these compounds are present at low numbers within the whole root powder. Curcuminoids, as an example, are generally found in levels of 2-5% within a whole-root turmeric powder, as an example.
Considering that much of the research has revolved around the active chemicals in turmeric, most research studies are utilizing a concentrated extract which usually contains around 95% curcumin. This ‘curcumin’ includes the 3 forms noted above in most cases. There are also many research studies revolving around the volatile oils and essential oils present within the root. These phytochemicals, being curcumin or oils, have been found to have significant abilities in impacting the inflammatory process on many levels.
Turmeric powders, while effective in some cases, contain 2-5% curcumin, while a concentrated curcumin extract will contain 95% or higher.
Curcumin and Absorption Concerns in the Horse
When it comes to turmeric or curcumin in the horse or in people, the question is of benefit always seems to revolve around bioavailability or absorption. This is one of the biggest concerns with doctors, veterinarians, or horse owners. Is the turmeric or curcumin absorbed? Most will say that it is not, based on research, and therefore the herb is not effective on any level. This is absolutely false, based on our research and clinical usage of curcumin.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries, generally as a part of an herbal blend to support and promote health. It is known and utilized to benefit the liver, removing stagnation of energy, improving circulation, benefiting the joints, digestion, inflammation, and detoxification purposes.
Clinical research for the past 20 years, has focused on one major aspect of turmeric or curcumin, which is its ability to modulate or impact the inflammatory response. This ability to impact the inflammatory response has noted to provide benefit in cases of joint problems, immune related issues, digestive concerns, and even cognitive issues in people.
Now, the question comes as to absorption of this very valuable herb and with that, the ultimate question of whether or not it is of clinical benefit to your horse.
First, turmeric has been utilized for centuries in alternative medicine with known clinical benefits, otherwise it would not have been nor still clinically utilized. So, whether or not absorption is a factor, it is not even a major consideration, considering its historic usage and benefits.
Second, even if absorption of turmeric was a consideration, you must look at the properties of the herb. Turmeric is lipid or fat soluble, meaning it dissolves in fatty solutions and does not dissolve in water. This is easily demonstrated if you put turmeric or curcumin a glass of water and stir, versus putting it in a glass of olive oil and stir. One will go into solution and the other will not. The point here is that turmeric and thus curcumin, requires fat in order to be more effective and be absorbed, as fat will bind the herb and move it across the lining of the intestinal tract more readily than water. In seeing this, we then have to look at turmeric in comparison to curcumin. Turmeric contains a small percentage of natural essential and volatile oils, while curcumin extracts do not for the most part. Thus, while we are striving to focus on ‘active’ chemicals, such as curcumin, we are losing other beneficial components to the herb, and possibly are impacting absorption.
Third, in the world of medicine, we like to think that everything must be absorbed and maintain a steady blood or serum level in order to be effective. The reason we believe this or subscribe to this philosophy is that this is what we expect of our drugs. Give a medication by mouth and it has to be absorbed to impact a joint at a distant location. But this is not necessarily true. Research has indicated that after consumption of a curcumin extract, blood levels are very low, while levels remain high in the digestive tract, and moderate in the liver and kidney. The interesting part here is that based on research, patients find benefit in joint pain reduction after consumption. Now, how can this be if the blood levels are very low?? The explanation behind this phenomenon is cellular signaling and the interconnection between organ systems in the horse and your own body. If you can benefit the digestive tract, as an example, it is not uncommon then to have noted benefits in your horse’s joints, lungs, or even their mind. More on this to follow.
Fourth, when you look at herbs and past usage in alternative medicine, dosage and synergism must be kept in mind. For instance, in the average research trial, it is not uncommon to see patients using 500 -1000 mg per day of Curcumin, while if you look at herbal pharmacology texts, you will see that there are general recommendations for up to 10 grams per day, possibly higher. So, to conclude that an herb such as turmeric is ineffective when a person took 500 mg or a horse consumed 2000 mg is not necessarily true, as you can hopefully see that dosing is critical and can vary from patient to patient. Finally, in Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine, it is not common to utilize a single herb to assist a patient. Instead, what you will find is that most utilize several herbs in a blend, which may include curcumin, to assist that patient. This approach not only allows the herbalist to manage several issues with one formula, but also allows for synergism between herbs. This synergism effect may then allow for a reduction in the individual doses required.
Using Curcumin or Turmeric Properly in Your Horse
As a veterinarian, I understand the need and desire to overcome some health and lameness problems in your horse. I also understand the need and desire to reduce or eliminate medications. To me, as a health care provider for horse, herbs and nutrition are the only way to promote health and soundness for the long-term. The key here, when making a choice to utilize herbs, is to use them properly. This requires a certain level of understanding, which can be complex or very basic.
The ultimate question is whether or not turmeric or curcumin is effective in a horse, right? The answer is ‘yes’, it can be very effective, however, it must be used properly!
Clinical situations in the horse where turmeric or curcumin is beneficial:
- Joint related lameness (including back/SI concerns)
- Tendon related lameness
- Foot related lameness
- Digestive concerns
- Immune related inflammatory concerns
Let’s look at the nooks and crannies of turmeric and curcumin, in order to utilize this wonderful herb properly.
Curcumin and turmeric are both:
- Warming herbs
- Fat soluble
- Slightly drying to the body
- Mainly impact the digestive tract and liver
- May require higher doses
In seeing this, curcumin or turmeric may not be of benefit, especially if used alone or in high doses for a horse that is rather hot in nature or over-excited, or even prone to heat-exhaustion or anhidrosis. The reason being is that this herb can cause the body to become warmer, because this is its nature or energy. Now, this does not mean it cannot benefit that hot-natured horse or even the anhidrosis patient, but in those cases, synergism with other ‘cooler’ herbs would be of benefit.
Given that both turmeric and curcumin are fat soluble, it is ideal to either give with a meal that contains some fat (olive oil, flax etc.), or have the herb combined with volatile oils. The volatile oils are heavily overlooked in clinical usage and in our Cur-OST formulas, we add back in the volatile oils as part of the overall curcuminoid blend. This not only enhances absorption naturally, but the volatile oils also possess strong anti-inflammatory benefits themselves, adding synergism.
Turmeric and curcumin mainly impact the digestive tract, which is noted in research as higher levels of the curcuminoids are noted in fecal material. For some, this indicates that the herb is not absorbed, but to me as a researcher, it implies that the herb is impacting the digestive system, which is then connected to other organs. As an example, research has revealed to us the connection of mind and gut. If the mind is not well, the gut is impacted and vice versa. This is common in many mental or cognitive issues including anxiety and depression, not to mention Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Additionally, there is the concept of leaky-gut, leakage of LPS toxin, and generalized inflammation in the body. This generalized inflammation created as a result of a ‘gut issue’ then impacts your horse’s joints, lungs, immune response, eyes, tendons, hooves, tendons, and even their metabolic status. Thus, hopefully you can see that if you can improve the gut situation, the rest of the body may respond with improved health and balance. In research, it has been noted more recently that curcumin is acting at a ‘gut-level’ by impacting tight cell junctions, which are involved with the leaky-gut phenomenon. Considering this, it is then obvious that absorption of curcumin or turmeric may not be a real concern after all, because it is working at a ‘gut-level’. Interesting, as this is what has always been noted in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
In looking at curcumin absorption concerns, I have to look back to our original research study in 2006 in horses with arthritis. In that study, we used curcumin in combination with other synergistic herbs and noted moderate improvement in horses with joint pain after 30 days. Many came off of their oral medications or joint injections. Going beyond clinical improvement, joint inflammatory markers also decreased moderately, which coincided with the lameness improvement. Even more, we were unable to detect any curcuminoids in the serum or blood samples. So, if absorption was a concern, how do you explain the clinical improvement and reduction in inflammatory markers? The clinical improvement had to be via the gut effect, which is noted in more recent research.
Finally, turmeric and curcumin can be somewhat drying to your horse’s body. This means that if they have dry skin or very hard fecal balls, the herb could make matters worse. Dryness is also noted in cases where horses are hot-natured or even in anhidrosis. Does this mean turmeric or curcumin is not of benefit in those cases? Certainly not! It just means you need to combine with other cooling and moisturizing herbs for that synergistic effect in your horse.
Turmeric or Curcumin for Your Horse?
So, you’ve decided to give this herb a try in your horse, so which one? Do you use turmeric or a curcumin extract? That’s the ultimate question and is really dependent upon that which you are trying to manage in your horse. In traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, turmeric has always been the herb of choice. The reason being is that back in the day, they did not have the means to create concentrated extracts, so the whole herb was utilized. In current times, there are concentrated extracts available, which offer some benefit but may also have some pitfalls.
The ‘active’ chemicals, being the curcuminoids, are generally what you are after in terms of clinical benefits, so using a concentrated extract such as a 95% curcumin is a good choice. However, as noted above, there are other chemicals in turmeric which are also beneficial not just by themselves but may offer absorption enhancing properties. These include the essential and volatile oils. You will not get these in a 95% curcumin extract, but will find them in low natural levels in turmeric. As noted above, we do add the volatile oils back into our Cur-OST formulas, which provides additional benefits to the equine patient.
If you are seeking the curcuminoids, using a 95% extract will allow for a much lower dose. As an example, if you were desiring to give 5000 mg of curcuminoids per day to your horse, that would equate to about 5000 mg of a 95% curcumin extract or 100,000 grams of turmeric, considering a 5% natural curcumin concentration. That would be roughly 1 tablespoon of curcumin versus 1-2 cups of turmeric. Good luck getting your horse to eat that!
Taking this into consideration, dosage is critical. If you have a horse with little to no problems in regards to lameness or health, and are just desiring to promote continued health, then a lower dose of either curcumin or turmeric daily may be of benefit. However, if your horse has ongoing health or lameness issues, then a higher doses is needed. If our clinical experience, if curcumin is used properly with other herbs, a dose of 2000-3000 mg is functional for many horses, given once or twice daily. This is what is found in most of our general equine Cur-OST formulas. If the lameness or health issues are more severe in nature, the dose needs to rise, going as high as 30 grams twice daily in synergism with other herbs. In human research, the highest dose utilized for a curcumin extract has been around 10 grams daily with no noted side effects. This would equate to approximately 40 grams in the horse and likely could go higher if needed. This ‘high’ dosage is not atypical for herbs, let alone just curcumin or turmeric. This is how herbs have been used in the past and should be used currently. This escalation in dosage is what is noted in our Cur-OST EQ Pure and EQ Inflammend formulas.
Is cost and issue? Absolutely, but ultimately you have to ask yourself what you desire for your horse? If you are contending with a joint lameness or tendon problem that is not responding to therapy, and you are putting out hundreds of dollars monthly on medications, special shoes, or otherwise, then this ‘cost’ of curcumin is minimal and may actually save you hundreds in the long-term. The real benefit from my point of view, when using these herbs properly they benefit overall health, so in that long-term, the horse is much healthier, stronger, and more resilient. Thus, for most of those owners, they have little output in other therapies and the injury rate is much lower. Again, saving them money instead of costing them. Money can also be saved by properly creating formulas with synergism of herbs, which allows for reduction of dosages and also the ability to correct other issues which are present.
Does black-pepper need to be used for better absorption of curcumin? The short answer here is ‘no’, it is not necessary. This is a long held belief and is really unfounded, but despite has gained a tremendous following. Black pepper and a few other herbs are known to impact an enzyme in the liver referred to as cytochrome P450, which is involved with chemical breakdown. When medications and some herbal chemicals are absorbed, they go to the liver naturally, and the liver may inactivate or break them down via this enzyme. Thus, if you slow down or block that enzyme, it could improve blood levels. Does black pepper do this? Yes, but not as much as what you are led to believe and not for as long as you are told. Black pepper used with curcumin can increase levels marginally and only for about 1-3 hours, then the levels fall. So, again, it goes to show that it is quite possible that curcumin was never meant to be absorbed beyond what we see naturally and that it is working in your horse on a ‘gut-level’. Traditionally speaking, black pepper was used with turmeric not for absorption enhancement, but more so because black pepper also has anti-inflammatory properties, thus creating synergism. Do we use black pepper in our horses or formulas with curcumin? The answer is ‘no’, as this has not demonstrated any benefit and can be of harm in some horses due to the nature or energy of black pepper.
Turmeric or curcumin can be very effective in the horse when properly utilized. The more you understand, the more effective strategies can be in assisting you to accomplish your health goals in your horse.
- Understanding benefits and types of curcumin
- Understanding Curcumin and Impact for Your Horse
- Curcumin Bioavailability and Absorption
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN