Turmeric and curcumin are two popular terms when it comes to herbs and health in the horse, which are really almost one in the same. We may know about the health benefits noted in research, focusing on inflammation reduction, and have heard on the news or in social media outlets, but do we truly understand what all of that means? Should we use these herbs and if so, in what form or even combinations? Is there a difference between the different types and how can using them benefit my horse?
Inflammation is a concept that we have talked about in online articles, social media outlets and in phone calls or emails for many years. It has been a sole focus of our research, and as a veterinarian, it is a primary area of focus to promote health, soundness and recovery in my patients. When it comes to most of the problems and issues we are contending with in horses, we are dealing with inflammation and the byproducts of that process. Whether if we are managing joint lameness, tendon injuries, metabolic disease, allergies, or even uveitis, inflammation is at the root.
Considering the impact of inflammation, it then becomes the ideal target of therapy!
What’s In Turmeric?
Turmeric is the mother root, derived from Curcuma longa, and contains upwards of 235 active compounds. As a whole, turmeric has been shown to demonstrate antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, healing and even mental health benefits. Many of the 295 active compounds present in turmeric have shown benefit towards these parameters, but we tend to focus often on one group, generally referred to as ‘curcumin’. Turmeric contains about 2-5% curcumin based on weight, with the other 95-98% being ‘other’ active ingredients, including volatile oils.
Most supplements on the market utilize curcumin extracts, generally 95%, which are really comprised of a blend of curcuminoids, including: curcumin, demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin.
Is Absorption of Curcumin a Concern?
Research and many articles raise the concern over absorption of curcumin, indicating that low blood levels are achieved and, therefore, it is likely of no clinical value. This is not really the truth, if we dig deeper. Turmeric and curcumin are both fat soluble, very similar to some vitamins, so fat needs to be present in order to enhance absorption. If we look at turmeric, as the whole root, it naturally contains upwards of 1.5% volatile or essential oils, which are likely present naturally to enhance absorption and other benefits.
In other studies, they see the answer as being the addition or combination of curcumin with piperine or black pepper, which alters liver metabolism and can therefore alter absorption of herbs and even some medications. Although this is true, if we compare blood levels between piperine-curcumin and plain curcumin groups, blood levels are not significantly enhanced. If they are elevated, it is not huge and those levels only hang around for a short period of time. So, we have to ask if that is truly the answer?
In our clinical studies, using a 95% curcumin extract combined with other herbs, we note significant improvement clinical in equine patients, reduction of inflammatory proteins in arthritic joints, but yet, have low blood levels. Here is a link to our original study on curcumin. Based on prior researcher’s point of view, this cannot be possible as low blood levels equates to lack of efficacy. Well…not true. Something else is happening.
My personal opinion is that curcumin or turmeric is acting via a ‘gut’ level, impacting inflammation within the GI tract, which then impacts cellular signaling and the entire body. Based on research, we see that curcumin tends to have the highest levels in the liver, GI tract and kidneys…so this makes sense. I also question what value comes with synergism with other herbs, not so much on improving bioavailability, but on overall ‘bang for the buck’ type of impact. Does curcumin combined with boswellia, as an example, provide more results than just curcumin alone? My experience tells me the answer to that question is ‘yes’ and as we look back on centuries of use, most herbs are not used as stand alone therapies. More so, they are combined with many others, often in complex formulations.
In the end, I do not believe that absorption is a concern as clinical results go against this thought process. I do however, believe that the type of curcumin utilized, along with dose, can either make or break you regarding overall efficacy and results.
What form of curcumin is ideal?
That is a good question and I’m not sure that anyone has the definite answer. I do believe that with more time, we gain more insight, not just from research but from clinical experience.
Turmeric is the ‘mother’ root and as mentioned, contains over 235 active compounds, with many demonstrating antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer type of properties. We tend to just focus on the curcuminoids, but research is telling us there is more to the story. The ‘curcumin free turmeric’ portion may actually be a very beneficial component. As the saying goes, the parts may not be as good as the whole…or something along those lines.
I really like the 95% curcumin extract and have used this for years in our patients, as a part of a ‘greater’ blend, combined with other herbs. As mentioned, turmeric and curcumin are fat soluble, so intake of fat is optimal to improve absorption. In reality, if we take the herbs with food or a meal, likely we will impact absorption, especially when consumed with grains, flax or other ‘fat’ supplements. Knowing this, when using the 95% extract alone, we will combine it with a few other similar herbs to boost benefit, but also to improve fat in the supplement regimen. One herb is flax seed powder, which not only helps with absorption, but by itself has some medicinal value.
In our Cur-OST formulas, we utilize a 95% curcumin extract, but add back in the volatile oils. These oils not only help to enhance absorption, but clinical research demonstrates that they contain some potent medicinal value by themselves. So, by using this blend, which are getting the benefits of synergism, combining a few aspects of the mother root.
Turmeric, by itself, is interesting and as noted above, has numerous active compounds. In some of our equine formulas, we actually will combine turmeric with the curcuminoid blend and volatile oils, to further add synergism. I find this often provides the highest level of benefit for the patient. The main problem with using turmeric by itself is dosing and volume. If we wanted to dose 10 grams of curcumin, we could easily do this through using a curcumin extract. If we wanted to get this dose via turmeric, then the dose would be around 200 grams, which is too high in volume. So, synergy is likely the best option we have to obtain benefits.
Based on more recent research, Turmeric may actually hold more answers than through using of isolated concentrated extracts, such as Curcumin. In our most recent research, we have been focusing on a powdered Turmeric Oleoresin extract, which contains not only the benefits of whole-Turmeric, but also is composed of a higher level of Curcumin than normal Turmeric products and has upwards of 23% natural volatile oils. This Turmeric Oleoresin extract, when combined with Curcumin, has actually yielded a higher level of improvement clinically in many of our equine patients and stands to be a more economical option, even at higher dosing schedules.
How can turmeric or curcumin help my horse with inflammation?
The list here is long and essentially, we are using this herb in the horse for its ability to provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection. Almost every health condition in the horse, from joints to allergies, is involving inflammation to some extent. Horses develop joint disease due to uncontrolled inflammation, which often leads to ongoing medical intervention and high costs for veterinary care, even sometimes resulting in careers ending. So, inflammation is our target not to just manage conditions but also to intervene on a preventative level.
Turmeric or curcumin is one of the most heavily researched herbs, when it comes to inflammation and oxidative stress. When we look at research, the sky is the limit as to the potential when it comes to health and soundness. Honestly, sometimes I wonder “what can’t we impact?”
The impact is real, but many are misled as to how to use the herb to achieve those results in the horse.
- First, we have to realize that no two horses’ situations are the same. Inflammation levels will be different and therefore, the need for proper dosing is critical and can vary from one horse to the next. Human studies indicate improvements noted in patients in doses upwards of 8000 mg. When we convert this to horses, that dose can be upwards of 35 grams per day. This can become cost prohibitive, not to mention volume prohibitive. Thus, we need to rely on synergism to boost benefits and lower doses.
- Second, many tend to believe that turmeric or curcumin used alone will produce results. In some cases, I think it is possible, but when we look at traditional usage, we see that it is often combined with other herbs to enhance results. I think this is true and we’ve demonstrated it for over 13 years in patients, finding that combining of herbs, such as Boswellia and even other antioxidants, helps to enhance results.
In the end, turmeric and curcumin is an incredible herb and one that has benefited horses afflicted with a variety of conditions. Despite seeing the numerous benefits of turmeric/curcumin, we do have to realize that it is not a panacea for all conditions. It can and does benefit all horses, but some conditions require the addition of other herbs to enhance results. This is why we have and use various formulas, dependent on the problems impacting that patient.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN