Patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis may welcome anything that brings relief. “When you’re incredible pain, you’re willing to take more risks,” observed Janet Funk, MD, associate professor, department of medicine, University of Arizona. At Funk’s lab, researchers are looking at whether turmeric supplements are a non-risky adjunct to traditional prescription anti-inflammatory medications. The jury’s still out but so far, it looks promising.
Turmeric has been used for centuries as an anti-inflammatory. Currently, it’s the number one selling herb in health food stores. There was antidotal evidence it was helpful for arthritis patients but no hard evidence to back it up. The University of Arizona had received an NIH-funded botanical research grant to explore turmeric in relation to rheumatoid arthritis. Funk explained, “We wanted to see not only if it worked, but how much.”
They started with animal models to determine which turmeric compounds were most effective as anti-inflammatories. When those results were promising, they opened a clinical study in human subjects to continue the research. The scientists intend to use this small trial to lay the groundwork for a larger, m more comprehensive study. Funk and her colleagues chose the turmeric supplement formula they believed would provide the most effective arthritis treatment.
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Turmeric blocks transcription factors, proteins that stimulate the production of inflammatory responses. The body must metabolize it in a certain way to make it effective. “The cool thing about plants is that they make these compounds that aren’t beneficial to themselves,” observed Funk. Instead, turmeric and many other botanicals have properties only useful to people.
Previous studies found turmeric supplements were just as beneficial as prescription pain medications in osteoarthritis patients. However, Funk cautioned that typically, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are not enough for people with rheumatoid arthritis. She guesses that turmeric supplements will most likely benefit RA sufferers as an adjunct to their traditional prescriptions.
“The main purpose [of the clinical trial] is to make sure it’s safe in people with RA because they take other medications. Botanicals are notorious for interacting with other drugs,” noted Funk.
Side Effects Ahead
She continued, “Plants in general can interact with medicine in two ways. They can have the same effect, so you can overdose. They can change the metabolism, so you either have too much or too little of the drug.” The University of Arizona study is looking at two relatively high doses of turmeric. At that upper end of the spectrum, how safe is it?
Turmeric supplements have long been used as an OTC remedy for arthritis pain. As with any supplement, side effects are inevitable. A small number of people have reported, most commonly, liver enzyme elevation, yellow stools and gastrointestinal upset. When purchasing turmeric supplements from health food stores, sometimes the amount of turmeric in each dose is not correctly labeled. “We don’t know the effective dose,” Funk admitted.
“I’m making it my mission to educate people about supplements. People have a misconception that just because something is natural, it’s safe.” She continued, “If something is strong enough to have a good effect on the body, it can also have a bad effect.”
Nurses play an important role in educating patients about the effects of turmeric and other supplements. They can listen and be accessible during medical histories. Patients will share their current prescriptions but often forget to mention any herbs or vitamins or supplements they also take. “Since nurses spend more time with patients, they are the ones to best elicit that history,” said Funk.
With all supplements, “Being an educated consumer is always good,” noted Funk. Her lab is still evaluating the relationship between turmeric and rheumatoid arthritis but so far, the interplay has shown promise.
Danielle Bullen is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: [email protected]