Turmeric or Curcumin: What is the Difference and Which is Better? - Vital Plan

Turmeric or Curcumin: What is the Difference and Which is Better?

Special thanks to Vital Plan Support staff member, Paulette Angela Bennett, for her herbal expertise and contributions to this article.

If you’ve ever looked for a natural solution to reduce joint pain and inflammation, you were likely recommended turmeric, also often referred to as curcumin. But are turmeric supplements and curcumin supplements the same thing? And are joint issues the only thing they help? More importantly, is one better than the other?

If these questions (and others) crossed your mind, you’re not alone. Read on for answers, plus learn more about the benefits and uses of turmeric and curcumin and how to choose between the two.

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric, Curcuma longa, is a flowering tropical plant belonging to the Zingiberaceae family — the same family of plants as ginger. The rhizome (rootstalk) has been used as a food, culinary spice, dye, and medicine in India, China, and Southeast Asia for nearly 4000 years. Its taste is slightly bitter, earthy, and pungent.1 It has a vibrant yellow-orange color and is one of the primary ingredients in curry.

For millennia, turmeric has been used in medicinal herbal preparations as prevention and support for a range of health issues, including digestion, liver and gallbladder issues, joint discomfort, respiratory conditions, cognitive health, and general pain and inflammation.1

As one of the most studied herbs we have, research reveals that much of turmeric’s power is thanks to a blend of powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.

Turmeric root with curry powder on old wooden background

Turmeric rhizome (rootstalk) may be powdered and used as a spice or extracted to concentrate the therapeutic qualities for more medicinal purposes.

Turmeric can be grown in most tropical regions of the world, however India is the largest producer of turmeric and is regarded by many as one of the best sources due to its high content of curcumin, the phytochemical (bioactive plant compound) that are responsible for its bright yellow color.3

What’s a Phytochemical?

Phytochemicals are specialized, bioactive compounds found in plants and herbs that serve a useful purpose for the plant and, by extension, the humans or animals who consume them. Phytochemicals you may already be familiar with are resveratrol from grapes and Japanese knotweed, allicin from garlic, and cannabidiol from hemp.

Phytochemicals are becoming more and more sparse in the foods we eat so getting them from herbs is all the more important! More on that story here.

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbs like turmeric contain many different phytochemical compounds, and each one contributes something unique to the overall effect of the herb. Examples include:

  • Turmerones which protect the liver
  • Phellandrene which is antimicrobial
  • Sabinene and zingiberene which combat ulcers
  • Elemene and germacrone which have antitumor activity.
  • Flavonoids and carotenoids that are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory

This is why it’s possible for an herb to affect so many different aspects of our health at the same time. The spectrum of phytochemicals found in turmeric contribute a complimentary and wide array of benefits including:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antitumor*
  • Antimicrobial (antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal)
  • Antiulcer
  • Antispasmodic
  • Antioxidant
  • Liver protective
  • Maintains healthy blood sugar levels
  • Promotes digestion of fats
  • Enhances normal bowel motility
  • Calms an overactive immune response without suppressing the immune system (think allergies)
  • Enhances blood flow to the brain and cognitive function such as memory and focus
  • Reduces the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain (amyloid plaques are linked to Alzheimer’s disease but not necessarily a cause)*
  • Decreases pain

*Preliminary research

Key Herbal Concept

It’s important to note that the actions and benefits listed above shouldn’t be expected, and aren’t intended, to be as forceful as pharmaceutical drugs which are designed to have a single, targeted heroic effect. On the other hand, turmeric does not come with the same potential for side effects when compared to most drugs. Herbs work very differently than drugs. “Everyday herbs,” such as turmeric, work best when they’re used in larger doses for a prolonged period of time. During this time the array of phytochemicals in turmeric do a sophisticated dance of fine-tuning and restoring numerous systems in the body — and providing cumulative relief for a variety of symptoms.

There are extracts of whole turmeric known as full-spectrum extracts that extract practically all of the therapeutic phytochemicals found in turmeric and thus represent the “full spectrum” (rather than just a subset) of the plant’s medicinal qualities.

What is Curcumin?

Curcumin (aka diferuloylmethane) is one of a group of three major curcuminoids. It is just 1 of the 100+ phytochemicals that can be extracted from turmeric. On average, about 3.14% of the whole herb of turmeric powder is curcumin.2

turmeric curcumin powder in spoon with molecular formula above

Curcumin: one of the most well-known and potent phytochemicals found in turmeric.

Curcumin was once thought to be the solo star player in turmeric, so it’s been studied a great deal. While research confirmed that it’s indeed a powerhouse compound, it also revealed a fatal flaw: isolated curcumin extracts are poorly absorbed and very quickly excreted from the body. In an effort to enhance absorption, curcumin products are often sold with binders such as phosphatidylcholine (PC-lecithin) or combined with black pepper extract (such as piperine or Bioperine®). While these approaches certainly help, there are some drawbacks, which we’ll address below.

Since curcumin is found in turmeric, it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that it provides some similar benefits like inhibiting oxidative cell damage, protecting the liver, reducing the incidence of obesity, and so on.7

Why Curcumin is Only Part of the Picture

Isolated curcumin may have more potent effects as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent however, it’s missing out on some of the broader benefits found in whole turmeric extracts. We don’t know how every single phytochemical works yet, but we do know that they often work in complementary ways — a synergy of phytochemicals not available when we isolate just one of them such as curcumin.

In addition, taking curcumin with whole turmeric can enhance bioavailability thanks to the other phytochemicals found in turmeric. This is, afterall, closer to how curcumin naturally occurs in nature and the way humans have benefited from turmeric for centuries — amidst a complex matrix of other phytochemicals.

Take a look at the chart below to see how the two compare and where whole turmeric has the edge.

Liver protective
Maintains healthy blood sugar levels
Promotes digestion of fats
Enhances normal bowel motility
Calms an overactive immune responses
Enhances cognitive function such as memory and focus
Reduces pain (mildly)
x No activity, ✓ Active, ✓✓ Stronger

Additionally, emerging research suggests that both turmeric and curcumin may have antitumor and antimutagenic properties.11,12,13,14 Note that this does not indicate that turmeric or curcumin can or should be used as a primary cancer treatment. Instead, the terms antitumor and antimutagenic simply point to clinical research and epidemiological data that suggest turmeric and curcumin may regress tumor growth at some level.

Given the very low incidence of negative side-effects of using these herbs when used appropriately, it seems reasonable for most people to consume turmeric regularly for its cancer-fighting properties. More research is needed on this topic as well as the potential use of turmeric for reducing toxicity associated with most conventional cancer treatments. Always work with your healthcare provider to help guide your treatment plan.

A Full-Spectrum Turmeric Extract Covers All Your Bases

Bottom line: To get all-around robust support for all the issues mentioned above while maximizing synergy and absorption of curcumin, using a full-spectrum turmeric extract standardized to at least 40 percent curcumin gives you the best of both worlds. We recommend 250 – 500 mg two to four times daily depending on the desired level of support.

orange turmeric capsules and powder on spoon

Full-spectrum turmeric extracts may be extracted and taken as a tincture or dried to produce a powdered extract with the concentrated properties of turmeric that may then be encapsulated.

This gives you the potency of high concentrations of curcumin, delivered amidst the natural matrix of whole turmeric that improves absorption and delivers the other benefits unique to whole turmeric. One such turmeric extract that we have found to meet all of these specifications is called Acumin® (also marketed under the name Cureit®.)

Making Your Tumeric Supplement Count

Whether you end up using turmeric or curcumin, to have a significant impact on a given health concern, it is important to take a therapeutic dose consistently. For best results, we typically recommend taking it for at least 3–6-months, but many people start seeing some benefits with a few days of use, especially if — you incorporate diet and lifestyle adjustments as well.

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1. Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Turmeric, the Golden Spice: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 13. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/
2. Sangeeta, Anita Sharma. Sept-Oct 2014. The Amazing Pharmacological Properties of Haridra – A Short Review. Ayushdhara. VOL. 1. Issue 1. Pages 27-31. https://core.ac.uk/reader/333809357
3. Fostoc, G., Muresan, A.E., et all. 02 Jan 2020. Hop and Medicinal Plants. ISSN 2360-0179 print. ISSN 2360-0187 electronic. https://core.ac.uk/reader/386166617
4. Cikrikci, S., Mozioglu, E., Yilmaz, H. 2008. Biological Activity of Curcuminoids Isolated from Cucuma longa. Published by Academy of Chemistry of Globe Publications 04/28/2008. Directory of Open Access Journals: https://core.ac.uk/reader/27135449
5. Supardjan A. M. 2001. Chemical Content of Turmeric; Curcumin And Its Derivatives. Majalah Farmasti Indonesia. Open Journal Systems. Accessed from: https://core.ac.uk/reader/304719461
6. McQuade,R. M. 2015. The Therapeutic Role of Turmeric in Treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. Selected Honors Theses. Page 23.
7. Chatterjee, b., Modi, K., Patel, T. 2015. Curcumin – Health Promise for The Future. International Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Research. ISSN: 2395-0417. Accessed online: 92-Article Text-179-2-10-20190106.pdf
8. Chattopadhyay, I., Biswas, B., Bandyopadhyay, U., et al. 10 July 2004. Turmeric and curcumin: Biological actions and medicinal applications. Current Science. VOL. 87, NO. 1. https://core.ac.uk/reader/148351548
9.Winston, D. 1999-2019. Ayurvedic Materia Medica. David Winston’s School of Herbal Studies.
10. Ahaotu, E.O. and Lawal, M. 2019. Determination of Proximate and Minerals Content of Turmeric (Curcuma longa Linn) Leaves and Rhizomes. Journal of Food, Nutrition and Packaging. Volume 06. Pages 01-04. Jakraya.com/journal/pdf/6-jfnpArticle_1.pdf
11. Mansouri, K., Rasoulpoor, S., Daneshkhah, A. et al. Clinical effects of curcumin in enhancing cancer therapy: A systematic review. BMC Cancer 20, 791 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12885-020-07256-8
12. Giordano, A., & Tommonaro, G. (2019). Curcumin and Cancer. Nutrients, 11(10), 2376. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11102376
13. Tomeh, M. A., Hadianamrei, R., & Zhao, X. (2019). A Review of Curcumin and Its Derivatives as Anticancer Agents. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(5), 1033. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20051033
14. Nair A, Amalraj A, Jacob J, Kunnumakkara AB, Gopi S. Non-Curcuminoids from Turmeric and Their Potential in Cancer Therapy and Anticancer Drug Delivery Formulations. Biomolecules. 2019; 9(1):13. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom9010013

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