Each year, millions of Americans struggle to lose weight. Unfortunately, that weight loss can be elusive. In a culture in which stressful lifestyles, limited physical activity, and a plethora of high-calorie food options are common, people’s health takes a back seat more often than not. Indeed, even a vigorous exercise routine may not be enough to make up for the hours spent sedentary and many face significant internal and external barriers to eating a healthy, calorie-appropriate diet. Comorbid health conditions can also interfere with weight loss, diminishing the impact of even strict adherence to typically effective strategies. As a result, patients are left to cope with not only the elevated physical health risks of excess weight, but, often, significant psychological ramifications such as low self-esteem, poor body image, depression, and anxiety.
Considering the difficulties patients have with weight loss and the consequences of excess weight, the availability of a safe, effective, and highly tolerable weight loss aid would be invaluable. Unfortunately, patients are often skeptical about new weight loss techniques. This is understandable; the fad diets, supplements, and new exercise routines that are constantly making the rounds often fail to live up to their promise. Some are even dangerous. However, many patients have simply not been able to adhere to or seen meaningful results from even sensible weight loss plans in the past, making them reluctant to try again. This is particularly true for patients who have metabolic disorders that make some weight loss strategies, like fasting, non-viable and limit the efficacy of otherwise safe and reliable methods. Now, however, patients—including those with metabolic disorders—may be able to enhance weight loss safely and effectively thanks to a chemical compound called curcumin.
Curcumin Facilitates Weight Loss in Patients With Metabolic Disorders
A growing body of evidence suggests that curcumin, a natural polyphenol derived from turmeric, can potentially act as an effective weight loss aid. Indeed, as a safe, natural, and well-tolerated product, curcumin may be a simple and low-risk way of adding a boost to the rest of a weight loss routine for virtually anyone looking to shed the pounds. But curcumin’s most effective and exciting clinical niche is more focused than general weight loss thanks to the physiological levers which it can engage. Specifically, curcumin may help people with metabolic disorders, who face unique physiological barriers to weight loss, drop excess weight.
The reason curcumin may prompt weight loss is that it decreases the efficiency with which cells process nutrients, causing them to produce a smaller balance of chemical energy per unit of food. With a smaller balance of chemical energy, the body needs to break into its reserves of fat to provide enough chemical energy to keep essential cells in operation, thereby burning body fat. But there is also a second mechanism at work: reducing insulin resistance. When cells are insulin resistant, they don’t consume normal amounts of food energy, nor do they release normal amounts of chemical energy for other tissues to utilize. By reducing insulin resistance and restoring physiological stability, curcumin enables patients’ cells to process more nutrients. When more nutrients than normal are internalized by the cell and subsequently processed inefficiently, the patient experiences weight loss more readily. For patients who struggle with being overweight and have a metabolic disorder, curcumin can be a life-altering—and even life-saving—treatment.
In 2015, Drs. Pierro, Giacomelli, and Bertuccioli were the first to show that curcumin can be an effective weight loss aid in people with metabolic syndrome who have been resistant to other weight loss interventions. In a study published by the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, the researchers examined a cohort of 44 subjects who had a metabolic syndrome, such as type II diabetes. After recruiting the initial cohort, the patients were subjected to what the researchers characterized as a standard weight loss regimen appropriate for obese individuals with metabolic syndromes. This regimen included exercise, lifestyle counseling, and nutrient restriction. After patients had been on this weight loss regimen for 30 days, the researchers measured their weight and other anthropometrics like hip circumference, thigh circumference, and BMI. Using the information derived from their measurements, the researchers then selected only the patients who did not respond to the standard weight loss regimen; not responding to the regimen was defined as experiencing less than two percent drop in their body weight over the course of the weight loss program. These non-responding patients were then used as the seed for the trial’s cohort.
The non-responders were split into two equally sized groups, with one group receiving curcumin therapy and the other receiving a sham therapy of a phosphatidylserine supplement. Phosphatidylserine is a biological molecule which is used to make pharmaceutical products bioavailable, including the curcumin used in the trial. Because the curcumin supplement used in the trial was encapsulated in phosphatidylserine, any weight loss observed in the curcumin group could be attributed to curcumin itself rather than the encapsulant. Patients in both the control group and the curcumin therapy group received lifestyle counseling regarding dietary choices and began another round of the standard weight loss regimen while taking either the curcumin supplement or the sham supplement. While complicated, the researchers’ experimental setup paid off after 30 days, at the conclusion of the study.
Indeed, the results were remarkable. The most important finding was that patients who were resistant to other weight loss methods benefitted from curcumin therapy; in fact, patients universally benefitted from curcumin therapy where other weight loss regimens like exercise programs had failed to show any significant benefit. However, the extent to which the patients benefited from curcumin therapy varied substantially. At a minimum, the curcumin patients lost 1.88% of their body weight over the course of the 30-day trial, whereas the sham supplement patients lost an average of 0% body weight. At a maximum, the curcumin patients lost 4.91% of their body mass. For someone who weighs 300 lbs, this means that curcumin caused them to lose between 5.64 and 14.73 lbs, an impressive yet comfortable amount if it could be maintained over the course of a few months. Importantly, the amount of weight loss in the curcumin group was well within the range of the safe rate of weight loss.
For weight loss metrics like hip circumference, the differences between strong responders and weak responders were even more pronounced. The strongest responders experienced a 2.51% reduction to their hip circumference, whereas the weakest barely broke 0.7%; in informal terms, the high end of the range equates to dropping one pants size over the course of a month. BMI was similarly variable, with the strongest responders experiencing a 6.43% reduction in contrast with the 2.10% of the weakest responders. The massive variability in the curcumin therapy response means that patients should not be dissuaded from experimenting if they read about other patients who report poor results. Likewise, patients will need to view curcumin as a weight loss aid rather than a panacea. Approaching weight loss from multiple angles will remain necessary, as will a sustained commitment. However, the fact that all subjects in the curcumin treatment group lost weight despite the fact that they had been unable to lose significant weight using conventional methods alone should give hope to those struggling with metabolic disorders, which often interfere with even the most tried and true weight loss methods.
The Consensus in Favor of Curcumin Is Building
While curcumin is in clinical trials with human cohorts, researchers are left to pore over animal studies for further clues about the efficacy of curcumin and what aspect to study next. One such animal study found that obese mice who were fed curcumin over the course of 8 weeks were 10% lighter than obese mice who were not fed curcumin, and higher doses of curcumin appeared to correspond to lower body weights in the obese mice. Importantly, the study also showed that curcumin reduced the impact of being overweight; in mice and also in humans, the concentration of triglyceride molecules in the blood plasma is viewed as a risk factor for atherosclerosis and other forms of heart disease. In the study, researcher found that while the control mice had plasma triglyceride levels nearly three times those of healthy mice, the levels in the mice that received curcumin were similar to their healthy counterparts.
The results of this study and other animal studies indicate that curcumin can have significant benefits. A more recent review of curcumin’s use as a weight loss aid supports this conclusion, pointing to a handful of preliminary studies on curcumin for weight loss with positive results. Nonetheless, without extensive human clinical trials, the animal studies are far from enough to establish curcumin as a clinical standard for weight loss. Promising results are still subject to replication by other researchers as well as elaboration regarding biochemical mechanisms. Likewise, scientists are using the earlier animal studies to synthesize new perspectives on how curcumin works and where it can work the best.
While more definitive answers are forthcoming, patients who struggle with losing weight may want to incorporate highly bioavailable curcumin supplements in their weight loss efforts now, particularly if they experience a metabolic disorder. Most patients find curcumin easy to tolerate, and the only commonly reported side effects are transient nausea and diarrhea when patients take too large of a dose. Despite the remaining scientific questions regarding how best to use curcumin for losing weight, the advanced curcumin supplements on the market today can potentially be a critical part of helping patients achieve their goals and protect their health.
Di Pierro F, Bressan A, Ranaldi D, Rapacioli G, Giacomelli L, et al. 2015. Potential role of bioavailable curcumin in weight loss and omental adipose tissue decrease: preliminary data of a randomized, controlled trial in overweight people with metabolic syndrome; preliminary study. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences 19:4195-4202. http://www.naturalhealthresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Curcumin-Reduces-Adipose-Tissue-and-Aids-Weight-Loss.pdf
Jin T, Song Z, Weng J, Fantus IG. 2018. Curcumin and other dietary polyphenols: potential mechanisms of metabolic actions and therapy for diabetes and obesity. American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism. 314(3):E201-E205. https://www.physiology.org/doi/10.1152/ajpendo.00285.2017
Kuo JJ, Chang HH, Tsai TH, and Lee TY. 2012. Positive effect of curcumin on inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction in obese mice with liver steatosis. International Journal of Molecular Medicine. 30(3):673-679. https://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijmm/30/3/673?text=fulltext#f1-ijmm-30-03-0673
Nelson K, Dahlin J, Bisson J, Graham J, Pauli G, et al. 2017. The essential medicinal chemistry of curcumin. Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. 60(5):1620-1637. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jmedchem.6b00975
Wilken R, Veena MS, Wang MB, Srivatsan ES. 2011. Curcumin: a review of anti-cancer properties and therapeutic activity in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Molecular Cancer.10(12). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21299897