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Turmeric: Can The Mighty Spice Benefit Athletic Performance?

By Eric Madrid MD 

In 490 BC, Pheidippides ran 26 miles (40 Km) to Athens to report news of a battle victory in the town of Marathon. 2,500 years later, thousands of marathons are held yearly worldwide. Some of the most popular include The International Marathon of Marrakech, Tokyo Marathon, Kilimanjaro Marathon, Rome Marathon, and the Boston Marathon. 

While a small percentage of people run marathons during their lifetime, millions of other people lift weights, jog, perform strenuous physical activity, or even compete in competitive sports. 

Finding a safe natural way to help optimize physical performance while reducing risk for injury is key. Turmeric may be an herb that can help one achieve this goal.

What is Turmeric?

Turmeric, also known as Curcuma longa and Indian saffron, is a rooted plant of the ginger family, often consumed for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and digestive health benefits. Curcumin, a phenolic chemical found in turmeric, is believed to provide many of the health benefits. The terms Turmeric and Curcumin are often used interchangeably.

Today, Turmeric’s use continues to be researched as an alternative treatment approach for many common illnesses, injuries, arthritis- and now, athletic enhancement.

Over the years, I have recommended turmeric to patients as a first-line approach for joint inflammation, or arthritis. The results have been great. Many patients have reported to me that they have been able to reduce their prescription pain medications. 

The History of Turmeric

In Indian culture, practitioners of the ancient Ayurvedic medicine have recommended herbs and minerals as sources of medicinal healing. Turmeric, in paste form, was applied on the skin for a multitude of conditions. Though clinical trials on the use of turmeric for these purposes are limited, modern practitioners of Ayurveda still recognize that over the past 3,000 years, turmeric has anecdotally provided symptomatic relief and still continues to do so.

Traditional Chinese medicine’s use of turmeric or jiang huang involved its perceived effect of being able to move a person’s “qi” or vital energy. 

Recently, the use of turmeric as an integrative approach to treating medical problems has gained popularity. As a matter of fact, Turmeric has been one of the Top 10 herbs consumed worldwide for the last several years. 

How Does Turmeric Benefit Athletes? 

A May 2020 study in The European Journal of Applied Physiology evaluated 28 healthy men who were runners. Half the runners were given 1,500 mg of curcumin per day while the other half were given a placebo pill. 

The supplements were taken daily starting 4 weeks before their half-marathon event. Runners had their baseline Interleukin 10 and myoglobin blood levels measured. Strenuous exercise causes inflammation in the body. Finding ways to reduce this inflammation can be beneficial and may help improve muscle recovery. 

Interleukin 10 (IL -10) is also known as human cytokine synthesis inhibitory factor (CSIF). IL-10 is an anti-inflammatory chemical. That is, when present in the blood, IL-10 can help reduce inflammation in the body, which can benefit sore muscles and help recovery. 

The second thing measured was Myoglobin, a muscle protein. Normally, after extreme physical exertion (running, weight lifting, etc.), one will have increased destruction of muscle proteins, as indicated by elevated myoglobin levels in the blood. Turmeric may help reduce this!

Those who took the curcumin were found to have less muscle destruction, or lower myoglobin levels, two hours after the race when compared to those who took the placebo pill. 

The scientists concluded that turmeric supplementation leads to an increase in IL-10, which reduced inflammation and a decrease in blood myoglobin, indicating less muscle damage in those recreational half-marathon runners. These findings are not only unique to runners but also to anyone else who routinely exercises. It has been suggested that turmeric may help provide a competitive edge. Suggested dose: 500 mg capsules up to three times daily or 1,500 mg once per day. Turmeric is also available as a hot tea. 

References:

  1. Faria FR, Gomes AC, Antunes A, et al. Effects of turmeric extract supplementation on inflammation and muscle damage after a half-marathon race: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 2. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2020;10.1007/s00421-020-04385-7. doi:10.1007/s00421-020-04385-7

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