There are headaches, and then there are migraine headaches. If you're unlucky enough to be one of the more than 39 million people in the US who suffer from the latter, then you know the difference all too well. Migraines, which are typically felt as a throbbing or pulsating pain on one side of the brain at a time, can be accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, blurred vision, and vomiting. These extreme versions of headaches can last anywhere from four to 72 hours.
For migraine sufferers, symptoms like these can be so severe that 91 percent of them have reported missing work, and more than half have said they've had to place themselves on bed rest, or otherwise restrict their activity, when a migraine strikes, according to a study on the prevalence and burden of migraines in the United States, published in 2001.
If you're a woman, your odds of having to deal with these symptoms go up, according to the US National Library of Medicine's National Institutes of Health (NIH). Studies show that 25 out of 100 women will experience a migraine at some point in their life, the NIH states in its migraine overview. In another publication from 2011, the NIH also cites data that up to 18 percent of all women, compared to six to eight percent of men, experience recurring migraines. That's a lot of women, in a lot of pain, a lot of the time.
At POPSUGAR, its part of our job to make sure you know about all of the ways you can fight this debilitating headache disorder. One possibility that's come to our attention is a supplement called turmeric curcumin. Taken in supplement form, this derivative of turmeric root may be able to prevent and counteract some of the worst symptoms associated with migraines. We talked with two doctors about what's known and what's not when it comes to this option for treatment.
First of All, What Is Turmeric Curcumin (and Turmeric and Curcumin)?
Turmeric is a plant that is part of the ginger family and is found in southern Asia. Its root is commonly ground up and used as a spice, which is probably how most have heard of it. The spice, as often used in the US, is what gives curry its yellow color.
Curcumin is found in the turmeric plant and consequently in the spice that is derived from its root. It's generally thought to be the main active element in turmeric. It may or may not also work in conjunction with other curcuminoids to produce whatever effect they may have. As far as health benefits go, if they exist in turmeric, curcumin is where it's at.
To make matters more confusing, supplement derivatives of this plant has been marketed in a few different ways. You may have seen a version of it on the shelf at your local supplement shop, labeled as turmeric curcumin, or it might have been labeled as turmeric or only as curcumin.
So if you're trying to treat a migraine, which one should you grab?
Dr. Lauren Green, doctor of osteopathy and registered dietitian at USC Keck Medicine in Los Angeles, said if you're trying to treat some sort of ailment, stick with what's labeled as curcumin.
Turmeric isn't absorbed well, she said, and by extension, neither is the curcumin in it.
"If it's labeled at turmeric, there's really no way of knowing how much curcumin is in there," she said. "And good brands for curcumin will give you the milligram dosage of curcumin specifically listed on the bottle."
Does Curcumin Have Medical Benefits, Though?
Curcumin, or curcuminoids found in turmeric more generally, have recognized, studied medicinal benefits. These include reducing the number of post-surgery heart attacks experienced by bypass patients, controlling knee pain from osteoarthritis, and reducing skin irritation after radiation treatments for breast cancer patients, according to the National Institutes of Health.
But Dr. Gary N. Asher, MD, who is a primary care physician specializing in clinical pharmacology and dietary supplements, points out that curcumin hasn't actually been proven to prevent or alleviate migraine symptoms just yet. Dr. Asher, who has a medical practice in Chapel Hill, NC, carries out clinical trials with curcumin, in particular, at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
"As best I know, there's one small study demonstrating that [curcumin] may be beneficial [for migraine sufferers], but I don't think there's widespread evidence that it works well yet," he said. "I think there's preliminary evidence that's interesting that suggests it could be helpful."
That doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't work, though, either.
Dr. Green elaborated on the study Dr. Asher mentioned and broke it down for us.
In the one study published, she said, one set of patients was given a placebo, one set was given curcumin, another set was given omega-3 fatty acids, and another set was given a combination of omega-3 fatty acids plus curcumin.
"The study found that those that got the combination had fewer headaches," she said.
She acknowledged that the medical research community really needs to do more double-blinded studies to say whether curcumin is something we should be using more commonly.
That being said, though, she does give curcumin to her patients, in addition to offering prescriptions and other alternatives, as well.
"The majority do feel better while taking it," she said.
Using Curcumin to Prevent Migraines Before They Go From Bad to Worse
Migraines are the third most prevalent illness, according to Dr. Green, and the sixth most disabling disease in the world, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. "They're something that we can treat, but they're not something, yet, that we can cure," Dr. Green said.
People who experience 14 or less migraine and headache episodes per month are considered episodic migraine (EM) sufferers, while those who experience 15 or more headache days, with at least eight of those being migraine days, are referred to as chronic migraine (CM) patients.
Dr. Green said it's crucial to attack migraine problems while patients are still in the EM phase, because once the condition escalates to CM status, it becomes harder to treat.
"When a patient is experiencing eight to 12 migraines per month, they are in a sort of gray zone between episodic and chronic," she said. "Prevention then becomes imperative for many of these patients, and while there are a slew of prescription medications we can use for prevention, increasingly people are looking for alternatives."
Alternatives include things like vitamins, minerals, and herbs, which is where curcumin comes in.
How Should You Take It and How Much Should You Take?
Dr. Asher studies, in part, how our bodies metabolize medicines, meaning what happens between the time we ingest something and the time our body processes that substance into our systems.
"There's significant uncertainty in terms of how you might direct someone to take curcumin to treat almost any medical condition," Dr. Asher said.
And when it comes to ingesting curcumin, there are no shortage of options.
For instance, you can take the root and grind it up and put it in a smoothie or make it into a tea, a paste, or an extract. You can also buy it as a supplement.
But the problem is, that no matter how you ingest it, the body doesn't really absorb it very well. One common way to work around this is to take it as a supplement, which is likely to include added black pepper to help with absorption.
Dr. Green said for her patients using curcumin for the very specific purpose of treating migraines, she suggests taking it as a supplement.
That's because in addition to the absorption factor, it's also easier to be consistent with the number of milligrams you're taking in in supplement form. If you're doing something like peeling it as a root and putting it in smoothie, she said, it's just harder to get same dose each day.
How much, exactly, you should be taking in that daily dose is another question.
Again, Dr. Green acknowledges there is limited research available on the use of curcumin to treat migraines, so there's not a ton of information out there on how much of it migraine sufferers should take to get relief.
But, there are studies on the use of curcumin to treat arthritis, which have shown its successful use and safety, she said.
Based on those studies and the limited number that are available for migraine use, the typical dose likely to be effective can range from 300-600 milligrams, taken two to three times per day, for a daily total of anywhere from 600mg on the low end to 1800mg on the high end.
"I personally take 500mg daily, which has worked nicely for me in conjunction with some dietary changes," Dr. Green said, who is herself a migraine sufferer.
But with that, she offered a word of caution on supplements in general.
"I always tell my patients to use a brand that is reputable, that checks for heavy metals, and that guarantees that what is on the label is actually in that bottle," Dr. Green added, "because supplements are not FDA regulated."
What Are the Risks and Potential Drawbacks?
Generally speaking, both doctors agree, turmeric curcumin has been found to be relatively safe for human consumption, but there are a few things they'd like you to keep in mind.
"There aren't many risks, but some people who take circumonoids will experience some nausea, some gastrointestinal upset, maybe some loose stool," Dr. Asher said. "That's uncomfortable, but it's not typically dangerous."
"Curcumin can also lower blood sugar levels so those with diabetes should use caution," Dr. Green said. "As should those on blood thinners, people with prior history of gallstones, or bile duct dysfunction. It should be avoided in pregnant women."
Dr. Asher added that people taking psychiatric medications should take special care to talk to their doctors about potential drug interactions with curcumin.
If you add curcumin to your daily regimen while you're taking an antidepressant like duloxetine (Cymbalta) or fluvoxamine (Luvox), or antipsychotic medications like clozapine (Clozaril, FazaClo) or olanzapine (Zyprexa), unexpected side effects may occur. One possibility Dr. Asher noted is that, based on how our bodies metabolize these substances when taken together, is you may end up with decreased levels of these prescription medications in your system, and so they may not work as well as you're used to.
Another thing to consider is that when taking a supplement, rather than a prescribed medication to treat migraine symptoms, it can take up to three months for patients to see results, Dr. Green said.
"If you have someone coming in to see you, where they're missing work, they're unable to take care of their children, whatever it is they're doing, if migraines are ruining their quality of life in that moment, you can't wait that three months."
In those case, Dr. Green recommended starting both a natural alternative and prescription treatment at the same time.
When she does that in her practice, she staggers the start of each by about a week or so, just to be sure she can monitor for any potential reactions that may result from either type of treatment.
The Doctors' Recommendations
"I'm a migraine sufferer myself, and I take curcumin," Dr. Green said. She adds that she favors a comprehensive treatment approach in her practice at the USC Headache and Neuralgia Center.
She likes to start with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and supplements, and if that's not enough, then move on to prescription preventative options.
While Dr. Asher said that he's not quite ready to recommend the use of curcumin for the treatment of migraines, he said as long as a patient isn't taking something else, "it's probably fine to give it a try."
Both Dr. Green and Dr. Asher stressed that you should always talk with your doctor before taking any new medication or supplement. This is especially true if you're already taking some form of medication.