Turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow color, has been as an herbal remedy for nearly 4,000 years. Its active component, curcumin, is an anti-inflammatory that has been recommended for everything from gallstones to arthritis. Previous research has indicated that it shows therapeutic potential in the treatment of digestive issues, but its efficacy had never been tested directly against a pharmaceutical drug. Until now.
Curious about turmeric’s potential to treat symptoms of indigestion, a team of researchers from Thailand, the U.S., and Great Britain decided to pit the golden spice in a head-to-head matchup against omeprazole, a protein-pump inhibitor used to curb excess stomach acid. Their results were published online in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.
The researchers recruited 206 patients ages 18-70 with recurrent upset stomach (functional dyspepsia) of unknown cause from hospitals in Thailand between 2019 and 2021. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups for a period of 28 days.
The first group (69 patients) received 500 mg of curcumin four times per day. The second group (68 patients) received 20 mg of omeprazole four times per day. And the third group (69 patients) received both turmeric and omeprazole. Of the 206 patients enrolled, 151 completed the study, with 20 in the curcumin group; 19 in the omeprazole group; and 16 in the combined treatment group dropping out.
Patients in all three groups had similar clinical characteristics and indigestion severity as assessed by Severity of Dyspepsia Assessment (SODA) scores taken at the start of the trial. Patients were reassessed after 28 days and then again after a 56-day follow-up.
SODA scores indicated significant reductions in symptom severity by day 28 for pain (−4.83, –5.46, and −6.22) and other symptoms (−2.22, –2.32, and −2.31) for those in the combined, curcumin alone, and omeprazole alone groups, respectively. These improvements were even stronger after 56 days for pain (−7.19, –8.07, and −8.85, respectively) and other symptoms (−4.09, –4.12, and −3.71, respectively).
After analyzing the results, the researchers concluded that curcumin and omeprazole had comparable efficacy for treating indigestion, but no detectible synergistic effect. No serious adverse events occurred among the three groups and no serious side effects were reported, although liver function tests indicated some level of deterioration among curcumin users carrying excess weight, note the researchers.
The team acknowledged that the study’s small size, relatively brief intervention period, lack of long-term monitoring data, and other limiting factors indicate a need for larger, longer-term studies. That said, they wrote in their conclusion, “This multicenter, randomized, controlled trial provides highly reliable evidence for the treatment of functional dyspepsia,” adding that “the new findings from our study may justify considering curcumin in clinical practice.”
Such an alternative treatment could be beneficial, the researchers noted, as long-term use of protein-pump inhibitors has been linked to increased fracture risk, micronutrient deficiencies, and a heightened risk of infections.