This post will introduce turmeric and, more importantly, its main component curcumin. You will learn about its uses and why many people believe it is a viable option for the treatment of hair loss.
You will also learn how to get started with turmeric supplementation and the best ways to make it more effective.
An Introduction to Turmeric
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family. It is native to India and other South Asian countries. It grows best in wet, tropical climates and is cultivated for both culinary and medicinal purposes (1).
The most used part of the plant is the rhizome. This is the part of the stem which remains underground as the plant grows. The powdered turmeric spice you find on supermarket shelves is ground from the boiled and dried rhizome.
Turmeric is famous for its deep yellow color, which is often used as a colorant in condiments such as mustard.
The powder has long enjoyed popularity as a spice in the curries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This is thanks to the bitter and peppery taste of its most prominent active ingredient, curcumin.
Turmeric has been used for centuries in traditional Indian medicine as a treatment for indigestion, liver problems, and the healing of wounds (2, 3, 4). Further research is underway to investigate the effect of the plant’s traditional role in the treatment of kidney diseases, cardiovascular ailments, and gastrointestinal problems (6).
The plant’s main components are known as curcuminoids. The most important ones are curcumin along with demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin (7). The amount of each compound ranges between different plant varieties. However, curcumin is the active ingredient and compound that has been studied the most.
Curcumin For Health & Hair
Curcumin is not unique to turmeric but is common to a variety of other plants. As a chemical compound, its proper name is diferuloylmethane. It is marketed and sold independently of turmeric as a food colorant, flavoring, medicinal supplement, and cosmetic agent.
Its chemical classification came long after it had first been used in medicine. Its popular name derives from the Latin name of the turmeric plant, Curcuma longa. You may also see it on food labels as an additive: E100.
Curcumin is not essential for the growth and survival of turmeric. Rather, it is a natural phenol that defends the plant against herbivores. This is a feature it shares with other secondary metabolites often used in medicine or as food additives.
There is ongoing research into phenolic compounds in general and their role in the treatment of human diseases.
Curcumin’s applications in medicine are still limited to traditional forms, despite having undergone laboratory research in numerous studies. Part of this body of research has shown that the compound can be safely administered to humans over a three-month period in daily doses of up to 12mg (9).
The Relationship Between Turmeric, Curcumin, and Treatment for Hair Loss
Laboratory research into curcumin suggests it may help combat hair loss in a number of ways (10). This research, coupled with the fact that it has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years, has led to a surge in the marketing of the plant and its compounds.
It is typically claimed that adding turmeric to your diet will, over time, give a boost to your body’s overall health and reinforce your immune system (11). This may indirectly help to stimulate hair growth in those who have lost hair due to autoimmune conditions such as alopecia areata.
Does It Actually Work? What Does the Science Say?
Studies carried out in laboratory conditions show that extracts of turmeric share properties with synthetic drugs used in the treatment of androgenic alopecia. More specifically, finasteride.
This is important because 5-AR has been shown to be the main cause of androgenetic alopecia (AGA) (14). AGA occurs as a result of the damage DHT causes to the hair follicles, gradually miniaturizing them to the point that they completely disappear.
Tumeric Vs. Finasteride as A DHT Blocker
Like finasteride, turmeric extracts may inhibit the 5-AR enzyme. This means they could play a similar role in reducing hair loss. This property is believed to be down to the curcumin in the turmeric extracts.
Curcumin has been shown to have inhibitory effects on androgens (and, more specifically, DHT) in both 2014 and 2015 (14, 15). These studies were performed in regards to BPH – another condition in which DHT sensitivity plays a major part (16).
These results were supported by a 2018 study from Japan (17). As that study showed, curcumin supplementation may lead to an increase in the expression of the enzyme Aldo‐Keto reductase 1C2 (AKR1C2). This, as a result, supports the decrease of DHT.
Moreover, clinical tests have shown that administering daily amounts of curcumin over a period of three months is not toxic. This is unlike finasteride, which has been shown to cause adverse effects including erectile dysfunction and infertility (18, 19).
In addition to the enzyme-inhibiting properties of curcumin, it has also been shown that it can be combined effectively with minoxidil. This is the vasodilatory active ingredient in topical and foam treatments for hair loss such as Rogaine (20).
These studies involved a relative of turmeric – Curcuma aeruginosa – and showed a significant enhancement in the performance of the synthetic drug in restoring hair growth in male AGA sufferers (21).
The Antioxidant & Anti-inflammatory Properties Of Turmeric May Help
Another way curcumin probably has a positive effect in reducing hair loss and encouraging growth is due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These help the body to heal and recover more easily from conditions that may negatively affect hair follicles and the scalp (22).
Underlying conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis may be responsible for hair loss in some cases, and curcumin can help to resolve this (23).
Curcumin Can Help Activate The Vitamin D Receptor
A further way in which curcumin can promote hair growth is through its role as an activator of Vitamin D receptor genes in hair follicles.
Sources of Turmeric and Curcumin
The only major dietary source of curcumin is turmeric (27). On average, turmeric extracts are 3-4% curcumin, although, this can vary.
Another spice called shoti (zedoary root) also contains curcumin and is popularly used in Indian pickles.
Turmeric is an essential ingredient in many Indian dishes. It is used to enhance and balance the other flavors in lentil, meat, and vegetable dishes.
It is also common in the dishes of Malaysia and southern Thailand, especially in curry pastes, fish dishes, soups, sauces, and even grilled fruit such as bananas and coconut.
In the West, turmeric is often used for its strong, deep-yellow coloring, which lends itself well to mustard and other sauces. It has gradually become a more widely-used ingredient. You can now find it in cheeses, sausages, yogurts, pickles, and sauces, including Worcestershire sauce.
In Japan, turmeric is the main ingredient in a popular drink known as Ukon. This is is marketed as having numerous medicinal properties and is popular with men and women across the country. Similar drinks contain various vitamins and are used as hangover cures.
Although turmeric occurs naturally and is used in a wide range of recipes, many people find that the best way to guarantee their daily dose of curcumin is through supplementation.
Currently, however, there is no consensus on the best way to take a supplement or on the dosage. The appropriate dosage likely varies from one individual to another.
How To Make Curcumin Bioabsorbable
As with many supplements, the body struggles to absorb curcumin on its own (28). There is no point in swallowing it with water, as it is not water-soluble. It would simply pass through the body without having any significant effect.
Mixing curcumin with fat, however, has the desired effect – the body is able to more fully absorb the curcumin which would otherwise have slipped by (29). This suggests that a food-based intake of turmeric would trump the benefits of almost all supplements.
Nonetheless, adding turmeric to meals or taking it as a supplement will likely have demonstrable health benefits.
Another way to increase the bio-availability of turmeric is to take it with piperine, the major active component of black pepper. This can drastically (up to 2000%) increase the amount that gets into the bloodstream (30). This compound blocks the breakdown of curcumin in the intestine and liver which means more curcumin is absorbed into the bloodstream (31).
The Potential Downsides of Turmeric Use
While trivial to some, the downsides of turmeric may be off-putting to others.
It Has a Strong Odor
For some, the smell of turmeric is a pleasant aroma. For others, it is a pungent smell. Either way, you cannot deny that turmeric has a strong odor, whether for cooking or hair care.
If using turmeric in a topical, just remember that the smell may be off-putting to others. As such, you may only want to apply a turmeric paste a few hours before your next shower. Otherwise, the scent may linger in your hair for longer than you would like.
It Stains the Skin
Aside from its strong odor, there is one other memorable characteristic of turmeric: its rich yellow-orange color.
Unfortunately for lovers of turmeric, the same component that gives it so many of its benefits also gives it its staining properties. You will know this if you have ever cooked with turmeric; the stain can stay on the skin for days.
Skin is not the only thing turmeric can stain. Be careful using it around porous surfaces, including certain countertops. You will also want to keep it away from fabrics.
How to Choose the Right Turmeric
Even for those in the West, turmeric is fairly abundant and easy to come by. You can often find turmeric powder in the spice aisle of your favorite supermarket. For a wider variety of brands, you may want to consider visiting a Middle Eastern or Indian grocery store.
You can also purchase turmeric supplements. Just break open the capsule and use the turmeric powder from the inside.
Make Your Own Turmeric Hair Paste
Here is one turmeric hair paste recipe to get you started.
- Turmeric powder (2 TBSP)
- Lemon juice (2 TBSP)
- Water (1 cup)
- Aloe vera gel (2 TBSP, optional)
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Stir well.
Scoop up the mixture with your hands, and pour over your hair in sections. Work it gently into the scalp and massage it into your hair from root to tip.
Leave it in for at least two hours, and then rinse with lukewarm water.
You can use the first three ingredients (turmeric powder, lemon juice, and water) if you like a more watery consistency, like a scalp rinse. You can add in aloe vera gel if you prefer a consistency that is more like a paste.
There is little doubt that turmeric, especially its active compound curcumin, has tangible health benefits for humans.
For sufferers of hair loss, it is especially interesting due to its nature as an androgen inhibitor. It might have a similar effect on alopecia as the synthetic drug finasteride, without any of the negative side effects of that drug.
Many users who take a curcumin supplement combine it with resveratrol. This is a natural phenol found in the skin of grapes and is also widely available as a supplement.