Tumeric: Possibilities, but no certainty

Tumeric is an herb that has been used as both food and medicine for thousands of years. Over the past two decades numerous studies have examined tumeric for benefits in fighting HIV/AIDS. The results have been mixed.

Found in southeast Asia, tumeric is a flowering herb that is used for both its leaves and roots. The roots are dried and ground into a yellow powder that gives flavor and color to curries, stews and mustard. Tumeric is closely related to ginger, and the roots have a similar shape and look.

Tumeric and HIV

Tests of tumeric usually focus on curcumin, the active compound in tumeric. In lab testing, curcumin has shown strong anti-viral properties. Unfortunately, early stage clinical trials have not had similar success. Some trials of curcumin have resulted in modestly lowered viral loads, others have shown no benefit.

The most effective trial we have found combined curcumin with the protease inhibitor, indinavir (IDV). Viral activity was significantly reduced compared to when patients were on just IDV.

Tumeric and ARVs

Several other tests have combined tumeric with ARVs. Given the wide variety of ARVs and the different ways they work, how tumeric interacts with one ARV cannot predict how it will interact with other ARVs. However, at this time, no side effects or bad drug interactions have been found from combining tumeric or curcumin with any ARV yet tested.

On the other hand, some beneficial interactions have been found. In particular, one study found that curcumin may reduce vascular side effects from ritonavir. The study was a lab test only, so we don’t know if it would work in the real world. But the evidence suggests that tumeric may reduce the damage ritonavir causes to major arteries and blood vessels.

Tumeric and HIV Symptoms

The one medical effect of tumeric that is extremely well documented is its anti-inflammatory action. Because diarrhea and other digestive problems are often caused by inflammation, researchers tested curcumin to see if it would work as a treatment for HIV related digestive problems.

The study was a strong success. Of the 8 participants, all of them stopped having diarrhea in less than a month and began to have normal bowel movements. 7 of them had significant weight gain and 6 of them no longer suffered from bloating and abdominal pain.

Such a small scale study can’t be considered proof, but it is strong evidence. Combined with earlier proof of tumeric’s benefit to digestive problems that are not related to HIV it is probably safe to say that curcumin can help with digestive problems related to HIV.

Tumeric vs Curcumin

The problem when looking for herb treatments is that it is hard to know how much studies of one chemical in an herb can tell us about the effect of the herb itself. In this case there is one advantage – we know how much curcumin is in tumeric and it is a fairly large amount. On average, tumeric is 5% curcumin.

We are also lucky to have evidence for once that an herb does not cause problems with HAART. So if you choose to try tumeric you don’t need to worry about bad interactions.

At this point, taking curcumin if you can find it, or making tumeric a part of your meals, will probably be helpful for diarrhea and digestive problems. Anything else we just don’t know enough to say.

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