Move Over Prozac – There’s a New Game in Town (and It Won’t Kill Your Sex Life or Keep You Awake At Night)

by Kelly Brogan Dr. Kelly Brogan MD, Healthy Living, Healthy Pregnancy, Baby & Child, Natural RemediesComments: 44

Turmeric:  Wonder Spice to combat depression

By Dr. Kelly Brogan MD

Every Monday, I make a Bolognese. I learned the recipe-less technique from my Tuscan mom whose simple dishes have consistently outdone some of the 5 star chef creations I’ve had at Manhattan restaurants.

With two kids at home, this traditional Italian sauce becomes a stealth transport vehicle for kale, beets, cilantro, and all manner of otherwise snubbed delicacies. For the past two years, I have given the dish a twist that my Nonna wouldn’t recognize — 2 tablespoons of organic turmeric.

This wonder-spice is also a mainstay of my anti-inflammatory work with patients in my practice where I use liposomal preparations of curcumin, the natural phenols responsible for turmeric’s yellow color, when I suspect their symptoms stem from a challenged immune system.

Mild in taste and a major feature of curried traditional foods from around the world, turmeric is a member of the ginger family. As it turns out, it has been consumed for thousands of years — ever since people used their relationship to food and their environments to enhance their health and wellness.

One of the many shortcomings of pharmaceuticals is that the intensity of their primary effect so far outpaces what would be achieved naturally that it’s the difference between a skilled driver sensing the nuances of the road and putting a heavy rock on the gas pedal. The collateral damage exacted by medications represents the fact that they have “unintended” effects that may not be desirable. This is how we develop the “whack-a-mole” phenomenon of suppressing symptoms only to cause others. Homeopathy, herbalism, and the strategic use of nutriceuticals afford practitioners and patients a gentler, but effective means of navigating the road to health.

A recent study entitled Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial sought to substantiate this claim. In this study, 3 groups of 20 participants with Major Depression according to a commonly used scale, were randomized to Prozac, Prozac + 1g of oil-based curcumin (of decent but not optimal potency), and curcumin alone for 6 weeks. The proportion of responders was highest in the combination group (77.8%) than in the Prozac (64.7%) or curcumin (62.5%) groups, but these differences were not statistically significant. The authors emphasized curcumin’s high degree of safety up to dosages of 12g daily.

In conclusion, the researchers noted:

“This study provides first clinical evidence that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with MDD [major depressive disorder] without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders.”

Important considerations for the interpretation of this data:

The raters but not participants were blinded, so there is a significant risk of bringing the “active placebo” effect of antidepressant that Irving Kirsch PhD has documented where patients treated with antidepressants respond to their expectations around treatment and to perceived side-effects (“it’s starting to work!”) rather than to the medication itself.

Patients were also allowed to take benzodiazepines, an important uncontrolled variable and a more likely confounder in the medication groups as antidepressants disrupt sleep.

Pepper is known to enhance absorption and was not used in this formulation (who knows what was — GMO soy oil?).

There is unlikely to be a one-pill cure. The effect of curcumin in this study should be viewed as a launching pad for myriad other wellness changes that can support mood including stabilization of blood sugar, elimination of inflammatory foods, chemicals, and pesticides.

How Turmeric Helps with Depression

How could a spice actually help depressive symptoms? There is mounting evidence from animal models, in vitro, and human studies that elucidate mechanisms of curcumin’s sophisticated effects which include anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, immuno-modulatory, anti-cancer, and neuroprotective. Turmeric is a reactive oxygen scavenger, meaning that it turns on antioxidant producing genes (NRF2) and supports glutathione synthesis, inhibits inflammatory enzymes, and supports liver detox. Inflammation leads to changes in the brain’s ability to properly regulate hormones (adrenal, thyroid, sex), and to changes in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, as well as to changes in plasticity or the ability to regenerate brain cells. Curcumin, via the culinary spice turmeric as delivery vehicle, hits a lot of these problem areas all at once.

As a type A “doer” who multi-tasks by necessity, the idea of a food that goes to town on the bad and supports the good is wonderful, and to be able to use this agent therapeutically is an essential consideration for every provider.

Somehow, I don’t expect to see this paper sandwiched between glossy Pharma ads in this month’s American Journal of Psychiatry, but now, at least, you know it exists!

About The Author

As an undergraduate at M.I.T., Dr. Kelly Brogan studied Cognitive Neuroscience and worked with Harvard undergraduates to create a public forum for the discussion of alternative medicine, directing conferences for the Hippocratic Society.

She attended Cornell Medical School where she was awarded the Rudin Scholarship for Psychiatric Oncology and began her work in Reproductive Psychiatry, which she went on to train in during her residency at NYU/Bellevue.

A strong interest in the interface of medicine and psychiatry led her to pursue a fellowship in Consultation Liaison/Psychosomatic Medicine at NYU/Bellevue/VA Hospital.  Since that time, she remains on faculty and has focused her efforts on her private practice where she cares for women across the life cycle including pregnancy and postpartum.

A passion for holistic living, environmental medicine, and nutrition are the bedrock of her functional medicine practice. She has published in the field of Psycho-Oncology, Women’s Health, Perinatal Mental Health, Alternative Medicine, and Infectious Disease.

She is Board Certified in Psychiatry, Psychosomatic Medicine, as well as Board Certified in Integrative and Holistic Medicine. You can learn more about her at www.kellybroganmd.com, and connect with her on FacebookTwitterand through her informative monthly newsletter

Comments (44)

  • leah

    hi Sarah I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask this but I’m researching into low libido naturalSolutions and I’m 25 years old female been married for 5 yearsand it seems one solution is a blood test with hormone therapy and I’m not looking into thatdo you think you could direct me in the right path?

    July 17th, 2015 2:24 pm Reply
  • Barb

    There’s certainly a lot to know about this topic.
    I really like all the points you’ve made.

    December 14th, 2013 8:42 am Reply
  • elvira

    Turmeric has everything that I need. Except that I (sadly) don’t tolerate it because of serotonin syndrome. (Any way around it?)

    September 6th, 2013 10:47 am Reply
  • Pat in TX

    Oh, that was delicious!!! I used Pioneer Woman’s recipe. I added grated zucchini with the grated carrot. I added turmeric near the end. And I stirred in my raw cream as I took it off the heat at the end so I hopefully preserved some of those benefits too! Oops, almost forgot – served it over a choice of spaghetti noodles or spaghetti squash with butter, salt, and pepper. The kids’ only complaint was that they thought I was going to add carrots and zucchini; the veggies are completely unnoticeable:-)

    September 5th, 2013 8:20 pm Reply
  • scott spratt

    http://www.pdazzler/archives/1005

    September 4th, 2013 6:55 pm Reply
  • TexasCurmudgeon

    Thank you for this excellent and relevant article. I’m beginning to taper off nefazodone after about 20 years of use. This knowledge will be another arrow in my quiver.

    September 4th, 2013 12:33 pm Reply
  • Christine

    I swear by Golden Milk: Blend 1/4 cup powdered turmeric into enough water to make a thick paste while gently heating the mixture. To make the golden milk, heat a cup of milk, a splash of olive oil or ghee, 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of the paste, and honey to taste. Cinnamon is a nice addition. Drink warm before bed. This is great for soothing aching joints, better sleep etc. I don’t drink it every day, but in winter it’s a nice alternative to hot chocolate. The oil is important, without it turmeric can cause heartburn. The paste will keep in the fridge for months.

    September 3rd, 2013 10:13 pm Reply
    • AnnB

      Thanks Christine, that sounds like a wonderful suggestion!

      September 30th, 2013 7:07 am Reply
  • Kirstie

    I juice it and add it to Kombucha or Kefir for the second fermentation.

    September 3rd, 2013 8:29 pm Reply
  • M

    There is a great fermented turmeric supplement called rest easy. It was recommended to us by Dr. Thomas Cowan.

    September 3rd, 2013 7:46 pm Reply
  • DS

    I’d like the recipe as well.

    September 3rd, 2013 4:08 pm Reply
  • Pam Breithaupt

    For those who follow a paleo type diet, there is a great recipe for bolognese in Diane Sanfillippo’s Practical Paleo Cookbook. She replaces the traditional milk with coconut milk and serves it with spaghetti squash. I actually crave having this dish cooked this way now. I have found this book to be a great reference from which to create my own combinations, but for those who don’t have a lot of cooking experience, it is still a very approachable cookbook with good tasting paleo recipes.

    September 3rd, 2013 3:15 pm Reply
  • Stephen Blackbourn

    I bought some turmeric on the strength of reports of it’s anti-inflammatory properties, only to discover that every time I consume it, I get heartburn a few hours afterwards.

    September 3rd, 2013 2:57 pm Reply
  • Kelli

    I’ve been hearing alot about turmeric lately and still trying to find the best way to integrate it into food on daily basis. Small study you cited, however, it could be promising. I’ve always heard that depression could be due to upset gut flora caused by a processed diet and its resulting inflammation and nutrient deficiencies.

    September 3rd, 2013 2:18 pm Reply
    • beth

      As far as depression goes, upset gut flora certainly would not help matters, but having lived with MDD and dysthymia for most of my life, I don’t think it’s the root cause for a lot of people. I do know that therapeutic doses of the right nutrients/herbs can truly help someone with these disorders though. Personally, I had good results with fish oil in my transition off of medication (which I do not knock the use of). From my experience and that of others I have talked to, there is usually a trigger event for a depressive episode. The person gets stuck in that place beyond the time frame in which a healthy person would be able to deal with it. I think deficiencies/inflammation can contribute to the chemistry of getting stuck, and correcting them can help with correcting brain chemistry to get unstuck.

      Sorry if this comes off wrong; having dealt with these issues, I feel the need to educate and promote awareness. Talking about it helps others find the info to heal and helps reduce the stigma of mental health issues.

      September 4th, 2013 6:36 pm Reply
      • Cynthia

        Just wanted to thank you for posting this, I don’t think it comes off wrong in the slightest. I found it very helpful!

        November 7th, 2013 1:10 pm Reply
  • Jen H

    Great info!
    I just made a ‘tandoori’ type chicken in a crock pot. Cooking chicken in a crock pot is wonderful, I’ve recently discovered (nice in the summer – you don’t have to heat up the oven). I used whole cut up chicken and I included a couple teaspoons of turmeric along with other spices, ginger, garlic, yogurt, lemon. This is a delicious and easy dish, and for some reason I felt really upbeat and energetic after eating it (could I be imaging things? ;)) Also when you slow cook chicken on the bone in a crock pot, I think you might get some of the beneficial aspect of bone broth since the bones are being simmered along with the meat for a longer time.

    My dad is also a supplement freak (I’ve been trying to tell him to focus just as much on food as supplements) and he gave me some good quality curcumin which I take occasionally.

    September 3rd, 2013 1:47 pm Reply
  • Kelly

    We have put it in capsules and it has worked wonderful for menstrual cramps. 2-3 capsules. Pretty amazing. I have to figure out how to work it into our food more

    September 3rd, 2013 1:05 pm Reply
  • karen

    I found turmeric to be great at relieving arthritic pain and swelling. I used it with great results for about a year. The only problem was that for about a year I had digestive issues, with recurring diarrhea and intestinal pain. I was very confused because I was being so careful with my diet. It was only a few weeks ago that I read in “some” people turmeric can cause these problems. I am now looking for something else to help with arthritic pain resulting from a cervical fusion.

    September 3rd, 2013 12:52 pm Reply
    • Moira

      I was concerned about this, too, Karen. Are you planning to forego turmeric completely or are you planning to take a break from it and then re-introduce it slowly in smaller amounts? I only ask because I have a tendency to have that problem with things and I think in my case maybe I just add too much of the good thing all at once and then develop intestinal problems later. Maybe I’ll just start adding it slowly and see how it goes.

      September 11th, 2013 12:46 pm Reply
      • Karen

        I was only taking 1 750mg capsule 2 – 3 times a day. The digestive trouble was bad enough that I don’t know if I will try it again. It did really work well though, now I take 4 – 6 advil each day and I still have some pain.

        September 11th, 2013 7:13 pm Reply
  • christine

    Only problem is it stains EVERYTHING! :)

    September 3rd, 2013 12:36 pm Reply
    • Moira

      Yes, turmeric has been used for centuries as a fabric dye. That’s great for those who are not interested in using chemical dyes but bad for those of us who don’t wear aprons. Time to get grandma’s aprons out of the archives and start wearing them again. Joking aside, just be aware of this potential problem and take whatever measures you have to to protect your clothes and porous counter surfaces. The benefits of adding turmeric wherever you can outweigh this problem.

      September 11th, 2013 12:40 pm Reply
  • Pogonia

    Subscribing for follow-up comments. I KNOW turmeric is good for us, but just can’t wrap my mind around putting it in everything! Does it really just take the place of pepper?

    September 3rd, 2013 12:12 pm Reply
  • bev

    yes, recipe!

    September 3rd, 2013 11:57 am Reply
  • watchmom3

    I just want to say that I am so GRATEFUL for your articles! They are such an encouragement amidst all the garbage and medical deception! Keep it coming! You are a superstar! (Kudos to Sarah for finding you and sharing you!) BTW, I am old enough to know one when I see one! (:

    September 3rd, 2013 11:24 am Reply
    • TexasCurmudgeon

      Agreed. What watchmom3 said. Your articles are appearing on this blog at precisely the time in my life when I’m ready to benefit from them.

      September 4th, 2013 12:36 pm Reply
  • C

    would LOVE to get a recipe for this dish – pretty please!

    September 3rd, 2013 11:09 am Reply
  • Mark

    Can someone recommend a good curcumin supplement?

    September 3rd, 2013 11:07 am Reply
  • Michelle

    I am not sure when or how I discovered turmeric, but I have been putting it in everything for a long time now. It doesn’t have a crazy flavor if anything it’s like pepper. It gives your food a deep yellow color, depending what all is or isn’t in your dish. I heap it into soups, sauces, stir fries, marinades, chicken salad. Limitless possibilities. Any where you would put a little pepper just put in some turmeric, then you wont have bought yet another spice that you hardly know what to do with.

    September 3rd, 2013 11:02 am Reply
    • Susan

      Michelle thanks for the idea for the chicken salad…wouldn’t have thought of that…need to dig up the smoothie recipe that I found for an anti inflammatory smoothie.

      September 3rd, 2013 9:35 pm Reply
  • Sherry

    The article stated, “The authors emphasized curcumin’s high degree of safety up to dosages of 12g daily”, but it didn’t say what dose was used in the study. Is there a standard daily dose to start with for MDD? And then you could gradually work up from there to a dosage that works for that individual?

    Great info as always. Thanks for all you do!

    September 3rd, 2013 10:59 am Reply
  • bianca

    I have always added lots of good veggies to my Bolognese sauce … a fabulous
    way to hide them and no one is the wiser ! Emeril Lagasse has a nice recipe
    if anyone cares to try this outstanding red sauce .. I now serve it over GF brown
    rice pasta. I simply make mine from scratch and no recipe… It is very forgiving.
    I have several grandchildren who adore it and request it.
    It would also be very nice if Dr. Brogan would share her recipe. I’m wondering
    if the turmeric changes the flavor in any way?

    September 3rd, 2013 10:53 am Reply
  • LK

    The combination of eliminating gluten and large doses of circumim obtained through a naturopath have eliminated by back and hip pain and,while we are at it, my neck and shoulder and knee pain and anything alde that was chronically sore or tingling or numb.

    September 3rd, 2013 10:42 am Reply
  • Jean

    Would love the recipe too :-)

    September 3rd, 2013 10:35 am Reply
  • Lori Leeke

    Recipe for Dr. Brogan’s Bolognese, please. Something to start from, yes.

    September 3rd, 2013 9:54 am Reply
  • Eileen

    “One of the many shortcomings of pharmaceuticals is that the intensity of their primary effect so far outpaces what would be achieved naturally that it’s the difference between a skilled driver sensing the nuances of the road and putting a heavy rock on the gas pedal. The collateral damage exacted by medications represents the fact that they have “unintended” effects that may not be desirable. This is how we develop the “whack-a-mole” phenomenon of suppressing symptoms only to cause others.”

    So well worded! Thanks for this excellent information!

    September 3rd, 2013 9:24 am Reply
  • Carrie

    wow. Putting yellow rice made with homemade broth and turmeric in the menu rotation.

    September 3rd, 2013 7:14 am Reply
  • Kathy

    Dr. Brogan is my new favorite blogger (via Sarah of course)!

    September 3rd, 2013 7:13 am Reply
  • Sine

    Turmeric! Yet another reason to make more curries! With tasty chicken stock and cauliflower, mmhmmm… Oh and Bolognese, the favourite dish of my childhood!

    Oh, Actually I wanted to express my appreciation for the critical discussion of the cited study. So often these days people just take the “results” section as an absolute truth; but as you say, there is potential for bias. And I believe safety is an issue that could need more than 60 people to prove (the abstract only says that curcumin was well tolerated by all the patients – nothing about the prozac group: they may have been equally well, would this prove safety?)
    With these limitations in mind, I am still prepared to believe in the benefits of tasty, sunny-yellow, delicious turmeric. Well, there may be another potential source of bias at work here :-)

    Thanks for this very useful article!

    September 3rd, 2013 2:01 am Reply
  • Pat in TX

    Well, I had never heard of a “bolognese”, and frankly I was not too excited about a dish that sounded like “bologna,” but I have found a good-looking approximation of a recipe (ie about this much and some of that) by googling and it will be happening this week! The first recipe I found said it was a “ragu”, which of course reminds me of the stuff my mother served all those years, but is bound to have a different meaning if you have an Italian grandmother:-) Fortunately, my kiddos love veggies, but I plan to add them anyway as it sounds like it will make the sauce interesting! I do plan to add a healthy dose of turmeric too. Do you serve it over pasta or some other delight? Thanks for the idea!! Easy healthy ideas that will serve my crowd are always welcome:-)

    September 2nd, 2013 10:39 pm Reply
    • Mchael

      Turmeric in a bolognese? How about a recipe, please?

      September 3rd, 2013 8:11 am Reply
      • Rebecca C

        that’s what i was going to say. can we have the recipe? I need to sneak veggies and spices into my husband. My kids don’t need to be tricked.

        September 4th, 2013 1:06 am Reply

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