Post-traumatic stress disorder, as the name suggests, is stress that is caused after a traumatic experience.
Though the idea or traumatic experience is subjective, this disorder is mainly applicable to people who have experienced life-threatening situations.
Traumatic stressors include violence, sexual abuse, disasters, accidents, military actions, traumatic childbirth or even life-threatening illnesses.
Apart from experience, even witness to such events can trigger this disorder.
The characteristic symptom of this disorder is re-experiencing the trauma despite the absence of the traumatic event.
It is generally a flashback of the event that could occur anytime throughout the day without voluntary action or deliberate thinking.
This is at times triggered by reminders such as objects or people or similar circumstances as the event.
At times, the traumatic experience is recreated vividly in dreams. Other symptoms include irritability, lack of concentration, sleep disorders, startling responses and always feeling threatened.
Symptoms generally occur in the first month of traumatic event but can also be delayed for months and years after the event.
Apart from post-traumatic stress disorder being a psychological trauma, it is important to understand that biologically there are changes in neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that are vital for its function) that contribute to these symptoms.
Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder involves cognitive behavioural therapy and other forms of psychotherapy, medications like antidepressants and even exercise or other physical activities.
4 Benefits of Turmeric In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Around 2014, there was quite some news about curcumin, turmeric’s active ingredient, being able to block fear-related and traumatic memories.
Also, there is substantial research that shows that curcumin has a multi-modal action against depression (Read Turmeric for depression)
As mentioned earlier PTSD involves an imbalance in neurotransmitters or brain related chemicals and in various models of psychiatric disorders, curcumin is found to restore the balance of these chemicals.
Here is how turmeric could help in traumatic stress disorder.
1. Curcumin reduces activation of fear memories
Researchers from Yale University, The Graduate Center-The City University of New York and the Hunter University-The City University of New York investigated the effect of curcumin on an animal model of post traumatic stress disorder and published the findings under paper titled: ‘A Diet Enriched with Curcumin Impairs Newly Acquired and Reactivated Fear Memories’.
For us common people, fear is an emotion. It’s basically a defense mechanism that is vital for evolution. Sometimes its an automatic response- for example, you get startled with a loud noise.
But fear can also be acquired due to experience or witnessing traumatic events.
This study used Pavlovian fear conditioning to mimic memory formation in PTSD.
In this technique, the subject is presented with a neutral stimulus (generally playing a tone) and simultaneously exposed to an aversive stimulus (a foot shock).
So what this gets interpreted as is that every time the sound plays, there is some danger around. This fear gets stored as memory and is experienced every time the subject is exposed to the sound.
For animals signs of fear are generally observed as increased breathing, heart rate, freezing or increased movements or startling.
For example, a person who has experienced or witnessed a car accident can develop a fear of driving or using cars.
How this experimental model relates to PTSD is that it leads to formation and storage of fear-related memories, changes in brain and neurotransmitters and observing the reaction when exposed to a neutral stimulus or the sound again.
PTSD is also characterized by flashback without the actual event taking place.
For the experiment, rats were fed a regular diet or a diet supplemented with 1.5% curcumin which amounted to approximately 270mg curcumin a day. This high dose was used because of the low absorption of the compound in the body.
No side effects were observed and there was considerable weight gain in the curcumin group compared to the control group.
A number of auditory fear experiments were conducted to assess the effect of curcumin diet on short term and long term memory, fear memory consolidation, fear memory reconsolidation, reconsolidation of old fear memory and renewal of fear memories.
Consolidation is when a short term memory is stored and stabilized. Reconsolidation is when a consolidated memory is made susceptible to change and is reactivated and can be impaired.
Results demonstrated that the expression of genes Arc/Arg3.1 and Egr-1 was blocked in the group fed curcumin diet. These genes are involved with the formation and storage of memories. Dietary curcumin did not affect short term memory but long term memory was impaired.
Similarly, when studying the effect of reactivation of fear memory, dietary curcumin had no effect on short term memory but impaired long term memory.
Further results pointed out that during reactivation curcumin blocks fear memory but in the absence of reactivation it had no effect on retention of fear memory.
Finally, the last experiment revealed that memories that are blocked or prevented from being stored or impaired by dietary curcumin are not susceptible to renewal or reinstatement.
Now how curcumin exactly does this is still to be explored. One possible way is that interferes in the activity of IKK-NF-kB signaling pathway and thereby acts on a genetic level by affecting genes related to memory storage.
Nuclear factor kappa B is a protein in our body that is generally discussed in context with inflammation but it also said to play a role in memory storage. Curcumin is a potent inhibitor of nuclear factor-kappa B.
Researchers concluded that this naturally occurring compound obtained from the diet can impair newly formed or reactivated memories in an animal model of traumatic memory formation in PTSD.
What does this mean?
Dietary curcumin shows good promise for PTSD in animal study. It is found to block activation and storage of fear memories.
It interferes with biochemical pathways and genes that are involved in storage of fear memories and response. These findings are essential for PTSD since it is characterised by repeated flashback of traumatic memories.
2. It ameliorates the damage caused by chronic stress
Chronic stress affects the brain function impairing cognitive activities like memory and learning.
It leads to morphological changes in the brain and imbalances various proteins, enzymes and chemicals that are vital for brain health.
Curcumin is found to reverse the reduction of BDNF occurring chronic unpredictable stress. BDNF or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor is a protein responsible for nerve growth and is necessary for long term memory.
In an animal model of chronic stress, curcumin reversed memory deficits occurring as a result of chronic stress and also reduced the levels of corticosterone (stress hormone).
It also prevented structural changes occurring in the neurons as a result of chronic stress.
Hippocampus is the part of the brain that deals mainly with memories. Chronic stress can cause damage to brain cells or neurons present in the hippocampus.
Curcumin treatment is found to support the formation of neurons in this region and its effect is equivalent to that of antidepressant, imipramine.
What does this mean?
Curcumin can reverse and prevent morphological and chemical changes occurring as a result of chronic stress, thereby reversing damage caused by chronic stress.
3. Turmeric is effective in reducing depression and anxiety
Curcumin possesses a number of pharmacological properties that help in ameliorating the chemical imbalance in depression and stress.
Piperine potentiates curcumin’s anti-depressant action.
Together they reduce behavioral changes caused by chronic stress, increase the level of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine and also reduce monoamine oxidase activity.
Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters and hence in depression or related conditions it is necessary to inhibit its activity. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are essential for brain health and optimum mood.
Glutamate is a type of neurotransmitter and NMDA receptor is a protein to which it attaches in order to carry out its function. Glutamate is responsible for memory formation.
In scientific terms, these NMDA receptors are found to be essential in PTSD since their activity can be influenced to impair fear memories and recalling of such memories.
Animal study shows that curcumin mediates its anti-depressant effect by exerting a beneficial effect on NMDA receptors.
When it comes to humans, you must be aware of the famous study that shows curcumin supplementation is as efficacious as Prozac or fluoxetine in treating depression.
Review of clinical trials investigating the role of curcumin in depression also points out that curcumin is an effective add on therapy for depression.
What does this mean?
PTSD is characterised by dysfunction of certain neurotransmitters that are vital for optimum brain health. Curcumin as an antidepressant and anxiolytic normalizes the activity of such neurotransmitters.
4. It can help in sleep disorders
PTSD presents with sleep disturbances and insomnia. An animal study was conducted by Indian researchers to investigate the effect of curcumin on sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation not only leads to behavioral changes but also affects chemicals in the brain, thereby triggering anxiety.
72-hour sleep deprivation in animals resulted in weight loss, anxiety, behavioral changes, and oxidative damage. Curcumin extract treatment attenuated these changes. Curcumin as an antioxidant reduced oxidative damage.
Curcumin brought about this effect by regulating the activity of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is an important molecule in the body with a variety of functions but it is also involved in brain function and memory.
What does this mean?
Animal study shows that curcumin can counteract side effects of sleep deprivation such as weight loss, anxiety and behavioural changes. This finding is relevant to sleep disturbances occurring in PTSD.
How to take Turmeric for PTSD?
We recommend taking turmeric in the diet.
You can just add a dash of it to your smoothie, salad, soup or even rice preparations. Curcumin found in turmeric is poorly absorbed and black pepper and fats help in its absorption.
Golden Paste is a recipe that combines these three. You can start with ½ teaspoon daily and gradually increase the dose to 1-2 teaspoons 2-3 times a day.
It is advisable to take it with meals as taking it on an empty stomach may trigger acidity.
Also, dietary fats in meals ensure better absorption.
Turmeric in the diet is absolutely safe. An average Indian consumes around 4-5 grams of turmeric powder daily. Supplemental doses up to 8g daily have been proven to be safe.
Turmeric supplements should be taken with caution. In some cases it is best to avoid turmeric supplements:
- Pregnancy and lactation
- Prior to the surgical procedure
- If taking blood-thinning medicines, blood sugar lowering medicines, certain antidepressants and stomach acid-reducing medicines
- If suffering from gall bladder obstructions
PTSD is a psychological disorder which also involves neurochemical imbalance.
As much as a shift in thinking patterns and counseling is necessary, it is also necessary to restore the balance of neurotransmitters.
Turmeric is a natural antidepressant, and aids in restoring the balance of neurotransmitters.
Though it is an animal study, these findings are extremely astonishing.
It is hard to believe that something from your diet can actually impair your bad memories.
On a more scientific note, it interferes with various targets involved in activation of fear memories. This definitely needs to be investigated in humans.
The studies quoted in this article are mainly animal studies and that’s because it is necessary to understand how curcumin exactly works at the molecular and biochemical level to combat stress and depression.
But quite a number of studies have proved curcumin’s benefits in depression and memory deficits in humans.
Apart from that, it contributes to overall health as a natural painkiller, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and can help in combating fatigue, sleep imbalances and pain that is associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.