Popular for it’s anti-inflammatory benefits, turmeric is nature’s medicine for a number of conditions. But how effective is it, really, and does research support these claims?
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a vibrant orange-yellow spice that originated in India and has a rich history of use in Ayurvedic medicine—a whole body healing system developed in India thousands of years ago.
Turmeric was so important to Indian life that it’s referred to by at least 53 different names in ancient Indian Sanskrit including, jayanti (one that wins over diseases), jawarantika (which cures fevers), kashpa (killer of worms), rabhangavasa (which dissolves fat) and vishagni (killer of poison). (1) Whatever the name, turmeric has the potential to benefit our health in many great ways.
It is the rhizomes of the turmeric plant that are used in cooking, as a dye, and as medicine, although the leaves are edible as well. Rhizomes have a distinctive, root-like, nubby appearance but they’re not technically roots. They grow just under the topsoil and send out roots and new plant shoots. We are most familiar with turmeric in its dried and ground form.
Nutritional Benefits of Turmeric
A combination of nutritional and pharmaceutical, turmeric has tremendous “nutraceutical” properties as both food and medicine. Nutraceuticals are foods or herbs that can be used in the prevention and treatment of disease.
Turmeric derives its distinctive color and nutraceutical powers from three curcuminoids that make up two to five percent of the rhizome. These include:
- demethoxycurcumin (18%)
- bisdemethoxycurcumin (2%)
- diferuloylmethane (80%)
Diferuloylmethane is also known simply as curcumin and it is this compound that has been studied extensively for its impressive array of benefits.
Turmeric is also a notable source of manganese, iron, vitamin B6, and potassium and contains smaller amounts of many other vitamins and minerals as well as omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
Additionally, turmeric contains many other compounds that may play a beneficial role in our health. However, it’s curcumin that bestows upon turmeric its reputation as the nutraceutical star of the spice world.
3 Health Benefits of Curcumin
Curcumin has very potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
As a phenolic antioxidant, curcumin neutralizes free radicals which are highly reactive molecules that carry unpaired electrons. These “incomplete” molecules, or free radicals, pull electrons from other molecules which creates more free radicals, and so on. The cascade of free radical formation damages cells, proteins and DNA and the inflammation that results is increasingly recognized as the foundation of all chronic disease. Curcumin combines with free radicals in a reaction that halts the cascade of this process in its tracks.
Curcumin’s antioxidant effects are magnified when other antioxidants are available to provide synergy such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, quercetin, and inulin. Curcumin also acts by increasing the activity of the body’s own arsenal of antioxidant enzymes including superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione, and catalase. (2)
Independent of its antioxidant capabilities, curcumin acts as an anti-inflammatory by blocking cellular factors that can cause inflammation. For instance, curcumin blocks the activity of NF-kb, a cellular factor which is found to be chronically “turned on” in many inflammatory diseases such as IBD, arthritis, and atherosclerosis. In fact, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be more potent than those of aspirin and ibuprofen. (3,4)
6 Amazing Healing Powers of Turmeric
In the investigation of curcumin’s health benefits for humans, approximately 120 clinical trials involving more than 6000 participants have been published in addition to quite a few reviews and meta-analyses. The research continues in dozens of ongoing clinical trials. (5) It is important to note that most studies of curcumin test amounts far exceeding that commonly found in food.
The following is just a snapshot of the health benefits curcumin can bring to the human experience via its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and its cellular interactions on the molecular level.
Curcumin has been shown to have some pretty amazing health benefits and here are six of the major ones.
1. Curcumin reduces anxiety and depression.
2. Curcumin alleviates cognitive decline.
The people of India have far less Alzheimer’s disease than westerners and their comparatively high dietary intake of turmeric is thought to be the reason. By a variety of mechanisms, including the ability to cross the blood brain barrier, curcumin is thought to mediate dementia pathology. Human trials have not borne this out but this may be due to poor study design. More research is needed. (8)
3. Curcumin protects against cancer.
Curcumin has been shown to be cancer-preventive by a variety of mechanisms. Curcumin inhibits mutation, detoxifies carcinogens, decreases cell proliferation, and induces the destruction of tumor cells while leaving healthy cells alone. (9)
4. Curcumin is an effective pain reliever.
5. Curcumin lowers the risk of heart disease.
The cardioprotective effects of curcumin supplementation is likely due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. In one study, postmenopausal women who exercised experienced greater dilation of blood vessels and a mild reduction in blood pressure compared to the control group. (11,12)
6. Curcumin can prevent diabetes.
Curcumin has been shown to reduce both blood glucose levels and diabetic co-morbidities such as retinopathy. (13) In a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, curcumin supplementation also improved insulin sensitivity and acted to prevent diabetes in a prediabetic population. (14)
Beyond these amazing health benefits, curcumin supplementation can also be beneficial for the following conditions:
- Vision loss
- Gingivitis and periodontitis
- Chronic kidney disease
- Liver diseases
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Peptic ulcer
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Lichen planus (an autoimmune skin condition)
What is the Bioavailability of Curcumin?
Curcumin is poorly absorbed because it’s broken down very quickly at the intestinal wall and in the liver. Adding black pepper to curries and other dishes made with turmeric powder greatly increases the amount of curcumin available for absorption.
A natural substance in pepper called piperine slows down the metabolism of curcumin in the digestive tract and liver. In fact, piperine increases the absorption of curcumin by up to 2000 percent! (15)
Curcumin is fat soluble, so in addition to black pepper, it makes sense to eat some fat along with your turmeric-containing meals.
How Much Curcumin Should You Take?
Turmeric powder is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). An average adult in India consumes approximately 2 to 2.5 grams of dried turmeric root each day which is about a teaspoon. The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) states that any dose between 1 and 3 grams/day is safe for adults. (16)
With regards to standardized curcumin supplements, the UMMC recommends 400-600 mg three times per day. This is more than the 1.4 mg per pound (3 mg/kg) of body weight per day the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) recommends. (17)
For a 150 pound woman and a 185 pound man, this translates into 205 mg/day and 259 mg/day respectively. However, doses of curcumin much higher than this have been shown to cause very few side effects. (18,19)
When you’re considering turmeric or curcumin supplementation, it’s best to consult a professional who is familiar with your own health needs and conditions and who can make a personalized recommendation. That is the most safe and effective way to enjoy the healing benefits of turmeric.
What Are the Risks of Curcumin Supplements?
Medicinal amounts of turmeric powder (more than you would find in food) and high doses of curcumin taken over time can cause headaches and digestive distress. There are additional risks for some individuals. Anyone with the following conditions should avoid excess turmeric and curcumin unless prescribed by their doctor:
- Gallbladder problems (gallstones or biliary problems)
- Slow blood clotting (bleeding disorders or blood thinners)
- Diabetes (risk of low blood sugar)
- GERD (might get worse)
- Autoimmunity (even low doses of curcumin can stimulate the immune system)
- Hormone-Sensitive Conditions (curcumin can act like an estrogen)
- Infertility: (curcumin might lower testosterone levels and decrease sperm movement in men)
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Iron Deficiency
- Surgery (stop using turmeric and taking supplements at least two weeks prior to surgery)
How to Choose Turmeric Products
In amounts normally found in food, fresh turmeric root and turmeric powder are colorful, flavorful, and healthful additions to curries and other dishes. However it’s important to purchase high quality turmeric powder to ensure that its not adulterated with fillers and/or contaminated with toxins.
Unfortunately, samples of turmeric powder have been found to contain hidden additives and toxic metals. One study found unreported cassava starch, wheat, barley, and rye flours in samples of turmeric powder. It goes without saying that hidden sources of gluten are incredibly dangerous for people with celiac disease. (20)
Recently it was revealed that certain brands of turmeric powder contain lead. Lead accumulates in the body over time and can result in irreversible damage. Children are most susceptible to lead poisoning which causes growth and learning problems. In adults, lead poisoning causes brain, nervous system, stomach, and kidney damage. (21)
Turmeric powders may also contain unwanted coloring and anti-caking agents.
For safety and quality, choose organic turmeric powder from reputable companies such as Pure Indian Foods. Their Organic Turmeric Powder is non-GMO, contains no fillers, colorants, preservatives, or additives and is tested for heavy metal contamination.
For a supplement, products such as Purathrive Pure Turmeric Extract are designed to be highly absorbable and provide a full spectrum extract of organic turmeric. Purathrive is non-GMO and Prop 65 heavy metal compliant.
21 Healing Turmeric Recipes
There are many Paleo recipes that showcase turmeric in all its golden glory, proving that food can certainly be a delicious and effective medicine.