There are some ingredients that, delicious as they may be, don’t belong just in the kitchen. Turmeric is one of them. Warm, earthy, and just a little bit bitter, the health benefits of this vibrant orange-yellow spice range from fighting inflammation and helping prevent certain types of cancer, to lowering the risk of heart disease and even supporting mental health.
What Is It?
Turmeric comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a South Asian plant belonging to the ginger family. A staple ingredient in many cuisines – it is the main spice in Indian curry – this aromatic botanical has a rich, long history of culinary, medicinal, and cultural traditions reaching back thousands of years.
In Ayurveda, the Indian system of holistic medicine, turmeric is one of the most important spices for health and wellness. It is believed to balance digestion and metabolism and reduce harmful toxins from the bloodstream. It is also an important part of several religious practices around the world, serving as a symbol of purity and prosperity for many Hindus.
But turmeric is not just any old alternative remedy or a health food fad. Extensive research over the past several decades has been done on its main bioactive component: curcumin. This powerful polyphenol boasts a multitude of health benefits and gives turmeric its characteristic yellow tint.
These are some of the impressive evidence-based effects of turmeric and curcumin.
Arthritis and Inflammation
Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and swelling of the joints. It doesn’t have a cure, but many treatments can slow it down and help relieve stiffness and inflammation. According to the Arthritis Foundation, curcumin may help ease arthritis and osteoarthritis symptoms.
One of turmeric’s most famous and well-researched effects is its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that curcumin is capable of fighting inflammation on a molecular level by blocking specific molecules that trigger inflammation and contribute to many chronic conditions.
In fact, a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that, after supplementing with turmeric capsules over a period of 12 weeks, participants experienced significant improvement in pain and stiffness of knee osteoarthritis compared to those taking a placebo pill.
Another study comparing curcumin with the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac, showed that both treatments were similarly effective at relieving arthritis pain. More specifically, 97 percent of those taking diclofenac, and 94 percent of those taking curcumin reported at least a 50 percent improvement in their pain.
Turmeric has been linked to improved brain function and better memory processing. An 18-month study conducted by UCLA researchers found that adults aged 50 to 90 with mild, age-related memory issues experienced significant improvements to their memory and attention after taking 90 milligrams of curcumin twice a day for 18 months.
Early-stage research has suggested that curcumin could be useful for delaying, or even reversing certain degenerative cognitive conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although more research is still needed.
Curcumin may also have positive mental health effects. In a small, short-term randomized-control trial, investigators divided 60 participants with major depressive disorder into three groups: one group took an antidepressant, one was given curcumin, and another group was given both. After six weeks, participants taking both curcumin and the antidepressant experienced significant improvements. Those who took curcumin alone saw similar improvements to the ones taking the antidepressant.
However, there is not enough evidence to recommend turmeric or curcumin as a depression treatment until more research is conducted on the subject.
Although there isn’t enough scientific evidence to embrace turmeric as a cancer treatment or prevention strategy, preliminary research shows that curcumin may target several molecules that can cause cancer cells to reproduce.
A 2009 study by the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists revealed that curcumin might employ as many as 40 different mechanisms to kill cancer cells. Such diverse approaches to eradicate them, the authors of the study hypothesized, may make cancer cells less likely to become resistant to curcumin.
Some laboratory and animal studies have also found that turmeric’s curcumin may slow down cancer progression, protect healthy cells from radiation, and make chemotherapy more effective.
Despite its impressive health effects, turmeric has one important downside: curcumin only makes up about 5 percent of turmeric, and the bloodstream can’t absorb it effectively when eaten by itself. Fortunately, there are ways to optimize curcumin absorption and maximize its health benefits.
Combining turmeric with black pepper can enhance its absorption. In fact, research shows that piperine – black pepper’s main bioactive compound – can increase curcumin’s bioavailability by up to 2000 percent. Mixing and matching these spices may also help boost turmeric effects; studies suggest that piperine has significant anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and gastrointestinal properties.
Is Turmeric Safe?
Turmeric is generally regarded as safe for most healthy adults when consumed in the amounts found in food or when taken as an oral supplement in the recommended doses. Long-term use or large amounts of turmeric or curcumin are not recommended as there is not enough research to confirm their safety for prolonged periods.
How much Turmeric Supplement to Consume?
To fully benefit from its many protective and healing properties, take 1000-1500 mg a day of turmeric extract. Make sure it states it contains 95% curcuminoids on the label.
Read about the extensive health conditions and diseases Turmeric/Curcumin can prevent or address in this systematic review: Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trials
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