Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that has been used for centuries in Indian cuisine and medicine. It comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant and has a tough brown skin and a deep orange flesh. Turmeric has a warm, bitter taste and is frequently used to flavor or color curry powders, mustards, butter, and cheeses. But beyond just being a kitchen staple, turmeric also has a long history of use in alternative and natural medicine.
The Active Compounds in Turmeric
The key health-promoting compounds found in turmeric are curcuminoids. The primary curcuminoid in turmeric is curcumin, which gives turmeric its characteristic golden hue. Curcumin has been found to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in numerous scientific studies.
Other curcuminoids found in turmeric include demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. Curcumin comprises around 2-5% of raw turmeric root. Curcumin content is generally higher in turmeric powders since they are made from dried and ground turmeric root.
One of the most extensively researched effects of curcumin is its ability to control inflammation. The journal Oncogene published the results of a study that evaluated several anti-inflammatory compounds. It found that aspirin and ibuprofen are least potent, while curcumin is among the most potent anti-inflammatory compounds in the world.
This anti-inflammatory action may help relieve pain from conditions like arthritis, injuries, and muscle soreness. The Arthritis Foundation suggests taking a turmeric supplement daily to help with inflammatory joint pain. Curcumin in turmeric can also help soothe inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
In addition to being a potent anti-inflammatory, curcumin is also a strong antioxidant. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals which are unstable molecules that can damage cells at the molecular level. Turmeric’s antioxidant effect may inhibit lipid peroxidation and the formation of dangerous advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
By countering free radicals, antioxidants are thought to help protect the body from numerous chronic conditions. Curcumin’s antioxidant properties may play a role in its observed benefits on brain health, heart health, cancer prevention, and slowing the aging process.
Improving Symptoms of Arthritis
Because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, numerous studies have found that turmeric can improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The results of a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that consuming 500 mg of turmeric daily can reduce joint pain and improve mobility in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
Turmeric may also be helpful for keeping joints healthy and preventing arthritis. A study in the journal Menopause found the curcumin was able to reduce the progression of arthritis in postmenopausal women. The women who took 90 mg of curcumin daily had less arthritis development compared to those who did not.
Helping with Digestive Problems
Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties may be beneficial for digestive issues such as colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Crohn’s disease. The results of a small pilot study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that curcumin was as effective as a prescription anti-inflammatory drug for maintaining remission in patients with ulcerative colitis.
Turmeric may also help stimulate bile production and aid digestion. Clinical studies have found that turmeric can increase bile secretion by up to 62% and stimulate gastric juice secretion by up to 39%.
Protecting the Brain
Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and directly enter the brain. Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may be protective for the brain by inhibiting lipid peroxidation and neutralizing free radicals. This may help delay or prevent age-related decline in brain function.
Additionally, curcumin has been shown to stimulate BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is a neuropeptide that plays a key role in neuroplasticity. Raising BDNF levels may support learning, memory, and higher thinking processes. More study is still needed, but curcumin shows promise for helping protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline.
Protecting the Liver
The curcuminoids in turmeric stimulate the production of bile by the gallbladder. This may help explain the protective effects that turmeric has on the liver. Several animal studies have observed curcumin’s protective role in liver injury and cirrhosis induced by various toxins. The results of a randomized controlled trial published in Phytomedicine showed that turmeric was just as effective as silymarin (a common anti-hepatotoxic agent) for improving liver function in patients with liver disease.
Supporting Heart Health
Curcumin has been found to help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels which may reduce atherosclerosis and lower the risk of heart disease. The results of a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrition Research showed that curcumin was able to reduce serum triglycerides by 23% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 17% while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol by 29% in patients with acute coronary syndrome.
Other studies have observed that curcumin helps inhibit platelet aggregation to prevent clot formation and improves endothelium function to regulate blood pressure.
Helping Prevent Cancer
Curcumin shows promise for helping prevent and even treat certain types of cancers. Its antioxidant properties help protect cells from mutagens that can cause DNA damage. Curcumin also enhances apoptosis (programmed cell death) which helps eliminate mutated precancerous cells. Furthermore, curcumin can inhibit enzymes involved in cell proliferation of tumors.
According to a review in Carcinogenesis, the results of animal and cell studies suggest that curcumin has protective effects against skin, oral, intestinal, and colon cancers. More human clinical trials are still needed.
Bioavailability of Curcumin
One downside of curcumin is that it has low bioavailability. Curcumin has poor solubility and absorption in water. Much of the curcumin in turmeric is metabolized before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. However, there are a few strategies that can help boost curcumin bioavailability:
- Consuming turmeric with black pepper – A compound in black pepper called piperine significantly enhances curcumin absorption.
- Consuming turmeric with fat – Fat increases solubility and absorption of curcumin.
- Taking a standardized curcumin extract – Extracts contain higher curcumin concentrations and enhance delivery to the body.
- Heat turmeric before consuming – Some studies suggest heating turmeric briefly increases curcumin solubility.
Potential Side Effects and Precautions
Consuming turmeric in food amounts is generally safe for most people. However, high doses of turmeric or curcumin extracts may cause some side effects including nausea, diarrhea, increased risk of bleeding, and low blood pressure. Turmeric is not recommended for people with gallbladder disease, bile duct obstruction, or those taking blood thinners or diabetes medications.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid high amounts of turmeric. It is best to speak with a doctor before taking turmeric or curcumin supplements if you have any specific medical conditions or are taking prescription medications.
How to Take Turmeric
There are several ways to add more turmeric into your diet or daily routine:
- Use it more frequently for cooking and preparing foods like curry powders, dressings, yogurt, soups, smoothies, etc.
- Drink turmeric tea by steeping shavings of raw turmeric root or turmeric powder in hot water.
- Make golden milk by mixing 1 tsp of turmeric powder with 1 cup of warm milk and honey.
- Add turmeric powder or extract to smoothies, juices, oatmeal, or other foods.
- Take 400-600 mg turmeric supplements 1-3 times daily but speak with your doctor first.
- Apply turmeric essential oils or creams containing curcuminoids to your skin.
Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory spice that contains curcuminoids including curcumin as its primary active ingredient. Curcumin has been found in studies to have numerous health benefits including easing arthritis symptoms, aiding digestion, protecting the brain and heart, preventing cancer, and more. To reap the benefits of curcumin, be sure to consume turmeric with pepper and/or fat to increase absorption. Turmeric shows promise for being both a delicious culinary spice and a potent medicinal herb.