Turmeric is a spice that is widely used in Asian and Indian cuisine. The yellow powder is a staple in curry powder and is also known as Indian saffron. Turmeric root can also be used to brew tasty and vibrantly yellow turmeric tea.
The root of the plant is also commonly used in alternative Chinese medicine as well as Ayurvedic medicine. It is used to aid in the treatment of a host of medical conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to irritable bowel syndrome.
Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, can be taken as a dietary supplement or consumed in culinary dishes and beverages. Find out more about this striking spice and discover the uses and benefits of turmeric.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
1. Packed With Healthy Ingredients
Turmeric is part of the ginger family and contains many bioactive compounds that are vital for human health. Turmeric powder is made up of 3 to 8 percent of dietary minerals and contains 2 to 7 percent of dietary fiber. The chemical composition is largely made of carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. The main active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin — although the chemical composition of curcumin is only around 3 percent (1).
Since turmeric powder only contains a mild amount of curcumin, research on its health benefits has been misleading at times. That’s because most clinical trials and animal studies use turmeric extract rather than the spice to conduct experiments. The extract form of turmeric contains far higher concentrations than the natural powder or root. In order to replicate these results, you’d need to take curcumin supplements for the best results.
The health benefits of bioactive compounds in turmeric are also lessened by the spice’s bioavailability. Curcumin is rapidly absorbed in the liver and intestines, leaving little time for the golden spice to enter the bloodstream where it can aid human health.
Research shows that taking the spice with a dash of black pepper can increase the bioavailability by 2,000 percent (2). That’s largely due to the presence of piperine in pepper. You’ll find that many high-quality turmeric supplements also contain piperine to increase its usefulness.
2. Boosts Antioxidants
Research published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology found that curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that may aid in preserving human health. Antioxidants work to prevent damage caused by free radicals — compounds that interfere with normal cellular processes and cause oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been associated with a host of ailments ranging from cancer and degenerative diseases as well as premature aging (3).
A second study published in the Journal of Applied toxicology examined the impacts of the antioxidant curcumin on mercury poisoning. Researchers found that curcumin offered protective effects against mercury poisoning when consumed regularly as part of a routine diet. They also discovered that curcumin offered protective effects against oxidative stress (4).
3. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Curcumin is known to help decrease inflammation and reduce pain. In fact, that’s one of the main uses of turmeric in alternative medicine. While mild inflammation is a normal part of the body’s healing process, chronic inflammation can cause serious problems including rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease (5).
The antioxidant properties of curcumin help to increase blood circulation and prevent the body from signaling the reaction of inflammation. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Biochemistry found that curcumin suppressed the transcription factor known as NF-kappaB. This factor plays an essential role in the body’s natural defense system. When it is incorrectly triggered, it can lead to chronic inflammation (6).
Additional research shows that high doses of curcumin are more effective than popular NSAIDs. A study published in Oncogene found that curcumin was the most powerful anti-inflammatory agent when compared to ibuprofen and aspirin (7).
4. May Promote Heart Health
Taking a curcumin supplement may help to boost heart health and prevent serious problems such as heart attacks. A study published in Nutrition research examined the impacts of curcumin on endothelial and vascular function. The small study consisted of 32 women who were part of an exercise, control, or experimental group. Researchers found that taking curcumin was as effective as exercising regularly in improving heart function (8).
A second study published in Drugs R&D found that a curcuminoid mixture helped to improve heart function in patients with Type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that the curcumin mixture was as effective as atorvastatin — a common heart medication. The compounds may help to decrease blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels (9).
5. May Aid Brain Function
As people age, brain function deteriorates as body processes break down or become inefficient. This leads to diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Fortunately, research shows that taking curcumin may offer protective effects against degeneration.
A study published in Brain Research found that curcumin directly enhances the expression of a compound known as BDNF. The animal study also found that curcumin helped to increase element-building proteins that can help to counter the effects of chronic stress on brain health (10).
6. Cancer Uses
Researchers have recently begun to examine the potential benefits of turmeric and compounds such as curcumin on certain types of cancers. Most research has focused on colorectal cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer, and tumor growth in laboratory cancer cells. There have not been human trials showing the efficacy of turmeric in cancer treatment.
A study published in the AAPS Journal examined the effects of curcumin on cancer cells. Researchers found that curcumin induces cancer cell death — known as apoptosis — and inhibited growth through a variety of pathways including mitochondrial activation and DNA fragmentation (11).
Human studies have focused largely on the effects of curcumin in preventing cancer rather than treating it. One such study published in Cancer Prevention Research found that curcumin prevented procarcinogenic compounds from activating. The anti-inflammatory agent also helped to suppress carcinogenesis and may help lower the risk of cancer. The human trial consisted of 44 smokers and did not account for other potential contributing factors (12).
7. Digestion Benefits
Turmeric has long been used to treat digestive problems including inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that turmeric extract helped to improve IBS symptoms by seven percent. The study consisted of 500 volunteers who took a daily turmeric supplement over an 8-week period (13).
Additional research shows that the use of turmeric extract may be beneficial in treating ulcerative colitis. A study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology consisted of 50 patients with mild to moderate ulcerative colitis. At the conclusion of the 4-week study, 53 percent of patients given curcumin achieved clinical remission (14).
Side Effects of Turmeric
Always seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional before trying to treat serious diseases with natural alternatives. These professionals can help you understand the efficacy and side effects of supplements and dietary options.
Before you use turmeric, make sure you understand that research on its health benefits is still in its infancy. While it contains healthy anti-inflammatory compounds such as vitamin C and antioxidants, it may not be an effective treatment for many conditions.
Turmeric may be used topically to treat skin conditions or orally for overall health. Do not use this supplement or natural plant components if you are allergic to the turmeric plant. Stop use immediately if you feel dizzy, nauseous, or faint.
Turmeric is a popular golden spice that can liven up culinary dishes. While research shows it may be good for you, most of this research has been conducted using highly concentrated extract forms. If you want to reap the benefits of turmeric, try adding the spice to your regular diet or opt for a supplement instead.