Turmeric, sometimes called Indian saffron or the golden spice, comes from a tall plant that grows in Asia and Central America.
The spice we refer to as turmeric, which has the scientific name of Curcuma longa, is actually the dried and ground rhizome of a plant in the same family as ginger. It is dried before the useful powdered form can be acquired.
The bright yellow colour of processed turmeric has inspired many cultures to use it as a dye. Ground turmeric is also a major ingredient in curry powder and is the spice that gives curry its yellow colour. Capsules, teas, powders and extracts are some of the turmeric products available commercially.
Modern medicine recognizes its health benefits and it has been used extensively in natural and folk medicine for centuries.
The benefits attributed to this bright yellow spice are often the result of the curcuminoids it contains. The most common curcuminoid is curcumin, which is now available as a supplement and in many remedies. While turmeric has many benefits, it is only about 3% curcumin by weight, and often more concentrated curcumin supplements are used.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
Turmeric may be the most effective nutritional supplement in existence. Many high quality studies show that it has major benefits for your body and brain and these health benefits include:
It possesses a natural anti-inflammatory compound
Inflammation is incredibly important. It helps the body fight foreign invaders and also has a role in repairing damage. Without inflammation, pathogens like bacteria could easily take over our bodies and kill us.
Although acute (short-term) inflammation is beneficial, it can become a major problem when it is chronic (long-term) and inappropriately deployed against the body's own tissues.
It is now believed that chronic, low-level inflammation plays a major role in almost every chronic disease. This includes heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer's and various degenerative conditions.
Therefore, anything that can help fight chronic inflammation is of potential importance in preventing and even treating these diseases.
Turmeric increases the antioxidant capacity of the body
Oxidative damage is believed to be one of the mechanisms behind aging and many diseases. It involves free radicals, highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons.
Free radicals tend to react with important organic substances, such as fatty acids, proteins or DNA.
The main reason antioxidants are so beneficial is that they protect our bodies from free radicals.
Turmeric, due to the presence of curcumin, happens to be a potent antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals due to its chemical structure. But curcumin also boosts the activity of the body's own antioxidant enzymes. In that way, curcumin delivers a one-two punch against free radicals. It blocks them directly and stimulates the body's own antioxidant mechanisms.
It can relieve pain
Many people, including doctors, cite their own anecdotal experience with turmeric as a pain reliever. The spice is reputed to relieve arthritis pain as well.
Studies seem to support turmeric for pain relief, with one noting that it seemed to work as well as ibuprofen (Advil) in people with arthritis in their knees. Though dosing recommendations seem to vary, those who participated in the study took 800 mg of turmeric in capsule form each day.
It improves liver function
Turmeric has been getting attention recently because of its antioxidant abilities. The antioxidant effect of turmeric appears to be so powerful that it may stop your liver from being damaged by toxins. This could be good news for people who take strong drugs for diabetes or other health conditions that might hurt their liver with long-term use.
It may help reduce the risk of cancer
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, shows promise for cancer treatment. Studies suggest it has protective effects against pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and multiple myeloma.
Improves brain function and lowers risk of brain diseases
Many common brain disorders have been linked to decreased levels of a type of growth hormone that functions in the brain (known as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, BDNF). This includes depression and Alzheimer's disease.
Interestingly, turmeric can increase brain levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). By doing this, it may be effective at delaying or even reversing many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function.
There is also the possibility that it could help improve memory and make you smarter, but this definitely needs to be tested in human controlled trials.
It can aid your digestion
Part of the reason that turmeric is in curry powder is because it adds an element of deliciousness to food. But turmeric can also play an important role in digesting that food. Because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric can contribute to healthy digestion.
It's used in ayurvedic medicine as a digestive healing agent. Now Western medicine has begun to study how turmeric can help with gut inflammation and gut permeability, two measures of your digestive efficiency. Turmeric is even being explored as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.
Boosts the immune system
The medicinal properties in turmeric may be able to boost the immune system, even in people with immune disorders. One study theorized that turmeric can moderate the immune system.
Turmeric leads to various improvements that should lower your risk of heart disease
Curcumin in turmeric may help reverse many steps in the heart disease process. Perhaps the main benefit of curcumin when it comes to heart disease, is improving the function of the endothelium, which is the lining of the blood vessels.
It is well known that endothelial dysfunction is a major driver of heart disease and involves an inability of the endothelium to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and various other factors.
Several studies suggest that curcumin leads to improvements in endothelial function. One study shows that it is as effective as exercise, another shows that it works as well as the drug Atorvastatin.
Let’s not forget that turmeric also reduces inflammation and oxidation (as earlier mentioned), which are also important in heart disease.
It also lowers cholesterol. Lowering LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol can help reduce your risk of developing some serious conditions, including heart disease and stroke. There is evidence that turmeric is effective at doing just that.
Prevents cystic fibrosis
Although this crippling, fatal disease is not discussed as often as cancer or heart disease, this particular condition attacks the lungs with thick mucus, as well as the pancreas. The curcumin found in turmeric has been shown to correct the protein-folding mutation that can cause the development of this deadly disease.
Can help treat uveitis
Uveitis is an inflammation of the iris. Some early research has indicated that curcumin found in turmeric may actually be as effective of a treatment as corticosteroids, but without the side effects.
Potential Risks and Complications of Turmeric
Turmeric is generally safe as long as you consume it in moderation. You should check with your doctor about consuming turmeric if you have had:
inflammation of the gallbladder or gallbladder stones
obstruction of bile passages
diabetes (turmeric supplements may lower blood sugar)
However, taking too much turmeric may cause side effects. These include:
It can upset your stomach
The same agents in turmeric that support digestive health can cause irritation when taken in large amounts. Some participants in studies looking at the use of turmeric for cancer treatment had to drop out because their digestion was so negatively affected. Turmeric stimulates the stomach to produce more gastric acid. While this helps some people's digestion, it can really do a number on others.
It thins your blood
Turmeric's purifying properties may also make you bleed more easily. It's not clear why this happens. Other suggested benefits of turmeric, such as lowered cholesterol and lowered blood pressure, probably have something to do with the way turmeric functions in your blood.
People who take blood-thinning drugs like warfarin (Coumadin) should avoid consuming large doses of turmeric.
It may stimulate contractions
You may have heard that eating foods seasoned with curry can stimulate labour. Although there's little clinical data to back up this claim, studies suggest turmeric can ease symptoms of PMS. So there may be something to the old wives' tale.
Because of its blood-thinning effects alone, pregnant women should avoid taking turmeric supplements. Adding small amounts of turmeric as a spice to food shouldn't be a problem.
Other side effects on the body include nausea, dizziness, or diarrhoea. In certain cases, excessive amounts of turmeric consumed in a medicinal capacity have caused heart irregularities.
It's important to use caution when deciding whether turmeric is something you need to try. As with any alternative therapy, speak with your doctor before you use turmeric to treat any health condition that you have.
Care to Make Turmeric Tea?
To make turmeric tea at home, follow these steps:
Boil 3 to 4 cups of water on the stove.
Add 2 teaspoons of turmeric and stir.
Simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Strain the tea into another container.
Add in honey, fresh squeezed lemon or orange juice, and milk to taste.