Anyone interested in healthy living has no doubt heard of turmeric. What once was considered simply an essential part of curry powder is now one of the hottest super spices on the planet, with sources claiming it’s good for everything from joint pain to cancer. But what’s the real scoop on turmeric health benefits? Can it really do everything people claim? In this article, we’re going to dig into the science behind this exotic spice and find out everything you need to know.
A Short History of Turmeric
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a flowering perennial that’s native to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. A member of the ginger family, the turmeric plant sends out horizontal underground stems called rhizomes, from which the spice is derived.
Turmeric gets its characteristic orange-yellow color from the presence of phytochemicals called curcuminoids. One of these curcuminoids, curcumin, is also considered the main active ingredient in turmeric.
Turmeric has played a role as spice and medicine for approximately 4,000 years. In fact, it’s an important component of both Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, which have used turmeric for improving digestion and circulation and treating swelling, sprains, colds, and sore throats.
Turmeric Health Benefits
When it comes to the health benefits of turmeric, the research shows that this exotic spice possesses potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Curcumin, in particular, acts as a powerful antioxidant, helping to combat free radicals, which cause oxidative damage and can lead to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and, yes, cancer.
Let’s now take a closer look at what the research has to say about turmeric’s potential role in the prevention and treatment of cancer.
Multiple studies over the past several decades have found evidence to suggest that turmeric and curcumin may be effective partners in the fight against cancer via their ability to interfere with the initiation, progression, and metastasis of cancer cells.
What’s more, studies have found that curcumin can even make traditional cancer treatment more effective by causing cancer cells to become more sensitive to both chemotherapy and radiation. Curcumin’s ability to reduce levels of oxidative stress has also been found to protect healthy tissue from radiation and chemotherapy-induced toxicity. These effects have been documented in a variety of cancers, including prostate, breast, lung, brain, and colon cancers.
For example, a study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that curcumin, in combination with silibinin, an extract of milk thistle, decreased viability of breast cancer cells by reducing the expression of a gene involved in the disease.
And another study in the AAPS Journal found that curcumin, via a variety of mechanisms, kills a wide array of cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed, leading researchers to conclude that cancer cells may not be able to develop resistance to this phytochemical.
These findings make it clear that turmeric’s anti-cancer properties are certainly worth the price of admission, but there’s more to turmeric than just cancer.
The anti-inflammatory compounds in turmeric have made it one of the most popular dietary supplements in the treatment of chronic pain—a use backed up by science. In fact, a study published in the journal Oncogene found that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin are more potent than those seen with either aspirin or ibuprofen.
In addition, a clinical trial published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that a combination of curcumin and boswellic acid, a phytochemical found in frankincense, was effective in reducing pain-related symptoms in patients with osteoarthritis.
What’s more, the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric have been found to benefit patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In a clinical trial published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, researchers found that patients supplemented with curcumin experienced a significant improvement in pain, swelling, and tenderness—and the effects were even greater than those seen with the popular NSAID dilclofenac, without the side effects.
A study in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry involving patients with type 2 diabetes found that the addition of turmeric to treatment with the diabetes drug metformin led to significant decreases in fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c, and cholesterol levels as well as increased antioxidant status and reduction in lipid peroxidation—a process in which lipids interact with free radicals, degrade, and cause damage to cells.
A meta-analysis in the journal PLoS One returned with similar findings and found that the benefits of curcumin extended to those with prediabetes as well.
As mentioned, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are linked to an individual’s risk of developing a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease—the leading cause of death in the United States. However, numerous studies have found that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric may make it a significant ally in the prevention and treatment of this potentially deadly disease.
For example, a clinical trial published in the journal Drugs in R&D involving patients with type 2 diabetes found that a standardized turmeric extract that included curcumin was as effective as the cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin in improving endothelial function.
Another study in the journal Nutrition Research involving postmenopausal women found that curcumin supplementation was as effective as exercise in improving markers of age-related decline in endothelial function, including blood vessel dilation.
And a clinical trial in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease conducted on patients with COPD found that supplementation with curcumin led to a significant decrease in levels of a type of oxidized LDL associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and subsequent heart attack or heart failure.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that curcumin led to symptom improvement in patients with both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, suggesting that curcumin may offer a viable alternative to traditional treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.
In addition, a study in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design found that inflammatory bowel disease patients given 360 milligrams of curcumin 3 or 4 times a day for 3 months experienced a significant reduction in clinical relapses.
Numerous studies have found that turmeric possesses significant antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antiprotozoal activity. For example, a review published in BioMed Research International found that curcumin is effective against a wide array of pathogens, including Helicobacter pylori, the main cause of peptic ulcers, and Candida, the main cause of fungal infections worldwide.
Numerous studies have found that curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to reduce the buildup of amyloid plaques, may make turmeric useful in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
For example, a review published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that curcumin not only inhibits the formation of amyloid plaques but also binds copper, high levels of which may worsen the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and inhibits acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for learning and memory.
A clinical trial published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that participants with age-related memory loss who received 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily for 18 months experienced improvements in attention, memory, and mood.
And a meta-analysis published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that curcumin had a significant effect on both depression and anxiety symptoms.
How to Get More Turmeric in Your Diet
If you’re ready to get more turmeric in your diet, the good news is that the spice is widely used in a number of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, especially curries and vegetable and chicken dishes. But it can also be added to smoothies or turmeric lattes—known as golden milk.
And if cooking with curry isn’t your thing, there are plenty of turmeric supplements that can help you get your daily dose of curcumin.
But whether you’re adding turmeric to your favorite recipe or taking it in the form of a dietary supplement, it’s important to remember that turmeric powder not only contains a very small amount of curcumin (around 3%), but curcumin is also poorly absorbed, which can make for a double whammy where the use of turmeric is concerned.
However, taking black pepper or piperine—an alkaloid responsible for pepper’s pungent taste—along with turmeric can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by an astonishing 2,000%.
So to reap all the health benefits turmeric has to offer, be sure to sprinkle some black pepper in any recipes that call for turmeric. And, when shopping for a dietary supplement, choose one that contains black pepper or piperine and is standardized to 95% curcuminoids. Taking these steps will help ensure you get the most bang for your turmeric buck.