Turmeric is one of the most studied, and exciting, spices in the world at the moment. There are thousands of research papers concluding that turmeric, and in particular its active compound curcumin, is deserving of serious attention when it comes to its health benefits.
The results are exciting because concentrated forms of turmeric taken medicinally have no known side effects yet appear to have multiple health benefits, and crucially these benefits can be equal to that of conventional medicines.
Curcumin has proven anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and has been linked to good brain and cardiovascular health, strengthening weakened immune systems and helping patients with depression and diabetes. It’s little wonder it’s causing a buzz.
So, let’s look at these amazing health benefits in more detail:
Curcumin is perhaps best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is essentially a good thing, it’s our body’s response to fighting off infections and physical traumas. But it’s when this inflammatory response gets out of hand and becomes chronic that it’s a problem. Left untreated and this can lead to chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s. You can read more in our post ‘How does turmeric help chronic inflammation’.
Antioxidants are known to neutralise free radicals, harmful compounds created as a result of exposure to stress, pollution and other toxins. Too many free radicals cause a condition called ‘oxidative stress’ which can damage our tissues, alter our DNA and cause diseases such as cancer.
Studies have shown that plant based antioxidants are excellent non-toxic neutralisers of these damaging free radicals. Indian plant based diets that include high daily levels of turmeric are thought to be especially high in antioxidants and have led to turmeric being classed as a ‘functional food’, or a food that is known for its high content of active compounds, and is an excellent antioxidant.
3. Brain health and Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease that is the subject of much research, both in the prevention and the treatment. The disease is associated with the build-up of amyloid-beta plaques in the brain. Amyloid-beta is a protein that is responsible for the death of nerve cells and drugs that therefore target the destruction of this protein are a big area of research.
Curcumin has been linked with the breakdown of amyloid-beta and is an exciting area of research given also its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Another compound found in turmeric is turmerone, which has been found to stimulate the production of new stem cells which could help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The studies are in their infancy but are looking promising.
4. Cardiovascular health
Curcumin is also being investigated as a potential supportive therapy for cardiovascular disease, in both the prevention and management of the condition. Studies are still in the early stages but encouragingly there has been evidence of curcumin, taken at 500mg per day, lowering total cholesterol and increasing the percentage of HDL, or good cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease.
We know that inflammation and oxidative stress play a major role in atherosclerosis (when arteries become clogged with fatty deposits potentially causing blockages that can lead to heart attacks and strokes). LDL, or bad cholesterol, also contributes to atherosclerosis. Therefore, we can see that curcumin has a two-fold positive effect on heart disease with its anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering effects.
Studies have shown promising results on both preventing and treating cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, a small phase 1 clinical trial involving a group of 25 patients displaying precancerous cell changes had these changes reversed after being given concentrated curcumin, therefore preventing the cells becoming cancerous. In countries such as India where turmeric is regularly consumed in large doses (1-2g per day), research has found the incidence of certain types of cancers is very low. Results are not conclusive, but are promising.
Various studies have also demonstrated curcumin’s anticancer properties in patients with breast, bowel, stomach and skin cancers. When used alongside chemotherapy, it appears to kill more cancer cells than chemotherapy alone. Cancer and its treatment is an emotive subject, and we’re fully supportive of any cancer trials that help to fully understand the potential power of curcumin in this area.
Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease affecting the joints. It’s usually treated with strong NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that over time cause side effects such as gastro-intestinal complaints. Various studies have looked at the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin on arthritis and have had favourable outcomes.
One concluded that 200mg of curcumin a day over three months considerably improved all measurable markers of arthritis in patients with the condition compared to patients in the same study taking a placebo. Researchers then studied the effects of 1000mg curcumin per day over eight months and found the use of NSAIDs and arthritis related hospital admissions significantly decreased, as did gastro-intestinal complaints.
Patients with depression often show signs of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. Curcumin has been suggested as a potential treatment for depression, and not just for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Levels of a protein responsible for long term memory, learning and mood have been found to be reduced in people with depression. This protein, called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is found in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls eating and subsequently weight. Early studies have shown that curcumin can stimulate the production of BDNF and improve mood.
Our immune system is a complex system of chemicals, cells and biological interactions that under scientific conditions have been shown to be influenced by curcumin. Imagine curcumin as the modulator of the immune system, activating the good bits and supressing the bad bits.
This modulation is now the focus for numerous studies, including as an anti-cancer agent alongside chemotherapy treatments. Turmeric has also shown to have antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties which could mean turmeric based drugs and dressings in a hospital ward near you soon.
In one scientific study, 240 people considered to be pre-diabetic were chosen at random to either take a placebo pill or a 1.5g dose of curcumin on a daily basis. After nine months, 16.4% of those taking the placebo had gone on to develop type II diabetes (where the body cannot use insulin properly to keep blood sugar levels under control) whereas in the half that were given curcumin, none went on to develop the condition fully.
More studies are underway, but curcumin as a preventer of type II diabetes in pre-diabetic patients is an exciting area of research.
Turmeric has proven health benefits for those of us suffering Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, and chronic inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s Disease. But what about those of us without these conditions? Can it also help other digestive complaints? Well, of course it can! And, it turns out, in more ways than one…
Firstly, turmeric stimulates the gallbladder to release more bile. Bile is essential for breaking down and digesting the nutrients in our food. The longer our food stays undigested, the more sluggish our bowels become and we experience bloating, stomach cramps and gas. Turmeric also acts as a ‘carminative’ which helps to reduce the amount of gas the gut produces. An anti-flatulent, if you like…
Additionally, curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has an ‘antispasmodic’ effect. This means that it has a relaxing, anti-spasm, effect on the smooth muscle that lines the bowel (and the uterus, therefore making it useful for women who suffer painful menstrual cramps). Sufferers of indigestion, gas and bloating, let’s hear a collective hurrah!
And finally, it tastes amazing!
The fact that turmeric has all of these amazing benefits is made even better by the fact it tastes amazing. Imagine a curry without turmeric? It would taste pretty bland and look pretty dull without its beautiful golden yellow colour.
If you’re thinking of using turmeric medicinally it’s important to talk to your doctor first if you’re on treatment for any disease or condition. We’d never advocate stopping any treatments without full medical support.
A quick final word on the ‘bioavailability’ of turmeric (how readily the body absorbs and uses it to its benefit). Eating a whole teaspoon of pure turmeric powder would not only be an unforgettable experience (for the wrong reasons), it wouldn’t be very bioavailable. But, we have the solution!
Consuming turmeric at the same time as good fats and black pepper makes it more bioavailable. Ginger also helps the absorption of turmeric and is from the same plant family so it provides similar protective health benefits.
A turmeric capsule with a meal full of good fats will really ensure you get your full, bioavailable dose. And if your meals lack healthy fats its easy to include them, just add some cold pressed olive or coconut oil.
We think turmeric really can be the medicinal food of the future! If you know anyone who would benefit from reading this article please share it with them. Our mission is to promote turmeric around the world so people can use it to improve their health in a natural and effective way.
One-third of the British population aged 45 years and over have sought treatment for osteoarthritis. Every day, 8.75 million people in the UK deal with stiffness, tenderness, loss of flexibility and pain in their joints ("Osteoarthritis | Arthritis Research UK")...