Turmeric has been used for thousands of years to treat everything from wounds and sores to respiratory ailments and memory loss. While scientific research supports some of these claims, and the jury is still out on others, taking daily turmeric or curcumin supplements can improve your overall health and wellbeing.
There is a lot of hype about turmeric in the news. There are articles and ads everywhere toting the nearly-miraculous healing properties of this humble spice. It can be difficult to sort out the fact from the fiction, especially since medical studies are ongoing and the possible benefits and side effects of turmeric are not fully known.
A colorful, beautiful, and flavorful spice that has been cultivated in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, turmeric is now finding its way into many medicine cabinets. Questions remain, however. What does turmeric really do? Are there side effects? Is it better to consume it as a spice or a supplement?
The Origins of Turmeric
Turmeric, or Curcuma Longa, is a bushy, leafy plant that grows to about three feet in height. It produces pink or white flowers and a rhizome. It is the rhizome, similar in appearance to ginger, that produces the spice. When dried and ground to a powder, it is gloriously yellow in color, lending it the nickname “the golden spice”.
Turmeric has been harvested for medicinal purposes for over 4,500 years. The analyzed residue from pots dating back to 2500 B.C. found in New Delhi proved to contain turmeric, garlic, and ginger. Around 500 B.C., turmeric became an important part of Ayurvedic medicine.
The “science of life”, from the Sanskrit words Ayur, meaning “life” and Veda, meaning “knowledge or science”, is an Indian system of natural healing that is still practiced by many people around the world. Ayurvedic literature promoted the use of turmeric for any number of ailments, including congestion, wounds, bruises, skin rashes, and chicken pox. In today’s Ayurveda practice, turmeric is used to balance the three doshas or energies that govern the body.
Turmeric plays a role in Indian culture that is greater than just medicine and a nice flavoring for curry. In Hindu wedding ceremonies, the groom ties a yellow string with turmeric around the bride’s neck to indicate her strength, skill, and married status.
Brides and grooms are both anointed with turmeric before the wedding day as a blessing for happiness and a long, successful marriage.
Turmeric has been in Western cookbooks since 1747 when it made an appearance in a recipe for Indian pickles.
It has only continued to grow in popularity and fame as curries, and other dishes from Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent have spread throughout the world. Although India has known for its curative properties for millennia, it is only in the last century that the rest of the world caught on to the restorative and healing nature of turmeric.
The Benefits of Turmeric
Numerous scientific and medical studies have been conducted on turmeric, and the findings are conclusive. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is something of a wonder drug. This is because curcumin is a pleiotropic molecule or a molecule that influences multiple functions. Curcumin has been shown to provide positive therapeutic benefits for a host of ills.
Disease such as arthritis and fibromyalgia are usually associated with pain the in the joints. The accompanying swelling and reduced mobility affect the quality of life.
Turmeric supplements have been shown in clinical trials to reduce the inflammation and subsequent joint damage experienced by arthritis and fibromyalgia patients. It is also beneficial for athletes suffering from a performance injury such as a strain, sprain, or tendonitis.
Studies concerning the role of turmeric supplements in fighting cancer are still underway. There is much yet to be learned and discovered. However, early results are promising. Trials have been conducted for prostate, lung, colorectal, breast, pancreatic, and multiple myeloma cancers that have all indicated curcumin can reduce and stymie the growth of cancerous cells.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease
These chronic conditions of the digestive system and intestinal tract are uncomfortable at best and painful at worst. Their causes are not clearly known or understood. Therefore, there is a lot of trial and error by doctors and patients alike in determining a course of action to alleviate the discomfort. Turmeric can reduce the symptoms and promote a healthy digestive environment.
Recent studies provide optimism that turmeric supplements can strengthen cognitive function and reduce the long decline into dementia. More research is needed in this area, however, before any definitive assessments can be made.
Diabetes appears to be a modern scourge as the number of people diagnosed with Type-2 continues to rise every year. Curcumin has been found in trials to reduce blood sugar levels, prevent the development of diabetic complications, and possibly stave off the development of full-blown diabetes in those who are susceptible to the disease.
Early trials suggest that turmeric is helpful in the treatment of skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea. Curcumin is naturally anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Both of these qualities can reduce the symptoms and suffering associated with various skin diseases.
Patients may take oral supplements, but they can also make a turmeric paste to apply directly to the skin. Patients should be aware that turmeric will temporarily stain skin yellow.
Studies are indicating that curcumin can boost serotonin and dopamine levels in people with depression. It also increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), a protein necessary for brain health. In a controlled trial, curcumin had a measurable effect on patients who took the supplement alone or in addition to a prescription drug.
Risks and Side Effects
While turmeric is generally considered safe and non-toxic, there may be reactions to high amounts in some people. This is compounded by the lack of standardized dosage for it. Treating disease with turmeric or curcumin supplements is still very much a trial-and-error affair. It is advisable, to begin with very low doses and increase gradually, watching carefully for any adverse reactions.
Some common side effects that have been reported in clinical trials include abdominal pain, yellow stool, diarrhea, headache, and rash. More rarely, patients have reported an increased risk of bleeding, kidney stones in those already susceptible, and at extremely high doses of more than 3000 mg a day, an abnormal heart rhythm.
It is also possible for someone to be allergic to it, although it is not a common allergen. For patients trying it for the first time, there should be careful monitoring for any signs of rash, swelling, or difficulty breathing.
As with any herbal supplement or drug, patients should consult with a doctor before adding it or curcumin to their health regimen. This is particularly advisable for patients who are currently taking medication, as there may be contraindications.
Supplements or Powder – Pros and Cons
Turmeric is available in different forms. You can buy it in bottles and bags right off the spice shelf at your local grocery store. At many Indian or Asian groceries, you can purchase it in bulk quantities. There are also turmeric and curcumin capsules available at health food stores and online. Which one a person chooses to take should depend upon a few key factors.
The powder form has the benefit of being very easy to find and purchase. Just about every neighborhood grocery store will have it on the shelf. It also is a legitimate spice, so it tastes great and adds a lovely flavor to recipes. Traditional dishes such as Indian curries, Indonesian chicken, and Thai gkai kamin all use it and thereby add healthy benefits to a meal.
The drawback to using the powdered form as a health supplement is the low amount of curcumin in the spice. On average, there is 200 mg of curcumin in one teaspoon of ground turmeric. Most people need to take 500 to 1,000 mg of curcumin a day to receive any health benefit. Ingesting a tablespoon to a tablespoon-and-a-half of the powder every day may be too much for some people when recipes generally use small amounts.
The most obvious benefit to taking supplements is the ease with which a person can receive large doses of curcumin. With capsules ranging from 400 mg to 1950 mg, it is possible to get an entire day’s amount by swallowing one pill. This is ideal for those who want to get their curcumin in one shot while on the go.
However, the body struggles to absorb curcumin when it is concentrated in such large amounts. Studies have shown that taking black pepper with curcumin improves the absorption of curcumin into the bloodstream by 2000%. Therefore, it is a good idea to purchase supplements that contain piperine, a black pepper extract that will increase the absorption rate.
The Daily Dose
Regardless of whether one chooses supplements or powder, it’s possible to incorporate turmeric into a healthy lifestyle that can add enjoyment to the day. A few simple teas, infusions, and skincare regimens not only provide antioxidant benefits but can also be mood lifters and stress reducers.
This simple drink is popular in countries around the world. To two cups of almond, soy, or coconut milk, add:
- One tablespoon powdered turmeric
- ½ teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
- 3-4 black peppercorns
Heat this in a saucepan and simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Strain and enjoy.
This is a simple tea for boosting the immune system. To four cups of boiling water, add:
- One teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- A squeeze of lemon
Simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little honey, if desired.
It’s a great way to start the day or refresh yourself after exercise. Blend until smooth:
- 1 cup almond milk
- One tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 cup pineapple
- One large banana
- ½ cup carrot juice
- ½ tablespoon fresh ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric.
Turmeric is a natural skin brightener.
Mix 2 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 3 tablespoons milk, and a few drops of honey. Apply a thin layer to face and let dry for 15-20 minutes. Rinse off, scrubbing gently.
This is a relaxing way to soothe sore muscles and benefit from turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Add ½ cup turmeric powder to a hot bath and soak until the water turns cool. Note that it does stain, so use old towels to dry off, and wash the tub with bleach, if necessary.
Taking the Plunge
While turmeric and its accompanying side-kick, curcumin, are still being studied, it is evident that there are benefits to including it in your daily diet.
Topical applications are also an option for skin conditions and wound care. As always, it is important to check with a healthcare practitioner before beginning a new herbal supplement, and gradually increase your intake while watching for adverse reactions.
Featured image: CC0 Creative Commons, stevepb via https://pixabay.com.