If you are looking to improve your health overall, turmeric is one surprising place that you might turn. The spice is common as a flavoring for curries and as a coloring agent in general, but it’s easy to be unaware of turmeric health benefits - which is a bit of a shame really.
In this post, I’m going to show you why you should be aware of turmeric and how it can help you to improve your health.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a plant native to southern India and Indonesia, and it belongs to the ginger family. The plant is harvested for its rhizomes and this is the form of the plant that people are the most familiar with. Turmeric has had a long history and has played an important role in different cultures for more than 5,000 years, particularly in Eastern cultures.
When they are not being used fresh, the turmeric rhizomes are boiled and dried, after which they are ground down to form a yellow-orange powder. This powder is a spice and is most frequently used in curries (particularly in Indian cuisine). As such, it is extensively used in South Asian cooking.
The powder can also be used as a dye ingredient and is used to color yellow mustard condiments.
The flavor of turmeric is warm, peppery and a little bitter – which is a key reason why it is so prevalent in curries. Traditionally, turmeric has had only limited popularity in Western cultures, particularly as curries are not a common Western dish.
However, growing interest in the potential health benefits of the spice has led to increased use (1). Plus, dishes from other cultures have also become more popular in general.
Indeed, turmeric has been used as a traditional medicine for more than 2,000 years, and research is beginning to suggest that there is a scientific basis for this use (2).
Turmeric and Curcumin
From a health standpoint, the most important group of chemicals in turmeric are the curcuminoids. These are natural phenols and are responsible for the yellow color of turmeric.
Curcumin is the major source of turmeric’s yellow pigment and it is chemically similar to pigments in other plants (like in grapes, fruit juices and green tea). Interestingly, curcumin is also found in ginger, but in much lower quantities. As with many other natural phenols, curcumin also has significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Absorption and Bioavailability
Despite the potential health benefits of curcumin, issues with the compound make it difficult to use in drugs.
A key reason for this is that curcumin is poorly soluble in water. The poor solubility of curcumin makes it difficult to get a therapeutic level of curcumin into the bloodstream. Additionally, even within the body, curcumin continues to be poorly absorbed, including low absorption in the gut.
Furthermore, the compound is rapidly metabolized and eliminated from the body, although some formulations are more effective than others at staying in the body (5). Likewise, unmodified curcumin is not bioavailable to the brain, which reduces its potential health benefits (6).
Because of these issues, the most realistic way to get a therapeutic level of curcumin in the bloodstream is to use curcumin extract. It is simply not practical to consume turmeric in large enough quantities to get the desired health benefits from curcumin.
This issue has resulted in an emphasis on developing curcumin derivatives that are more soluble and hence more bioavailable.
This process of derivative synthesis may ultimately result in compounds that are more biologically potent than curcumin is itself.
To understand these derivatives, it is important to look at the difference between absorption and bioavailability. Both of these areas are important, but improving one doesn’t necessarily mean that the other is improved.
For example, some biological processes act to ‘tag’ curcumin. Doing so can interfere with how bioavailable the curcumin is, which contributes to the curcumin being rapidly removed from the body.
This process also affects how bioavailable the curcumin is to some parts of the body.
One formulation (the Sabinsa C3 complex) attempts to improve bioavailability by using piperine to inhibit a process known as glucuronidation. This process is part of the way that the body removes metabolized drugs and toxins. By inhibiting the process, the formulation has the potential to reduce how quickly curcumin is cleared from the body (7).
Other approaches to improving the effectiveness of curcumin include making it more soluble or placing it in a capsule to protect it from the process of hydrolysis. This latter approach would also help to control where the curcumin was absorbed (8).
One study compared absorption of curcumin across four formulations. The authors found that the highest absorption came from a formulation that included a hydrophilic carrier, natural antioxidants and cellulosic derivatives (9).
This particular formulation was absorbed 45.9-fold higher than the unformulated curcumin mixture.
This suggests that formulations of curcumin may be critical for getting adequate levels of the chemical in the blood and for ensuring sufficient bioavailability.
There have also been some indications that co-supplementation might play a role in increasing the bioavailability of curcumin (10). However, more recent research has indicated that piperine doesn't offer any significant benefits when used with curcumin (11)
As new solutions to the issue of bioavailability continue to be developed, it is very possible that curcumin may start to be considered in a therapeutic role (12).
There are challenges in the absorption and bioavailability of curcumin, which can make formulations desirable
The majority of studies on health benefits have focused on the impact of curcumin specifically and curcumin does play a strong role in turmeric health benefits. However, traditionally turmeric itself has been used to treat a wide range of health problems. These include blood disorders, infectious diseases and gastric issues.
Indeed, modern research has supported the use of turmeric against a range of health problems and for supporting health overall. Many of these studies will be considered in detail later in this post.
Many of the health benefits of turmeric can be obtained through curcumin alone, but this is not the case for all of them. Like most plant-based products, turmeric is complex chemically and includes many different chemical components.
Some impacts of turmeric are entirely independent of curcumin (13). For example, curcumin-free turmeric has significant biological activities, including anticancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic functions (14). These activities must come from the turmeric itself as curcumin is not present.
The presence of turmeric oil in turmeric may also increase how bioavailable curcumin is (15).
Turmeric also contains a number of important nutrients that can help to promote health. In a serving of a tablespoon (roughly 6 g), the following nutrients are present in significant quantities:
- Manganese (26% of DV)
- Iron (16% of DV)
- Vitamin B6 (6% of DV)
- Potassium (5% of DV)
- Magnesium (3% of DV)
- Vitamin C (3% of DV)
Turmeric has many nutrients and may increase curcumin absorption
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Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
Typically, natural remedies are not well researched, because it is challenging to identify their molecular targets or their active components. This can make it difficult to determine specifically what health benefits a given compound has or why it has those health benefits.
However, this is not the case with turmeric, as curcumin has been identified as a key component of the spice and has been associated with a wide range of potential health benefits (17).
Indeed, there have been more than 7,000 studies highlighting the benefits of curcumin and/or turmeric itself for health (18).
In some cases, the evidence for these turmeric health benefits is strong, but in other cases, much more research is needed to determine whether turmeric does offer significant benefits.
This section will consider the key health benefits that research has focused on and how much evidence there is supporting these benefits.
Often the health outcomes are specifically associated with curcumin, and often curcumin extract is used in the research rather than turmeric itself. However, there are a few cases where turmeric itself has been associated with health benefits, independent of curcumin.
Perhaps the most significant health impact of curcumin is its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is a biological response that occurs as the result of harmful stimuli.
The response is a protective one and inflammation aims to eliminate whatever caused the cell injury and start the process of repair. Because of this, inflammation can be a good thing in the body. However, inflammation is also a process that needs to be closely regulated. Too much inflammation can result in a range of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer (19).
There are also many disorders that result in abnormal levels of inflammation.
Likewise, inflammation can also cause significant pain and in many cases may not be providing significant therapeutic value. This is why one of the key types of pain relievers are NSAIDs – which stands for NonSteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs.
These drugs reduce pain and also act to reduce inflammation. This makes them particularly useful for treating long-term pain (23). NSAIDs are considered to be reasonably safe and are used very commonly.
However, they do actually have the potential for some significant side effects, such as stomach bleeding and strokes. Many other people find minor side effects when using NSAIDs. This makes finding alternatives to NSAIDs pretty desirable.
Compounds with anti-inflammatory properties can act in the same fashion as NSAIDs in regards to inflammation. Plus, many natural compounds have few to no side effects, compared with the artificially created NSAIDs.
Research has suggested that curcumin has potent anti-inflammatory properties and may be as effective as anti-inflammatory medication, particularly as it interacts with many components of the inflammatory pathways (24,25). Indeed, curcumin has been used as a traditional treatment for inflammatory conditions in India for a long time (26).
This activity has been linked to inhibiting NF-κB, which is a component of a key inflammatory pathway (27). Essentially, curcumin acts as an important way of fighting inflammation with the body at the molecular level.
Not only does it have the demonstrated ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin also has a high degree of safety (28).
Through its anti-inflammatory action, curcumin has been linked to the management of osteoarthritis and can potentially help to decrease pain associated with the disease (29).
Likewise, one study found curcumin supplementation (375 mg three times per day for 12 weeks) was effective at improving outcomes for patients with chronic anterior uveitis. This is an inflammatory disease that affects the eye and only has one other common form of treatment (32).
There is also growing interest in the use of curcumin for the treatment of digestive diseases, which are often associated with inflammation (33).
Curcumin can reduce the level of inflammation without significant side effects
As an Antioxidant
There has been growing interest in the antioxidant impacts of foods and the potential outcomes that antioxidants can have on health. Much like inflammation, oxidation is a biological process that plays many important roles within the body.
Despite this, oxidation can also be a damaging reaction, which is why animals and plants maintain complex systems to make sure too much oxidation does not occur. One of the key issues with oxidation is the production of free radicals.
Excessive levels of free radicals in the body lead to a phenomenon known as oxidative stress. Because of this, many studies focus directly on oxidative stress and ways to decrease levels of oxidative stress (36).
There are also valid concerns that high levels of oxidative stress may contribute to the development of diseases and to some components of the aging process (37). Antioxidants, including curcumin, may help to protect against damage to DNA and other parts of the body (38).
Antioxidant assays have been able to successfully show that curcumin acts as an antioxidant and is also able to scavenge free radicals, an important task for health (43). Curcumin has also been shown to offer protective benefits to organs by promoting the expression of antioxidant enzymes (44).
One animal study looked at the role of curcumin in protecting against mercury toxicity. The authors found that curcumin had a protective effect and reduced parameters of oxidative stress (45). Similarly, another study found that curcumin was able to improve outcomes for rats exposed to doses of 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (46).
Overall, curcumin is particularly effective as an antioxidant because it can block free radicals and also stimulates antioxidant mechanisms within the body (47).
Research has also indicated that the use of turmeric and black pepper during cooking can significantly decrease the level of lipid peroxidation. This is the process of oxidative damage to lipids and lower levels of lipid peroxidation are likely to be associated with increased health benefits (48).
Curcumin has strong antioxidant ability, helping to protect the body from damage by free radicals
Immune System Benefits
The immune system is an important component of the body, as it is critical for the way that the body responds to pathogens (disease-causing agents).
When a person has a strong immune system they are less likely to get sick and their body is better at fighting off any potential issues. In contrast, a weak immune system leaves a person vulnerable to disease and infection. This generally results in lower health overall.
This means that any approach that improves the immune system is better for overall levels of health.
Over the last two decades, research has indicated that curcumin plays a key role in the immune system.
For example, in low doses, curcumin has been linked to improvements in antibody responses (49).
For example, one study found that turmeric could play a role in reducing the symptoms of food allergies by regulating the immune response (51,52). This function increases the strength of the immune system overall and makes curcumin a highly important compound (53).
Curcumin has the potential to strengthen the immune system by restoring T cells and increasing their number
Benefits to the Liver
Another key area where curcumin offers health benefits is in relation to the liver.
This is especially relevant for protecting the liver and helping to heal a diseased and damaged liver.
This impact was associated with the antioxidant role of curcumin as well as its ability to reduce inflammation.
In rats induced with diabetes, one study found that curcumin treatment was able to improve outcomes, helping the liver to return to normal (55), while a second study on this topic found a similar outcome (56).
This offers an indication that curcumin may be particularly relevant in patients with diabetes.
A clinical study looked at administering a fermented form of turmeric to participants who had markers for liver dysfunction or damage. The study found that the supplementation significantly reduced the presence of markers for liver damage, suggesting that the supplementation decreased liver damage overall (57).
Some research suggests that curcumin can help restore the liver following liver damage
Protection against Alzheimer’s Disease
Another important role of curcumin is that it potentially offers protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
The pathology of Alzheimer’s disease involves the development of amyloid-β plaques.
The mechanisms behind the development of these plaques are still not fully understood. However, curcumin has been associated with inhibiting the formation of key complexes that play a role in this development (58).
Likewise, the use of curcuminoids has been linked to increases in how fast the brain can clear out amyloid-β in animal models (59). Because of these two processes, curcumin can be considered an anti-amyloidogenic compound (60).
Some researchers argue that curcumin may play a key role in protecting against Alzheimer’s disease in a range of different ways.
One of the reasons for this is that Alzheimer’s disease development is linked to oxidative stress and inflammation (61). As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin has the potential to significantly protect against Alzheimer’s disease development.
Likewise, curcumin’s positive impact on the immune system may also help the body to clear out any developed amyloid-β plaques.
Additionally, as discussed previously, curcumin may play a direct role in protecting against the development of amyloid-β plaques (65).
One study found that the use of curcumin in an animal model significantly decreased the amount of stress from the plaques as well as inhibiting their formation (66).
Curcumin is so effective in this role because it has a lipophilic nature. This gives it the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and target the plaques.
Research also suggests that some formulations of curcumin may help in the clearance of amyloid-β plaques because of curcumin’s role in improving the immune system and helping to correct immune defects (67).
One reason for these effects might be the mechanism of metal chelation. Metals have the potential to induce the development of amyloid-β plaques. The process of metal chelation can help to remove metals and reduce the risk of plaque development.
Curcumin interacts with copper and iron within the body, suggesting that it may act as a chelating agent (68). It may also reduce the inflammatory responses that the amyloid-β plaques stimulate (69, 70).
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which makes preventative approaches very important for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
There is growing evidence that curcumin may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and may also play a therapeutic role
Cancer is another major health issue that is difficult to combat, making prevention a key approach. Although there is less research on this topic, curcumin has been linked to decreased cancer risk.
There is also growing interest in the potential for curcumin analogs to be developed with higher potential against cancer (72). For example, research in the pathway of ovarian cancer has suggested that both curcumin and formulations of curcumin may be effective as a component of cancer treatment (73).
Curcumin may prove to particularly important in this role in the future because of the long-term safety of curcumin and its minimal side effects, particularly compared to most cancer drugs (74). Additionally, research indicates that turmeric itself may be an effective tool for reducing the prevalence of oral mucositis, which is a highly significant side effect that can occur as the result of cancer treatment (75).
Part of this role may come from its ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and stopping the cell cycle at a critical point (78).
Another interesting role of curcumin is in inhibiting an enzyme called carbonyl reductase 1 (CBR1).
By inhibiting CBR1, curcumin can increase the efficiency of an anti-tumor drug called daunorubicin, making curcumin important as a potential complement to drug therapy for cancer (79).
Likewise, curcumin has been associated with inhibiting expression of COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-2), which is an important enzyme in the development of colon cancer (80).
As a type of cancer treatment, curcumin is particularly interesting because it can help to enhance the immune system and restore its function. In contrast, all other types of cancer drugs decrease the strength of the immune system, making it harder for patients to fight off infection (81).
This means that turmeric may help to improve the way that the body itself can respond to cancer, while also potentially combating the cancer itself at some level (82). Even with the limitations of current research, this area is still a significant example of potential turmeric health benefits.
Curcumin can decrease the risk of cancer, the efficiency of treatment against cancer and turmeric can potentially decrease the risk of side effects from treatment
Mental Health and the Mind
Some research has suggested that curcumin can improve outcomes for some mental health issues, particularly for depression.
Finding effective treatments for depression has been an ongoing area of research, particularly as around 30% of patients with depression do not respond to the currently available drugs. Furthermore, the majority of depressed patients do not reach complete remission, even with drug therapy (83).
A randomized, double-blind study looked at the use of curcumin extract supplementation and depression.
The study analyzed outcomes from an earlier study that involved supplementation with 500 mg of the curcumin extract twice a day for a period of eight weeks among patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
The authors found that supplementation with curcumin influenced biomarkers in an antidepressant manner (84). This suggests that curcumin supplementation may be relevant for people suffering from depression.
Another study looked at curcumin supplementation in 60 patients with major depressive disorder. In this case, the level of curcumin supplementation was 1,000 mg.
The study noted that outcomes were improved for the patients who took curcumin compared to those who took the antidepressant fluoxetine.
However, the differences were not statistically significant (85). This offers an indication that curcumin has a similar effect to a prescription antidepressant, although the outcome of the study is relatively weak.
Likewise, supplementation with curcumin has been linked to decreased levels of depressive-like behaviors in studies on mice (86). This includes impacts on stress-induced behaviors, indicating that curcumin may decrease the impact that stress has on behavior (87).
In humans, this impact may be particularly important as stress is associated with many negative physical and psychological health impacts.
A second theory is that the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) may play a role in curcumin’s action against depression.
Antidepressants have been found to increase the level of BDNF in animal models, suggesting that BDNF may act as a marker for depression and research on humans has found similar conclusions (90). Furthermore, both antidepressants and curcumin have been linked to increases in BDNF levels (91).
Curcumin has also been linked with increases in levels of DHA. Deficiencies in DHA have been linked to multiple cognitive disorders, including anxiety disorders. This type of deficiency is also relatively common, particularly in vegetarians who receive limited amounts through their diet.
This outcome has significant implications for human health and may potentially provide a way of reducing the likelihood of anxiety disorder development (92).
Turmeric itself, as well as curcumin, has also been linked to improvements in memory (93).
One study used a double-blind design to consider the impacts of supplementing with turmeric, cinnamon or both alongside a breakfast of white bread.
The authors found that among participants that took turmeric, working memory improved independently of other markers (94). Likewise, curcumin has been linked to improvements in cognition and neuron development (95).
Curcumin can act as an antidepressant and has also been linked to improvements in memory
Curcumin also has the potential to act in a protective manner, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and improving outcomes overall. This impact has been demonstrated in animal models, where curcumin was shown to decrease levels of heart failure and cardiac hypertrophy (96).
An experimental study considered the role of curcumin supplementation and exercise on vascular function for women who had experienced menopause.
The study assigned participants into three groups. One group was the control, one group received curcumin supplementation for eight weeks, while the third group went through moderate aerobic exercise for the same eight week period.
The authors found that both curcumin supplementation and aerobic exercise were able to improve vascular outcomes (97).
Another experimental study looked at outcomes for 72 patients who had type 2 diabetes. Participants were placed into three groups. One group received NCB-02 supplementation (two capsules twice per day), another group received atorvastatin (once per day) and the third received a placebo. All groups took their treatments for eight weeks (98).
NCB-02 is a standardized preparation of curcumin that has been used in a number of studies (99). In this case, the participants received capsules containing 150 mg of curcumin.
The authors found that supplementation with curcumin had positive impacts on cardiovascular outcomes, particularly through decreases in indications of oxidative stress and inflammation.
The positive outcomes of the curcumin were more significant than for atorvastatin, which is the drug typically prescribed for reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack.
As there are many concerns about the possible side effects of statin medications (like atorvastatin) finding natural compounds like curcumin that can have similar impacts is an important priority for research.
Curcuminoids, in general, have also been shown to decrease the risk of a heart attack following a coronary artery bypass procedure (100). This offers another indication of the cardiovascular benefits of curcumin.
Curcumin can help to protect the heart, decreasing the risk of a heart attack
Other Turmeric Health Benefits
Some research indicates that curcumin may be useful for patients with diabetes. In particular, curcumin may help to lower levels of blood sugar and improve long-term complications from the disease (101).
A double-blind study of 240 prediabetic patients found that supplementation with curcumin for 9 months was able to significantly reduce the number of individuals who developed type 2 diabetes (102).
Additionally, turmeric supplementation may be an effective way of improving outcomes in conjunction with normal treatment for diabetes.
One study looked at the potential for this outcome by examining 60 patients with diabetes undergoing metformin therapy.
The participants of the study were split into two groups. One group continued taking the metformin therapy while the second group took turmeric supplements in addition to the therapy.
The authors found that the group taking turmeric supplements had improved levels of inflammation, oxidative stress and blood glucose (103).
On a completely different note, research has found that curcumin can decrease the ability of some chemicals to act estrogenic. This is an important role, as estrogenic chemicals may contribute to the development of breast cancer (104).
Because of its role as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin may also help to reduce some of the negative impacts of aging and age-related diseases, particularly in relation to improving the health of older adults (105,106).
Researchers have also linked these roles to possible protection against periodontal disease (also called gum disease or gingivitis) (107).
Turmeric itself has also been linked to improvements in health because of its bioactive compounds (108).
Curcumin is also linked to a range of other health benefits, although research has been relatively limited
Some of the Science behind Curcumin’s Health Benefits
As with many other compounds from plants, curcumin affects health through a range of mechanisms.
One significant mechanism is through NF-κB. NF-κB is a protein complex in the body that plays a role in controlling DNA transcription. This is an important protein because it is critical in the way that cells respond to challenges, including oxidation, stress and infection.
While NF-κB is important in the body, it is only supposed to be active some of the time. When the protein is misregulated and ends up being active more often, it can cause serious health issues.
In particular, many types of cancer involve misregulated NF-κB (109). In some cases, this occurs because of mutations in transcriptions factors for NF-κB which alter the expression of the protein. In other cases, tumor cells may secrete specific factors that are able to control the activity of NF-κB.
Because of this, there is a growing interest in regulation of NF-κB for the treatment of cancer. In theory, targeting the protein may act as a key way to prevent cancer cells from replicating - although theory does not always align with practice.
In addition, NF-κB is a key component in the inflammation pathway, controlling many genes that influence inflammation.
In many inflammatory diseases, NF-κB is also chronically active, suggesting that greater control over NF-κB may decrease the prevalence of these diseases and of inflammation as a whole.
This makes curcumin highly significant because it can act as an inhibitor of NF-κB (110,111), meaning that curcumin may play a key role in inhibiting cancer (112) as was discussed in depth previously.
Research also indicates that curcumin is able to suppress multiple different forms of NF-κB activation (113) and may even be able to promote apoptosis (programmed cell death) in some cancer cells (114).
Some NSAIDs have also been associated with suppression of NF-κB, including ibuprofen and aspirin. However, many of these tend to be much less potent than curcumin and curcumin is one of the most potent compounds for protecting against inflammation and cancer cell proliferation (115).
Curcumin can play a key role in regulating NF-κB when it is chronically active
Turmeric and curcumin are both relatively safe and are not associated with significant side effects (116), which makes turmeric health benefits even more important.
This is particularly true for turmeric, which has been a prevalent component of Eastern diets for many generations.
In fact, curcumin tends to be safer than some medications that it has similar effects to, such as NSAIDs or statins.
However, curcumin does have the potential to interact with some medications, partially because of how similar its impacts are.
Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, there is significant potential for curcumin to interact with NSAIDs. This suggests that curcumin should be used as an alternative to NSAIDs, rather than in addition to them.
Additionally, other interactions exist with blood thinning agents as well as with drugs that act to reduce stomach and many diabetes medications. In the case of diabetes medications, turmeric can make the impacts of the drugs stronger. This increases the risk of low blood sugar for people taking medication for diabetes.
In general, you should always be careful about taking any form of supplement if you are on prescription medication, and check with your primary physician before starting supplementation. While dietary levels of turmeric are safe, women who are breastfeeding should not be taking turmeric supplements.
There is also the chance that you may be allergic to turmeric. If you have an allergic reaction, this should be pretty easy to spot. In some cases, an allergic reaction might involve the development of nausea or vomiting, and turmeric in lotions might result in the development of rashes.
However, being allergic to turmeric is not common, and you probably already know if you are.
Turmeric and curcumin are generally safe, but care is still needed if you are on medications or have a medical condition
Getting Health Benefits from Turmeric and Curcumin
There are significant turmeric health benefits, particularly because of the curcumin.
On average, pure turmeric powder contains around 3% curcumin by weight (117), although there is considerable variation between different types of powder.
This can make finding the best approach for health benefits can seem a bit complicated.
After all, most studies on the topic have focused on curcumin supplementation and they vary considerably in how much curcumin was actually taken.
Using turmeric itself for health benefits is a way of getting health benefits from the curcumin, as well as from the other components of turmeric.
In Indian populations, dietary intake of turmeric has been estimated at between 2.0 g and 2.5 g per individual. Taking curcumin levels into account, this level of intake suggests that adults might be consuming between 60 mg and 100 mg of curcumin on a daily basis (118).
India has a particularly low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, and this practice may be linked to different patterns of food consumption, including the prevalence of turmeric in the diet. Notably, the practice of using turmeric in curries may act to increase its bioavailability as this process means that the curcumin ends up extracted into fat because of the way that it is dissolved (119).
This suggests that having somewhere from 1 to 2.5 g of turmeric daily in the diet may offer considerable health benefits without posing much risk. This level of dose is true for using the cut root or using dried and powdered root.
Getting this amount in your diet might seem challenging, but it is easier than it seems, and I will talk about some key approaches a little later in this post.
Turmeric Powder vs. Blends
Pure turmeric powder or turmeric rhizomes that you prepare yourself tend to be the best sources of curcumin. It is also possible to obtain turmeric through curry powders.
Curry powders typically contain a mix of different spices that are generally used in curries, and turmeric is one of these spices.
Curry powders can seem appealing as they are often inexpensive and easy to obtain.
However, they are not a good route to get turmeric into the diet as most only contain low levels of curcumin (120).
Another alternative is to take turmeric in a supplement form.
Turmeric supplements are relatively common and they are commonly capsules that simply contain turmeric powder.
However, it is critical that you take the time to read the labels on these supplements, as they can vary considerably.
For example, one turmeric supplement contained turmeric extract, turmeric powder and black pepper extract. In contrast, a supplement from a different brand contained turmeric powder and turmeric root extract only and a third brand just contained turmeric.
Likewise, the amount of turmeric you get per serving varies considerably. This often means that the inexpensive supplements that are easy to find often don’t contain much in the way of turmeric.
Some brands also offer turmeric in soft gel capsules instead of as a powder. In theory, this approach is supposed to increase the absorption of the compound, although this area hasn’t been studied extensively specifically for turmeric.
You can have turmeric in food or as a supplement, but curry powders generally don’t contain much turmeric
The other alternative is to supplement with curcumin directly.
As the research has shown, curcumin is the key ingredient of turmeric associated with health benefits. In fact, most of the studies examined in this post looked at curcumin supplementation rather than turmeric.
Taking curcumin supplements typically allows you to get more curcumin each day than you would through turmeric supplements.
However, it does mean that you miss any potential health benefits that arise from turmeric itself or the interaction between curcumin and turmeric.
There is also a large amount of variation across curcumin supplements, much more than the amount of variation among turmeric supplements.
Often this difference is in the formulation of the curcumin. There are many different formulations of curcumin out there and the companies frequently try and find formulations that are most efficient and that are also inexpensive to make.
This means that you need to take the time to read ingredients labels carefully and make sure you know what the label means for a product before you purchase it.
The companies aren’t always clear about whether their product is curcumin or turmeric. In fact, many supplements have the words curcumin and turmeric on their label, regardless of whether they are a turmeric or a curcumin supplement.
Supplementing curcumin itself is also possible, but you need to pick your supplement carefully
Including Turmeric in the Diet
If you are choosing to take turmeric rather than curcumin supplements, then you need to consider how you are going to prepare it and actually include it in your diet on a daily basis.
This process can seem challenging for people who aren’t used to Eastern foods, but it isn’t actually as difficult as it seems.
When you choose turmeric, looking out for organic variants tends to be a good approach. This is true for any dried herb or spice.
Choosing organically grown turmeric means that it is less likely that the turmeric has been irradiated.
Many foods are irradiated and generally speaking the process is considered safe.
The process involves applying ionizing radiation to the food, and irradiation tends to increase the shelf life of foods (121). However, irradiation can reduce the some of the nutrients in food, decreasing its health benefits.
While irradiation is considered safe, there is still a lot that isn’t known. In particular, long-term impacts of food irradiation are not known and most studies on the topic have been short term or animal based only.
Essentially, the use of irradiation in the human food chain is acting as an experiment in itself, but there is no control group. This means that we do not fully know the impacts of irradiated foods.
While irradiation can reduce the risk of bacteria and other contaminants on food, as long as you are choosing a reliable organic company this issue should not be significant.
As you might expect, there is a huge amount of difference between different brands of turmeric. What you end up choosing will ultimately depend on what is available to you, however, there are quite a few options out there.
You might be able to find quality turmeric powder locally if you keep an eye out for organic variants and make sure that there are no added ingredients. Alternatively, there are many online suppliers that you can turn to that sell high-quality organic turmeric.
Choose organic turmeric if at all possible
The most viable choices for including turmeric in the diet are either pure turmeric powder or turmeric rhizomes.
If you do use turmeric rhizomes, you can make turmeric powder yourself. Doing so involves going through the processes of boiling, drying and grinding the rhizomes.
Regardless of whether you are using the powder or rhizomes, you do need to be careful in handling turmeric.
Turmeric has a vibrant yellow/orange color and can stain things very easily.
To avoid long-term stains, make sure you use soap and water to wash any area that made contact with the turmeric as soon as possible. You can also wear gloves when handling turmeric to prevent it from staining your hands.
As with many spices, the best way to store turmeric powder is in a dry, dark and cool place within a tightly sealed container.
Turmeric rhizomes, on the other hand, should be stored in the refrigerator.
Be careful about turmeric stains and store turmeric rhizomes and powder differently
The most common way to use turmeric is in curries. If you are trying to get health benefits from turmeric, you might consider adding more turmeric than normal.
However, not everyone likes curries and even if you do, you probably don’t want to have curries every day.
Another use of turmeric is when preparing egg salad or devilled eggs.
The turmeric will give the eggs a bolder color and will also enhance the taste of the eggs.
Turmeric can also be used effectively in most salad dressings and in many dips. Turmeric can also be used to add flavor to a range of dishes, particularly those that have a base of rice, lentils or chick peas.
Additionally, turmeric can be used when sautéing vegetables or as a spice on top of steamed vegetables.
Finally, some people choose to use turmeric as a component of a healthy smoothie, often in conjunction with other healthy ingredients like ginger and lemon juice.
In fact, you can easily add turmeric to any smoothie with a relatively strong taste, as the taste of the smoothie will tend to mask the taste of turmeric. This is a particularly good way to get turmeric into your diet if you don’t like its taste.
However, the taste of turmeric isn't as bad as many people assume anyway. Instead, you might find that you enjoy it, especially if you start to have turmeric regularly.
Alternatively, you can make smoothies that take advantage of the taste of turmeric, depending on your preference.
Finally, the best way to include turmeric in foods is simply to experiment.
Like any spice, turmeric can enhance the taste of many foods, making them stand out and be more desirable in general.
Much of the time, you won’t know what impact turmeric will have on a dish until you try it, but it certainly is worth taking the time to experiment.
Making Turmeric Tea
One interesting use of turmeric is in a tea.
Technically speaking the term ‘tea’ is a bit misleading and the end product is a creamy hot drink, which is particularly soothing when people are ill.
The key ingredient in this type of drink is the use of either coconut or almond milk, depending on your preference. Typically, you would use around two cups of the milk for the recipe, which is roughly the same as a can of coconut milk.
This is warmed on the stove and then the following ingredients added in:
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Roughly 1 teaspoon of honey, maple syrup or another type of sweetener (to taste)
You can also choose to add cayenne pepper or butter to the mix to slightly alter the taste. Ginger is also sometimes used.
The end result is a calming drink that helps you to get turmeric into your diet easily. However, the flavor of the drink is a bit unusual and it can take a little time to get used to.
A variation on this idea is turmeric golden milk. In some cases, the two names are used interchangeably but the terms can also apply to entirely different drinks. Either way, hot drinks like these can be a great way to get turmeric into your diet regularly. Plus, it's a nice change from tea and coffee, especially in the evening.
Be careful about turmeric stains and store turmeric rhizomes and powder differently
There are lots of different ways to include turmeric in food. Experiment and see what works for you
Other Uses of Turmeric
The vast majority of health benefits from turmeric come from ingesting it, either as part of food or as a supplement.
However, turmeric does also provide some benefits when used topically.
For example, a paste made from Aloe vera gel and turmeric can be an effective way to reduce itching and pain from bites, burns and other skin issues.
Turmeric is also often used in facial washes and in scrubs and can be soothing. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric also mean that using turmeric in creams can reduce some inflammation.
Some people also use turmeric in creams because of its hair minimizing properties. This can be useful for women who have unwanted hair on their faces, but it does mean that men need to watch where they apply this type of cream.
Turmeric can also be used in gels and lotions
Turmeric is a common ingredient in curries, but it is certainly time for the Western world to get on board with this amazing spice.
Whether you use it in food, as a turmeric supplement or as a curcumin supplement, turmeric has great potential for health benefits.
Not only is the spice a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, but it offers other key health benefits, including improvements to cardiovascular risk factors, the ability to act as an antidepressant and the potential to decrease risk and maybe even act as a therapeutic agent for both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
These health benefits are simply too good to be passed up, particularly for a spice that is pretty easy to include in your diet.
Go on, give it a try.
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