Best known for giving certain curries their distinctive yellow color, turmeric has recently been popping up everywhere from sweet chai lattes to natural supplements. After kale and cacao, it has been adopted by the health-food industry as the next big superfood. But is it worthy of the hype? In short, yes – a whole mountain of studies now demonstrates turmeric’s therapeutic potential—from anti-cancer, to anti-depressant and even anti-inflammatory. But it’s not as simple as adding a pinch to your food—there’s an art to the use of his healing food. Read on to learn why turmeric is so much more than a simple condiment, and how to get the most out of it.
An Ancient Ayurvedic Holy Plant
Turmeric is the root, or rhizome, of the Curcuma longa plant, from the same family as the ginger plant Zingiberaceae, and is native to Southern Asia. It has a tough brown skin and bright orange flesh. The rhizomes are boiled and dried before being ground up into a deep orange powder, which is used to add a distinctive earthy flavor and golden color to many dishes. Like ginger, turmeric can also be used fresh, and has been used in southern Asian cuisine for millennia. But its role goes beyond the culinary arts.
Turmeric is considered holy in India and plays an important part in Hindu spiritualism. It is used in some wedding ceremonies as well as in the Durga goddess festival rituals in Eastern India.
For thousands of years, turmeric has been a key ingredient in many ayurvedic and traditional remedies, like Traditional Chinese medicine and Siddah Medicine, which originated in ancient Tamilakam in South India. As part of ayurvedic medicine, turmeric was combined with other natural ingredients like aloe vera, honey and ginger to treat a range of conditions including conjunctivitis, ulcers, coughs, fever and burns. And now, western medicine confirms what the ancient healers knew all along.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of turmeric’s healing potential has to do with its anti-inflammatory properties. Two types of inflammation can occur in the body. Acute inflammation is your body’s self-protective reaction to harm, whether that be an injury, or external or internal pathogens. The area quickly swells up to protect the surrounding tissue and white blood cells are mobilized to deal with the problem. This type of inflammation is short term, lasting up to two weeks, and is beneficial to the body.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is long term inflammation that can last several months and even years. Causes of chronic inflammation include failure to get rid of whatever was causing the acute inflammation, an autoimmune response, and low-intensity chronic irritants. The long-term effects of chronic inflammation are far reaching. It is involved in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even cancer.
Millions of Americans suffer from inflammatory diseases, and there are hundreds of pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs available, but these come at a cost. Their side effects can range from mild digestive discomfort to allergies and even heart failure. Finding a natural alternative would certainly be beneficial. Could turmeric help? It turns out it can.
Curcumin, one of the most important constituents of turmeric, blocks a molecule called NF-kB—this molecule finds its way into cells and turns on genes linked to inflammation. Scientists believe that NF-kB plays a major role in many chronic diseases. A review of scientific literature published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review demonstrated that curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects were the same as some commonly prescribed drugs, but with one key difference: curcumin is not associated with any of the side effects we’ve come to expect from pharmaceuticals.
Turmeric’s Anti-Cancer Effects
Cancer is the new epidemic, with scientists forecasting one in two of us will experience some form of cancer in our lives. With cancer on the rise, researchers the world over are focusing on treatments and cures, both natural and pharmaceutical. Curcumin has shown some potential in the treatment of cancer. Studies on test animals have demonstrated that curcumin slows and even reverses the growth of cancerous cells. It does this by interacting with cancer cells on a molecular level—reducing the growth of new blood vessels in tumors, halting metastasis (cancer spreading), and triggering cancer cell apoptosis (death).
There are many types of cancer, but they share certain triggers: chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and high toxicity have all been linked with this disease. A review of the anti-cancer potential of curcumin published in the journal Anticancer Research found that it has a positive effect on these factors and concluded more research needed to be done in view of the promising results.
It should be noted that the effect of high-dose curcumin supplementation on cancer in humans needs to be studied more closely, but some studies have shown that it has a preventative role to play, especially in cancers of the digestive system. A study by the American Association for Cancer prevention found that supplementing 4g of curcumin a day for a month reduced the number of colon lesions by 40%. As the motto goes: prevention is better than cure, it seems turmeric is worth adding to your diet. Later in his article I’ll share two delicious turmeric rich recipes, and the best way to supplement it.
Turmeric’s Anti-oxidant Potential
Turmeric’s powerful anti-oxidant properties are one reason why it may have a role to play in protecting the body from cancer.
Free radicals come in many forms—environmental toxins like heavy metals and pesticides, a poor diet high in fried foods and sugar, high levels of stress. Your cells’ everyday processes also produce free radicals, and they are a natural part of the aging process. But too many free radicals can lead to premature aging and are also implicated in several chronic diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer.
There are many different types of anti-oxidants. Your body produces its own anti-oxidants, like the liver enzyme glutathione, which helps neutralize and eliminate free radicals from the body. These helpful nutrients are also found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, like the anthocyanins found in dark red and purple fruits like blueberries, lycopene in tomatoes, or the cathechins in green tea—hence why you should include a whole rainbow into your diet! And turmeric has its own potent anti-oxidant: curcumin. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, researchers measured the effect of curcumin on rats that had been exposed to high levels of mercury, a toxic heavy metal. They observed that curcumin has a protective effect on the liver, kidney and brain. What’s more, curcumin reversed some of the biochemical changes caused by mercury toxicity.
Mercury is just one of the toxic metals we are exposed to every day, through our dental fillings, polluted air, and tap water. Refined sugar, pesticide residues, processed foods and stress also add to oxidative burden. Promising research shows supplementing turmeric could help protect your cells from oxidative damage caused by these environmental factors.
Switch to Happy
But turmeric’s benefits do not stop at the physical. In fact, a growing body of research is finding that this brightly colored spice can also help manage mood. In a study published in the journal of Psychotherapy Research, curcumin’s antidepressant effect was measured against the effect of fluoxetine, a commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drug. Patients suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) were given 20mg of fluoxetine, 1000mg curcumin, or a combination of the two. At the end of six weeks the patients’ mood was assessed using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. The results were comparable in all three groups, showing curcumin’s potential as a safe and effective treatment for depression. Scientists have found that curcumin effectively increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine. These are our very own happy chemicals, and are produced in the gut (which is a good reason to support your gut health). As with its anti-inflammatory effect, turmeric delivers these mood benefits without any side effects.
And that’s not the only way turmeric improves our general wellbeing. Scientists have now discovered that curcumin increases the levels of a hormone that drives neuron regeneration and helps the brain make neural connections. Low levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) have been implicated in depression and common neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A study published in Behavioral Brain Research observed that high doses of curcumin increased levels of BDNF. Because of this, curcumin could effectively delay and prevent some of the most common neurodegenerative diseases and age-related cognitive decline. Increased levels of BDNF are also linked with improved memory and a quicker mind. In short, turmeric could help keep your brain younger and make you smarter.
Getting the Most from Turmeric
But it’s not as simple as rushing to the health-food shop and pledging to add a spoonful of turmeric to every meal. Turmeric’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects are due to curcumin—unfortunately curcumin content in turmeric is only about 3%. The majority of studies carried out on this spice are done using extracts that contain much higher doses of curcumin, usually over 1 gram/day. You’d have to add a whole lot of turmeric to your diet, and even that may not be enough. That’s because the human body doesn’t absorb curcumin well. But Mother Nature has given us a helping hand in the form of black pepper. The peperine it contains enhances the absorption of curcumin by a huge 2000%.
Three Easy Ways to Add Turmeric to Your Diet
As much as you like curry, perhaps you don’t want to eat it every night of the week. Not to worry, there are plenty of other ways you can include turmeric in your life. Here are three of my favorites.
If you want to experience the therapeutic effects of turmeric, you’ll need to find a high-quality extract that contains both a good amount of curcumin, and some peperine to help the absorption. It should be noted that in rare cases turmeric can interact with blood-thinning and diabetes medications, anti-acids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Speak to your doctor to check whether turmeric supplementation is suitable for you.
Golden Milk with a Chai Twist (makes 2)
A warming, frothy drink that’s perfect enjoyed cozied up on the sofa with your favorite book.
• 2 tsp cinnamon
• 1 tsp ground ginger
• 1/2 pod cardamom
• 2 cloves
• pinch black pepper
• 1/4 tsp turmeric
• 2 cups almond milk / organic soy milk / hemp milk / oat milk / rice milk
• Place all the ingredients in a high-speed blender and blend for 60 seconds.
• Pour into a saucepan and gently heat.
• Sweeten with raw honey or a little maple syrup.
• No blender? Use 1/2 tsp ground cardamom and 1/4 tsp ground cloves instead, mix the spices together with a little almond milk before adding the rest of the milk and heating gently.
Zesty Golden Tahini Dressing
Liven up any salad with this healthy, creamy and indulgent dressing. Delicious over raw or cooked vegetables.
• 2 x heaped tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
• 1/2 lemon (juiced)
• 2 tsp turmeric
• 1/2 tsp black pepper
• 1 tsp cumin (optional)
• 1 tsp garam masala (optional)
• pinch of sea salt or Himalayan pink salt
• Place the tahini, lemon juice and spices in a bowl and mix them together. Depending on the brand of tahini you’ve used, you’ll end up with a more or less thick mixture.
• Thin it with water—add only a little bit at the time until you reach your desired consistency.
• Add a little salt to taste.
• Pour over raw vegetables.
Spice up Your Life
Clearly, turmeric deserves its place among the superfoods. Numerous studies have now proven what the ancients knew all along. While it might not be a magic bullet, turmeric’s anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects make this natural food a must-have in your spice cupboard.
- http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-008- 1300-y