The Health Benefits of Turmeric
Turmeric is very much in the limelight at the moment. As an ingredient and a supplement, this golden spice is hailed to have many benefits for health and well-being, with the added bonus of being readily available from any grocery store that sells Indian spices. But why is turmeric so popular, and is it really that good for you?
What Is Turmeric?
Turmeric, or Curcuma longa to give it its Latin name, is an Asian plant from the ginger family. Like ginger, it is the root, or rhizome, that we are most interested in. Other names for turmeric include:
- Indian Saffron
- Golden Spice
Depending on where you’re shopping, you could see any of these names on the packaging. Turmeric is most often sold as turmeric powder. This is made by drying the turmeric rhizomes then carefully grinding them to form a fine, orange-yellow powder. This is then used for cooking or as a dye or preservative.
The use of turmeric for health purposes is not a new phenomenon. For thousands of years, turmeric has been used in various folk medicines, including Ayurveda and Unani. In Chinese medicine, turmeric has been used for abdominal pains. In India, it has been used to treat sprains and swelling. It’s taken as a tea or decoction or applied directly to the skin as part of a salve or cream.
Some stores and online retailers sell organic turmeric. Organic turmeric powder is exactly the same as standard turmeric except that the organic status means no harmful pesticides or toxic chemicals are used in the growth of the plant. The effectiveness of turmeric should not be impacted by whether or not it is organic.
Curcumin vs. Turmeric
Curcumin is a word often found in relation to turmeric and turmeric supplements, but what is curcumin? Curcumin is a chemical derived from turmeric that many people believe has a positive effect on inflammation. Curcumin powder is often very similar in appearance to turmeric powder; however, it is typically concentrated curcumin rather than powdered turmeric root.
Curcumin is generally considered the primary effective ingredient of turmeric, but turmeric also contains a range of vitamins and minerals. These include vitamin C, which protects cells, and vitamin B6, which improves the body’s ability to store and use the energy from carbohydrates and protein in food. Taking curcumin instead of turmeric means missing out on all these essential nutrients, although it may provide a concentrated dose of the anti-inflammatory effects instead.
What Is Turmeric Good For?
Turmeric is primarily used as a spice in Eastern recipes. It adds a beautiful golden color and a unique flavor quite unlike anything else. People describe turmeric as earthy, or mustard-like. Studies on rabbits showed that turmeric could potentially protect the stomach from irritants, making it the ideal additive for spicy food. Turmeric is well known as a digestive aid, and this could be one of its most popular uses.
Turmeric has also been used as a natural preservative. Using harsh chemicals as preservatives is off-putting for many people, so anything that helps keep food natural and toxin-free is a bonus. Turmeric is mainly used to lengthen the life of fish, by potentially inhibiting the growth of the bacteria that cause fish to spoil.
As well as these everyday practical uses, turmeric is taken as a supplement for a wide variety of ailments, as a preventative of colds and other diseases, and to support general wellbeing.
Turmeric has been used for everything from dying the robes of Buddhist monks to lightening the skin. Here are many of the uses of turmeric, both historical and current:
- Spice for curries, rice dishes and more
- Natural preservative, particularly for fish
- Fabric dye
- Facial hair remover
- Skin lightener/tan balancer
- Lightening stretch marks
- Anti-wrinkle treatment
- Burn treatment, especially when combined with aloe vera
- Skin mask which is suitable for both dry and oily skin
- Eczema treatment
- Anti-dandruff remedy
- Key ingredient of Golden Milk, a popular tonic for colds and indigestion
- Turmeric tea
- Smoothie ingredient
Benefits of Turmeric
The lack of scientific studies into the health benefits of turmeric means that much of the evidence is anecdotal or inconclusive. However, many people report reduced pain and inflammation, and improved quality of life from taking turmeric supplements or including it in their diet. Here’s a list of the potential turmeric benefits:
- Improves digestion
- Promotes a healthy heart
- Reduces pain from osteoarthritis and other similar, painful conditions
- Reduces skin irritation
- Reduces plaque when used as a mouthwash
- Potentially beneficial as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease
- May promote prostate and colon health
- Supports liver health
A study at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, found that turmeric extract appeared to be as effective as ibuprofen to relieve pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis. So, although turmeric cannot help to cure painful conditions like this, it can make life much more bearable.
Turmeric is also used for headaches and migraines because of its potential anti-inflammatory properties.
As a supplement, turmeric is often paired with join-supportive compounds such as glucosamine. The turmeric provides an anti-inflammatory action and works to reduce swelling and pain within the joints, while glucosamine may actually slow the deterioration of joints.
May Help Digestion
It’s possible that turmeric may protect the stomach and digestive tract from irritants. This could be why it has been used in Eastern cookery for thousands of years, as it helps make the spicy food much more digestible. It’s possible that turmeric may ease indigestion, gas, bloating, and other uncomfortable digestive issues.
Turmeric is also used as a remedy for diarrhea, although there is little scientific evidence to back this up. It’s possible that combining this mild and therapeutic spice with plenty of water (such as by taking it in tea) could help flush out toxins and rehydrate the body.
Turmeric is hailed as a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, a kind of unstable molecule caused by various reactions within the body.
Turmeric could help support liver function by protecting the liver from the damage caused by very strong medications for conditions such as diabetes, or some long-term health conditions. The less the liver has to work, the longer it can stay healthy.
Other Benefits of Turmeric
People take turmeric as a health supplement for a range of different reasons, including:
- Improved memory
- Reduced risk of heart attack
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved mood
- Weight loss due to increased metabolism
- Boosted immune system
- Various skin issues including psoriasis and eczema
- Allergy relief, especially hayfever
Does Turmeric Have Side Effects?
Generally, turmeric is considered very safe and lacking in adverse side effects. Someone who consumes turmeric in their food, whether that’s as part of a delicate dahl or a tasty barbecue rub, shouldn’t notice any adverse effects at all. However, if someone was to take turmeric or curcumin supplements in very large doses over a long period of time, they may experience the following effects:
- An increased risk of kidney stones, particularly if already predisposed to this condition
- Mild digestive issues including bloating or acid reflux
- Skin rash or irritation
It’s worth noting that these symptoms are very rare and usually only found in people regularly taking over 1000mg of curcumin daily. There is also the risk that turmeric powder may be mixed with flour or similar ingredients to bulk it out. This may cause adverse effects in those with gluten intolerances. Double-check the ingredients and, if in doubt, question your supplier.
How to Use Turmeric
There are many ways to use turmeric in day-to-day life. The most common way is cooking. Turmeric is used as a colorant to turn rice a beautiful golden color and impart a little flavor, in a very similar way to saffron. It’s also used in combination with other spices like cilantro and chili to create spice mixes, which are used as the base for many curries.
Turmeric isn’t just used in Indian food. It can be added to scrambled eggs to enhance the color and flavor. It can be mixed into bread dough. Many other Eastern cuisines, such as Thai, also use turmeric. It can even be used in barbecued meats, by mixing it with other spices and oil and using it as a rub or marinade.
A minimum of 500mg of curcumin is recommended to have any therapeutic effect. There’s around 200mg of turmeric in a teaspoon of turmeric, so it can be challenging to consume a beneficial amount of turmeric. This is why many people turn to supplements.
Turmeric supplements are often a combination of turmeric and other ingredients. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that turmeric is usually just one beneficial ingredient in a complex mix designed to pinpoint one health concern, e.g., joint support.
Another reason is that the body struggles to absorb curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric. To avoid having to consume extremely large doses, turmeric is often mixed with a black pepper extract called piperine, which allows turmeric and curcumin to be more easily digested. Look out for curcumin supplements, which promise better bioavailability, which means the body more easily utilizes it.
This makes turmeric supplements more effective than consuming turmeric straight out of the spice cupboard- unless nearly every meal you eat has a couple of spoons of turmeric added! Turmeric supplements are an easy and convenient way of boosting curcumin intake, and potentially improving the quality of life and helping with inflammation and digestive issues. Turmeric supplements are available as tablets or capsules or as liquids.
Other ways to boost turmeric intake include adding it to smoothies, using it as an ingredient in salad dressings, and mixing it into milk or tea. Golden Milk is a very popular traditional tonic, which is simply turmeric dissolved in warm milk, sometimes with a dash of honey added or other spices.
Turmeric has been used as a health supplement for thousands of years. It may have many health benefits, including aiding digestion and reducing pain. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which can be found as a powder or supplement in health food stores. Turmeric is generally considered safe but always check with your doctor before starting any dietary supplementation, particularly if pregnant or breastfeeding.