Turmeric has been used in India for centuries. Both food and medicine, much of what is extraordinary about turmeric benefits is down to curcumin.July 09, 2020 12:09 pm
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a saturated, yellow-orange spice. It has been used in India for thousands and thousands of years for cooking, healing, and in religious ceremonies. Because of its beautiful colour, turmeric is sometimes called “Indian saffron” or “the golden spice”. The famed explorer Marco Polo (who less illustriously lent his name to the incredibly splashy children’s swimming-pool game) came across turmeric on his travels.
In contemporary terms that derive from historical meanings, think of turmeric in the beautiful context of contemporary artist Anish Kapoor’s saturated colours and use of Indian spices in his work. Further, the herb has at least 53 different names in Sanskrit! This signifies how essential the spice is to the culture that it arose from. From India, turmeric spread to many other regions in the world, where it is a valued ingredient in food, medicine, and spirituality.
The plant that gives us turmeric actually conceals the nourishing part in the ground. To clarify, a rhizome is an underground stem. That is to say, the rhizome of the turmeric plant has a soft, orange flesh inside. This is where we get turmeric from. It is a member of the ginger family. ‘Turmeric oil also has healing benefits, some of which we tell you more about.’
What is curcumin?
Certainly, most of the extraordinary turmeric benefits are down to a polyphenol called curcumin. Curcumin is a profoundly bioactive compound. As a side-note, of the 5 million plant species on our globe, we only know about the phytochemical makeup of 1%! Imagine how many other miracle workers might be growing within these plants. Even the extraordinary turmeric benefits might pale against these undiscovered diamonds…
To clarify, curcumin is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and analgesic. Moreover, it can work against cancer. It exhibits antiseptic cleansing activity.(1) However, there are 200 milligrams of curcumin in one teaspoon of turmeric. Many health practitioners recommend taking at least 500 milligrams, and probably more, to access the basic health benefits. This is doable through cooking, and we always recommend taking in herbs through diet rather than via supplements. However, it is good to be conscious about amounts.
Curcumin and black pepper
Further, curcumin can be hard for your body to absorb. Taking curcumin with black pepper helps your body digest it because of piperine, a compound of black pepper. So, accompany turmeric with black pepper in your cooking to reap all of the turmeric benefits! Curcumin is also fat-soluble. Therefore, it is also a good idea to include healthy fats like high-quality oils or full-fat plant-based milks.
If you resort to ready-made products containing turmeric, be aware of what else is present in these foods and drinks. Consuming something high in turmeric, but also sugar, processed fats, or other such nasties is pretty counterproductive.
Anyway, here’s more about what turmeric and curcumin do for you…
Curcumin in turmeric is anti-inflammatory at the molecular level
Inflammation is a natural and necessary biological function. It is how our bodies respond to external threats. However, when inflammation occurs for the wrong reasons within our bodies, it can become dangerous. Inflammation is behind such life-threatening conditions as heart disease and stroke. It is also linked to autoimmune conditions such as lupus.
Several studies have observed that curcumin matches some pharmaceutical drugs in its anti-inflammatory capacities. Moreover, many of these studies have been done on humans rather than in the lab or on animals. This means their results have clear applications. However, a lab study helpfully identifies several types of molecules involved in inflammation which are influenced by the presence of curcumin.(2) This means that curcumin works on inflammation from the very base and up, rather than simply acting on surface symptoms.
Curcumin also works to lower histamine levels. Histamines are compounds which increase blood flow. This then causes inflammation.(3) Because of how effective curcumin is against inflammation, it may also work against some cancers, arthritis, and pancreatitis. Inflammation plays a part in all of these ailments.(4)
Curcumin in turmeric is a powerful antioxidant
In one study, seven randomised controlled trials were looked at in a meta-analysis. The study took into stock several different parameters of oxidative stress. Curcumin had significant success reducing all parameters. Another study compares the antioxidant activity of curcumin to vitamins C and E.(5) That sure is saying a lot, given that vitamins C and E are two of the most powerful antioxidant vitamins. Considering the long history of turmeric in healing among so many cultures, it is poignant to think about the increased need for antioxidants in the current day. The increased amount of toxins in our atmosphere and food make you understand the renewed interest in turmeric benefits and curcumin.
Turmeric (and curcumin) is anti-microbial
Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites cause many diseases and spread infections. What’s more, these tiny creatures are living beings that are always evolving and renewing themselves, as the world has just been forcibly reminded of. Anti-microbial substances help our bodies ward off microorganisms and develop resistance at the cellular level. In other words, they help us resist, starting with the smallest part of ourselves and upwards. For instance, one study looked at how turmeric oil works externally against 25 different fungi. The growth of 19 types were inhibited. Curcumin is also anti-microbial in its own right, showing effectivity against other types of microorganisms.(1)
Curcumin in turmeric is effective against depression
Depression is on the rise globally according to the World Health Organisation. In addition, many pharmaceutical drugs used to treat depression have side effects or inherent dangers of dependency. In turning to wellness to support mental and physical health, learning about foods with built-in potential to help right imbalances is particularly helpful. Several studies have suggested that curcumin may do just that.(6) In one study, curcumin increased levels of serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, or feel-good hormones.(7)
A reminder that, like other adaptogens, curcumin is useful in terms of emotional and physical maintenance rather than as a miracle cure. In other words, people with depressive tendencies who practice good hygiene in looking after themselves may find that turmeric benefits keeping on the level. However, people who do not take care with diet and lifestyle and look solely to curcumin might not see a difference.
Curcumin and turmeric benefit the skin
Turmeric and curcumin may also work on our skin. From ingesting turmeric to help heal skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema from the inside out to use in face masks applied externally, there is scientific thought and anecdotal evidence to support turmeric benefits for the skin. TNF cytokines are secreted by the immune system and may influence psoriasis and other skin ailments. A study suggests that curcumin is effective against TNF cytokine expression.(8)
Further, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of turmeric are thought to support skin health and natural radiance. Try a simple, homemade face mask of turmeric, plain yogurt, honey, and apple cider vinegar. Observe how turmeric benefits you. Be aware that, as with most substances, some people do not react well to turmeric applied externally. Try a bit on your arm before putting it on your face. Further, turmeric can temporarily stain skin, so don’t use it on your face right before starting a new job or before going out!
Another traditional use of turmeric in Pakistan and Afghanistan is to cleanse wounds and help in healing them. The procedure is to put turmeric on a piece of burnt cloth. The cloth is put on the wound. Many other South Asian countries use turmeric as an antiseptic for minor skin injuries.
How to source turmeric and curcumin
Are you in good health? Are you looking to enhance your day-to-day diet with all these turmeric benefits you’ve been reading about? A good quality turmeric powder or grated raw turmeric (now more widely available in supermarkets, and often found in specialist Asian markets) will be just fine. Raw turmeric powder and root are closer to nature than supplements.
'In other words, as Ayurveda states so beautifully, ideally food is medicine and medicine is food. Supplements are not food.'
However, as with most foods, take care to look for turmeric powders prepared using organic methods. Make sure no additives or genetically modified ingredients (GMO’s) have been used in the process. Is the turmeric powder ground from pure rhizomes raised on organic farms? Is the powder 100% raw? Be aware that Indian turmeric is considered the best in the world, with the highest stores of curcumin. However, as always, there is variation in quality even in the best. A good rule of thumb is to look for turmeric where the minimum amount of curcumin is noted on the label. 5g of curcumin per 100g of turmeric powder is great!
Moreover, has the company you’re buying from been certified organic or is it just slapping the word or related suggestions onto packaging? Finally, you might also want to ensure that the packaging is compostable or recyclable.
Turmeric tea recipes and other ideas for how to use turmeric
Turmeric is a very easy and versatile ingredient for your kitchen. Add it to your scrambled eggs, smoothies, and soups. Use in curries and stews. Make a turmeric golden milk – a version of those now-ubiquitous turmeric lattes. Mix powdered turmeric, powdered ginger, any milk, and raw honey. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom optional but delicious!
You could try a simple ginger-turmeric lassi with plant-based yoghurt. Add to rices and grains for flavour and a lovely colour. Cooks in various parts of Asia and Africa do this. Many baked goods, energy bars, and pancakes are delicious with turmeric and other spices, sweet or savoury, such as these used with turmeric in golden milk. Further, turmeric hummus is delicious! Many people also make a golden milk paste with turmeric, coconut milk, and various other ingredients which could include ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and / or maple syrup as well as the obligatory black pepper. Keep by your stove and spoon into whatever you’re making as well as into your golden milk.
But turmeric tea is the classic. Heat makes curcumin more bioavailable, and tea is easy and healthy to drink throughout the day. It tastes lovely and cleansing. Here is a very simple recipe for basic turmeric tea. Ideally, you will improve on it through experimentation!
Turmeric tea recipe
First, prepare two cups of boiling water. Second, mix in two teaspoons of turmeric powder. Squeeze in a lemon wedge. Add a spoonful of raw honey. Grind some fresh black pepper over. That’s it!
Turmeric in traditional usages
In Ayurveda, turmeric is hot, light, and dry. Savour it carefully and you may see why. Interestingly, Ayurveda sees turmeric as promoting ovulation in women. The real question? What isn’t turmeric supposed to help in Ayurvedic healing? The list of benefits within the context of Ayurveda is extremely long. It ranges from the Shakespearean tasks of liquefying gallstones and expelling worms to the all-encompassing building up of physical energy. We reckon we’ll go with that one… not that we want to choose just one from turmeric benefits!
The root also features in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and in Unani healing. The Unani alternative medicine system was born in ancient Greece but is now in use mainly in India.
Turmeric side effects
Too much turmeric can cause dizziness, diarrhea and nausea in some people. Are you taking turmeric containing up to 8 grams of curcumin daily? Recommended daily use is for up to 2 months. However, if taking turmeric containing up to 3 grams of curcumin daily, recommended use is for up to 3 months. Because it is so powerful, it may also irritate skin. Some people are allergic to external applications of turmeric and to ingesting turmeric. However, most people report no side effects. If pregnant, taking turmeric in normal amounts within food should be fine. However, staying away from taking any more than that when pregnant or breastfeeding is wisest as so much is unknown.
There is a record of someone experiencing intense arrhythmic heartbeat after taking over 3,000 mg of turmeric daily. This is an extremely high dosage. We definitely do not recommend it! A good example of why you should take medicinal herbs with care.
Turmeric and existing medical conditions / medications
As always, you should consult a medical professional if you are taking turmeric or curcumin in supplement form. Especially if you are already on medication. Any medicine that slows blood clotting is not a good mix with medicinal amounts of turmeric. This is because curcumin can slow blood clotting. Anti-coagulating medicines include aspirin, ibuprofen, and many others. Do you have a history of bleeding issues or surgery within weeks? You should also stop taking turmeric, for the same reasons.
Turmeric can aggravate specific health conditions. These include gallbladder issues, diabetes, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, male infertility, and iron deficiency. Further, curcumin sometimes acts like estrogen within the body. For this reason, it can improve some conditions which are hormone-sensitive, but complicate others.
Again, much is dependent on individual conditions and each situation should be approached differently. This is where expert, individualised medical opinions come in.
Turmeric benefits summary
- Good for the skin and for healing minor cuts
- May help in regulation of depression
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