Turmeric has been used in India for centuries. Both food and medicine, much of what is extraordinary about turmeric benefits is down to curcumin.January 22, 2021 5:32 pm June 22, 2020 12:00 pm
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a bright 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”. But these two extra names are nothing compared to the minimum of 53 different names it goes by 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. Indeed, the famed explorer Marco Polo came across it on his travels.
The plant that gives us turmeric actually conceals the nourishing part in the ground. The rhizome, or underground stem, 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.
What is curcumin?
It’s thought that many of turmeric’s benefits are thanks to a polyphenol called curcumin.
Curcumin is a very bioactive compound. It acts as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic and analgesic.(1)
There are about 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. Another excuse to add a tablespoon to your curry recipe!
Turmeric and black pepper aren’t just a fantastic flavour combination; black pepper may actually help you absorb curcumin from turmeric.
This is because black pepper contains a compound piperine which seems to help us get the most out of our curcumin.
Curcumin is also soluble in fat, so it’s a good idea to include healthy fats, like high quality oils, when you consume turmeric.
Full fat plant milks are another good option, especially considering the appeal of a warming turmeric latte. A word of caution though; it’s best to make your own. Shop-bought turmeric latte mixes can come laden with sugar, processed fats or preservatives, which rather undermines the health benefits of the spice.
Now, onto why turmeric is so good 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.
What’s more, one lab study helpfully identified several types of molecules involved in inflammation which are influenced by the presence of curcumin.(2) This means that curcumin works on inflammation at a molecular level, rather than simply acting on the resultant 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 illnesses in which inflammation plays a role, such as arthritis and pancreatitis.(4)
Curcumin in turmeric is a powerful antioxidant
One meta-analysis of seven randomised controlled trials looked at the effects of curcumin on 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 is worthy of note, given that vitamins C and E are two of the most powerful antioxidant vitamins.
Given that our modern way of life exposes us to lots of stressors which can increase the likelihood of oxidative damage, one can see why a powerful oxidant like curcumin holds a lot of appeal.
Turmeric (and curcumin) is anti-microbial
Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites cause many diseases and spread infections. They put strain on our immune system, which is constantly fighting off pathogens that we breathe in, touch or eat.
Anti-microbial substances help our bodies ward off microorganisms and develop resistance at the cellular level. In short, they’re a helping hand for our beleaguered immune system.
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.
As a result, many of us are turning to wellness practices to support mental (and indeed physical) health.
One area which has attracted attention is how our diet can help us to address imbalances in our system. 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)
It’s important to say that wellness is something which should always be approached holistically. Increasing your intake of turmeric will not help unless it is part of an overall commitment to a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and good-quality sleep. If you already have these in hand, though, turmeric may well be a welcome addition.
Curcumin and turmeric benefit the skin
Turmeric and curcumin may also work on our skin.
Many people consume turmeric to help heal skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema from the inside out. While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from happy users who have seen results, there is also some scientific evidence to support turmeric’s use in this way.
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 can help support skin health and natural radiance. Try a simple, homemade face mask of turmeric, plain yogurt, honey, and apple cider vinegar to unleash your inner glow.
However, as some people react to turmeric on the skin, it’s best to test it on your arm before applying to your face. You may also want to hold off using it immediately prior to a new job interview, as turmeric can temporarily stain the skin!
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 also use turmeric as an antiseptic for minor skin injuries.
How to source turmeric and curcumin
If you’re looking to experience some of these fantastic health benefits for yourself, a good quality turmeric powder or grated raw turmeric is perfect for the task. Even better, thanks to recent increased demand, you can find them in some larger supermarkets, or visit an Asian food store.
And remember, raw turmeric powder and root are closer to nature than supplements. It’s our belief that getting the benefits of a plant straight from the source will always be better for you than going for a supplement.
'In other words, as Ayurveda states so beautifully, ideally food is medicine and medicine is food. Supplements are not food.'
Here are a few things to look out for when you buy turmeric:
- Is it organic? Make sure no additives or genetically modified ingredients (GMO’s) have been used during processing, and that the company you buy from has been certified organic. This means they’ve adhered to proper organic standards, rather than using the word ‘organic’ as a marketing tool.
- Is it 100% raw, and made from pure rhizomes? To feel the benefits of turmeric, it’s best to source it with as little processing as possible.
- Can you see the amount of curcumin? 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!
One final consideration which we like to add whenever we’re shopping is whether the packaging of the product is recyclable or compostable.
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 by mixing powdered turmeric, powdered ginger, any milk, and raw honey. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom are 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, following the lead of cooks in various parts of Asia and Africa.
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. It’s easy to make a delicious golden milk paste with turmeric, coconut milk, and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and the obligatory black pepper.
Keep by your stove and spoon into whatever you’re making as well as into your golden milk, sweetening with a little maple syrup if needed.
Above all, 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; adapt, explore and add to it as you please.
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. Given its flavour, it seems a logical designation.
The list of turmeric benefits in the Ayruvedic tradition is extensive, ranging from promoting ovulation in women to liquefying gallstones and expelling worms. It is also linked to building up physical energy.
But it’s not just Ayurvedic medicine which values turmeric. The root also features in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and in Unani healing. The Unani alternative medicine system originates in ancient Greece but now mainly appears in India.
Turmeric side effects
Turmeric is widely used both in cooking and for health purposes. Most people report no side effects at all. However, it’s important to know about the rare ones that do appear.
Turmeric containing up to 8g of curcumin can be taken daily for up to two months. Meanwhile, turmeric with a lower amount of curcumin (3g) can be taen for up to three months.
Too much turmeric can cause dizziness, diarrhea and nausea in some people. It may also irritate your skin.
Some people are allergic to external applications of turmeric and to ingesting turmeric.
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 also 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 and medications
As always, you should consult a medical professional if you are taking turmeric or curcumin in supplement form, particularly if you are already on medication.
Curcumin can slow blood clotting, so don’t take it if you are also taking any anti-coagulating medicines such as aspirin or ibuprofen. This is also relevant for people with a history of bleeding issues, or during the weeks around surgery.
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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