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Turmeric Health Benefits, Treatments & Side Effects

Turmeric, the main spice found in curry, has recently developed a reputation as a “superfood” for its incredible array of health benefits.

This humble spice can help fight depression, control pain, reduce inflammation, and protect your heart. Hundreds of medical studies also suggest turmeric might be effective in fighting cancer, Alzheimer’s, liver and kidney disease, healing traumatic brain injury, and treating heartburn and ulcers.

It sounds almost too good to be true. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on unsubstantiated claims when it comes to turmeric. There are thousands of medical studies that back up what other cultures have known for thousands of years – turmeric is an incredibly powerful healer.

Let’s look at how turmeric can improve your health, and how you can incorporate more of this peppery spice into your diet.

What Is Turmeric?

Turmeric is the ground-up root of the Curcuma longa plant. It’s in the same family as ginger and is a deep, golden-orange color. It’s typically grown in India and Southeast Asia.

On its own, turmeric has a distinctly warm, peppery flavor. You can find turmeric in the spice aisle of any grocery store. Larger supermarkets and health food stores might also carry the whole root itself, which can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Turmeric’s Health Benefits

Turmeric has been used in cooking and natural medicine for thousands of years. It’s an important component in Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects. In India, turmeric is known as “the spice of life,” and when you see the astonishingly long list of health benefits, you’ll know what Indians have known for eons – turmeric is truly a gift of life.

Although the benefits of turmeric are well-known in other cultures, medical researchers have only begun studying turmeric’s health benefits on a large scale during the past few decades. Today, turmeric is one of the most studied botanicals in modern science.

Typically, researchers focus their studies exclusively on curcumin. Curcumin is a chemical produced by the Curcuma longa plant, and it’s this specific compound that makes turmeric yellow. Turmeric is made up of 2% to 6% curcumin. Turmeric also contains two other primary compounds, bisdemethoxycurcumin and demethoxycurcumin, but these have not been studied as widely.

So, when you read about the health benefits of turmeric, you’re most likely reading about the benefits of curcumin specifically.

Pain Relief

Outside of cooking, one of turmeric’s oldest uses is as a pain reliever. Turmeric works similarly to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

If you experience chronic pain, then you already know the potentially dangerous side effects of using painkillers long-term. These include damage to your liver and kidneys, as well as the potential risk for addiction. A study published in Surgical Neurology International found that turmeric was as effective as major drugs, such as Celebrex, in treating inflammatory-related pain. Another study found that turmeric was effective in controlling serious burn pain.

It’s unclear how much turmeric it takes to reduce specific pain. Again, most medical studies focus on curcumin specifically, so if you do experience chronic pain, or you want to experiment with using turmeric instead of over-the-counter pain relievers, it might be more effective to purchase turmeric supplements, which have a high concentration of curcumin.

Anti-Inflammatory

Turmeric has been shown to have excellent anti-inflammatory properties. It’s these properties that directly contribute to so many other health benefits.

Turmeric works as an anti-inflammatory by inhibiting the activity of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX). These are the enzymes responsible for the formation of prostanoids, a mediator of inflammatory reactions.

One study, published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that turmeric could be a potent treatment for acute and chronic inflammation, without the potential side effects often seen from other pain relievers.

Another study in the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases found that when turmeric was paired with ginger, the combination proved to be more effective than indomethacin (a nonsteroidal/anti-inflammatory drug) in treating many of the symptoms and alleviating the risks of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

a cup of anti-inflammatory turmeric ginger lemon tea

Alzheimer’s

Turmeric might be one of the most effective natural remedies for preventing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and slowing cognitive decline once it has begun.

Alzheimer’s disease degrades the nerve cells of the brain through several pathways via inflammation, the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, and metal toxicity. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory, which is one of the reasons why it might be effective in preventing and treating AD. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that turmeric is effective in clearing the plaques that can contribute to Alzheimer’s.

Another compelling piece of evidence on turmeric’s effectiveness against Alzheimer’s has to do with the rate of the disease in India, where turmeric is consumed in large quantities, compared to the United States. Researchers found that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease was 4.4 times lower in India than in the U.S.

Of course, lifestyle and environmental factors play a role as well. However, a healthy diet is an essential part of overall health, and consuming more turmeric might be an important part of maintaining cognitive health as you age.

Diabetes

If you’re prediabetic, you might want to look closely at turmeric’s history for preventing diabetes. One study, published by the American Diabetes Association, conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study (the gold standard for scientific studies) on prediabetics. Researchers found that after nine months of treatment, 16.4% of subjects taking the placebo developed diabetes, while none of the subjects taking turmeric developed diabetes.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes, you can still experience the health benefits of turmeric. A study published in the journal Endocrinology found that turmeric reverses many of the inflammatory and metabolic derangements associated with obesity-related diabetes. It also improved glycemic control in participants.

More promising is a 2013 review, where researchers examined almost 100 recent studies on turmeric and diabetes. They confirmed that, overwhelmingly, turmeric is an effective means of preventing and treating diabetes and its associated disorders, including insulin resistance and hyperglycemia.

Cancer

One of the most exciting benefits of turmeric might be its potential to fight cancer cells.

A study published in Scientific Reports concluded that turmeric, when combined with other compounds, showed promise in inhibiting breast cancer and leukemia cells. Another study, published in the journal Cancer Research, examined how effective turmeric was in treating colon cancer. These researchers found that turmeric significantly inhibited the growth of colon tumors.

How does turmeric attack cancer cells? An article in the AAPS Journal explains that turmeric “modulates the growth of tumor cells through regulation of multiple cell signaling pathways including cell proliferation pathway, cell survival pathway, caspase activation pathway, tumor suppressor pathway, death receptor pathway, mitochondrial pathways, and protein kinase pathway.”

Turmeric also attacks cancer through antiangiogenesis, which means it limits the formation of blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Other foods known to have antiangiogenesis properties include berries, green tea, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables, such as arugula, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, and cabbage.

Turmeric can also help minimize the side effects of chemotherapy. A report in the Journal of Experimental Pharmacology suggests that turmeric might also be an effective complement to chemotherapy by maximizing the desired effects of the treatment and minimizing the sometimes debilitating side effects.

There are literally thousands of medical studies on turmeric’s cancer-fighting qualities. Although most of these studies are on animals, the sheer number of them combined with the consistent findings suggest that increasing your daily intake of turmeric can help prevent cancer, or possibly even treat existing cancer.

Depression

Turmeric also shows a great deal of promise in treating major depression. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that turmeric “influences several biological mechanisms associated with major depression.” In this study, researchers found that over eight weeks, turmeric was significantly more effective than the placebo in improving several mood-related symptoms.

Another study, published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, found that turmeric was very effective in reducing the negative effects of unpredictable, chronic stress.

Other Conditions

In addition to combating such serious diseases as cancer and Alzheimer’s, WebMD reports that turmeric can also help treat a number of other health conditions, such as:

  • Heartburn
  • Joint pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Hemorrhage
  • Diarrhea
  • Intestinal gas
  • Stomach bloating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice
  • Liver problems
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Gallbladder disorders
  • High cholesterol
  • Headaches
  • Bronchitis
  • Colds
  • Lung infections
  • Fever
  • Menstrual pain
  • Diabetes
  • Water retention

As long as this list is, it still doesn’t cover every condition that turmeric can help with. There are few, if any, other plants that offer so many benefits.

Of course, there are plenty of commercial drugs to help combat these conditions. However, many of the most highly advertised drugs are also the ones with the most dangerous side effects. One study found that half of all drugs approved by the FDA will be recalled or relabeled within a decade.

Most of the time, natural remedies are far safer than commercial drugs, and have few, if any, side effects. Using natural remedies like turmeric can also help you save on medical expenses, especially over the long term.

close-up of fresh turmeric root

How to Incorporate More Turmeric Into Your Diet

So, you’ve hopped on board the turmeric train, and you’re ready to add more of this wonder spice to your diet. But how do you do it?

Recipes

One of my favorite ways to consume more turmeric is to drink a daily cup of Golden Milk Tea. I got the recipe from Cooking Light, and I often make it in the evening to sleep better. Golden Milk Tea is also a wonderful substitute for coffee.

You can also work more turmeric into your diet by using curry. This Spicy Lemon and Curry Chicken Soup is a favorite at my house, and it’s super easy to make. This recipe calls for a tablespoon of curry powder, but I add another half of a tablespoon to increase the intensity of the flavor. This is one of the few curry recipes my children will eat, so it’s on our regular dinner rotation.

I also enjoy this turmeric “Sunrise Smoothie” from Wellness Mama. It’s a wonderful change from super-sweet fruit smoothies, and it’s an easy way to incorporate more turmeric into your diet. It’s also one of the best ways to get my kids to eat more turmeric.

Keep in mind that for thousands of years, turmeric has been used as a fabric dye, and is still used today in the cosmetics industry. It will stain whatever it touches, and this includes your teeth. If your teeth are particularly porous, you might want to brush immediately after eating or drinking turmeric.

Supplements

Aside from cooking, you can also increase your intake of turmeric by taking supplements. You can find turmeric supplements through Amazon, or at any health food store. Like many natural remedies, it’s important to buy the highest quality supplement you can afford. Many of turmeric’s most important health benefits can be lost by improper handling and processing.

Keep in mind that curcumin has low bioavailability. This means it is not easily absorbed into the body. You’ll get the most benefits from consuming turmeric when you pair it with black pepper, which will help move the beneficial compounds from the digestive system into the bloodstream and greatly aid absorption.

If you decide to purchase supplements, pay careful attention to each brand’s statement on bioavailability. Brands that pair turmeric with piperine (black pepper) will likely be most beneficial. It’s also best to buy turmeric in smaller quantities (versus buying in bulk), as it’s most effective when it’s relatively fresh.

The only time you should not pair turmeric with black pepper is if you want the turmeric to end up in your colon (for help combating colon cancer and other ailments) or digestive system (for helping combat conditions like colitis). In this case, it’s best to take the turmeric on its own.

Final Word

At this point, you might be wondering just how much turmeric it’s going to take to experience better health. Suggestions on daily intake run the gamut, from one-fiftieth of a teaspoon to four grams or more.

An article published in the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists suggests that doses up to 12 grams a day, over three months, are safe. However, you likely don’t need to consume nearly this much. One doctor, quoted in Time Magazine, advises his patients to take 500 mg daily in capsule form; 500 mg roughly equals one teaspoon.

Personally, I take turmeric in its raw form, consuming it exclusively in my cooking. However, I’m interested in seeing what health benefits I’d experience by taking higher concentrations in capsule form.

Do you have any experience using turmeric to overcome a specific condition, or simply to experience better health? If so, what has your experience been? How much turmeric are you taking daily?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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