Turmeric is a spice that is cultivated from the roots of a flowering plant common in India and other Southeast Asian countries. It is a relative of ginger and it has a distinct vibrant yellow hue, which also gives curry its yellow color. It is commonly used in Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine – not only as an ingredient in curry powder but also as a flavorful stand-alone spice.
However, turmeric’s taste and color are not the only things the spice is known for. Lately, it is primarily talked about as a medicinal herb with powerful health benefits. And while Western scientists are only just beginning to discover all the amazing healing properties of turmeric, in India and other parts of Southeast Asia, the herb has been used as medicine for centuries. Nowadays, modern science is starting to back up traditional claims about the health benefits of turmeric and its compounds, called curcuminoids. And it turns out that turmeric and especially its main active ingredient called curcumin really does have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Studies suggest that turmeric and its main ingredient, curcumin, can help fight inflammation and thus help slow down the aging process and reduce the risk of numerous chronic age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, breathing issues, cancer, and depression.
In this article, we will review the scientifically proven health benefits of turmeric and curcumin and find out what this superfood can and cannot do for your health.
How to Use Turmeric
Turmeric can be used as a spice in numerous Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. You can also add it to smoothies, lemonades, and salads.
Unfortunately, though, turmeric and curcumin don’t absorb well into the bloodstream. As such, to reap the desired effects, we may have to use supplements instead of the spice itself.
However, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) currently doesn’t have any recommended daily value and it does not regulate any turmeric or curcumin supplements.
One thing you can do to make the spice more bioavailable (more likely to be absorbed and used by the body) is to add black pepper every time you use turmeric or to use curcumin supplements that contain black pepper. Black pepper (or more specifically its compound called piperine) has been shown to considerably increase curcumin’s bioavailability (up to 2000%).
As curcumin is also fat-soluble, it may be beneficial to take the supplement with a meal that is high in fat (make sure to opt for healthy fats).
Proven Health Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
Curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory properties
Short-term inflammation has a vital role in our bodies – it helps fight off disease and foreign invaders, plus it helps repair any damage in the body. Long-term chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is extremely harmful, as it attacks the body’s own tissues and cells.
Several studies have shown that chronic inflammation may be a large contributing factor in numerous health issues, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, metabolic syndrome, and certain degenerative conditions.
As such, it is vital to lower inflammation and curcumin has been shown to have that power. Keep in mind though, that very high doses are required to produce medicinal results and that the FDA currently doesn’t have a safe recommended daily value.
Curcumin is a natural antioxidant
Oxidative damage and free radicals cause rapid aging and age-related illnesses. Antioxidants are powerful compounds that protect the body from free radicals. And curcumin has been proven to be a potent antioxidant, which is very successful in neutralizing free radicals.
In addition to blocking free radicals, animal and cellular studies suggest that it can also boost other antioxidants in the body. However, more human studies are needed to confirm these promising results.
Turmeric boosts BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)
In the past, scientists believed that neurons are only able to divide and multiply during early childhood. Nowadays, we know that they can form new connections and even multiply in certain areas of the brain throughout a person’s entire life. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF is what drives this process.
BDNF is a protein responsible for promoting the life of neurons. It is vital in memory, learning, and can even be found in other areas of the brain, such as the ones responsible for drinking, eating, and body weight.
Animal studies suggest that curcumin can help increase the levels of BDNF and thus may help delay or even reverse age-related decreases in brain function and brain disorders. While this may be the case for animals, there are currently no studies that could confirm this claim for humans. Scientists also believe that curcumin may boost memory and attention, however, more studies are needed.
Turmeric may help against viral infections
Some evidence suggests that turmeric may be effective in fighting off certain viruses, including the flu and herpes. Therefore, it may not be a bad idea to take curcumin supplements or at least drink turmeric tea with black pepper, which will increase its bioavailability.
As most studies have been conducted in the lab, more research on people is needed.
Turmeric also has some antibacterial properties and according to some people, turmeric masks may also help fight acne. Unfortunately, there are no studies to back this up.
Curcumin may relieve headaches
Ginger is a renowned natural headache remedy and turmeric, which is ginger’s relative, may also offer some relief, especially when it comes to migraines.
While many people claim turmeric works great in treating headaches, currently, there are very few studies that can confirm it.
Turmeric may lower the risk of heart disease
According to the World Health Organization, heart disease is the number one cause of death globally. Even though heart disease has been studied a lot in the last century, it is still a mystery. It is very complicated and has several contributing factors.
Nevertheless, studies show that curcumin may help reverse many of the underlying factors and thus lower the risk of heart disease.
In addition to the fact that curcumin reduces inflammation and oxidation, which are both contributing factors in heart disease, one of the main benefits of curcumin in preventing heart disease seems to be improving the function of the endothelium or the lining of the blood vessels. Thus, curcumin is believed to help prevent endothelial dysfunction, which is strongly associated with heart disease, as it prevents the endothelium from properly regulating blood pressure, clotting, and other factors.
The studies on the effects of turmeric on cholesterol levels are currently inconclusive. Some found that curcumin can lower ‘LDL’ bad cholesterol, while other studies suggest that curcumin has no effect on cholesterol levels whatsoever.
A small study has shown that turmeric may also lower the risk of heart attacks in people who had bypass surgery.
Turmeric may have anti-cancerous properties
Researchers have studied the effects of turmeric and curcumin in cancer patients and have found that the herb seems to affect its growth and development. Studies show that curcumin can reduce the growth of new blood vessels in tumors, reduce metastasis or the spread of cancer, and even kill off cancerous cells.
Evidence also shows that curcumin supplements (preferably the ones with added piperine) may prevent cancer, particularly cancers of the digestive organs, such as colorectal cancer.
Curcumin supplements may help arthritis patients
As curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound, it’s safe to assume that it may help arthritis patients, who usually suffer from inflammation in the joints. Experts decided to test this theory and it turns out that there may be some truth in it.
Studies suggest that curcumin may improve numerous arthritis symptoms and decrease inflammation in the joints as well as joint pain and stiffness.
A 2012 study has also shown that curcumin may be more effective in reducing rheumatoid arthritis than anti-inflammatory drugs.
Turmeric may relieve irritable bowel syndrome
Curcumin is also being studied as a treatment for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Curcumin may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Curcumin can help lower inflammation and keep blood sugar levels stable. As such, it is believed that turmeric and its main active ingredient, curcumin, may help prevent or even treat type 2 diabetes.
A study with 240 prediabetes adults found that people who took curcumin supplements for 9 months considerably lowered their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
As most other studies included animals instead of people, more research is needed to confirm this promising claim.
Turmeric may help treat Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. And while it is possible to treat certain symptoms, there is still no cure for the disease, therefore it’s important to prevent it or slow down its progression. And evidence suggests that curcumin may help.
According to a 2018 study, curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier. In addition, it lowers inflammation and oxidative damage, both of which have been shown to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, a study suggests that curcumin may help clear amyloid plaques (a buildup of protein tangles), which are key features of Alzheimer’s.
However, more studies are needed to confirm the theory that curcumin can slow and perhaps even reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Turmeric may help fight depression
Depression is a common mood disorder, which affects approximately 5% of adults globally. While there are several medications that treat several symptoms of depression, there is no cure. Luckily, curcumin may help.
A 2013 study with 60 people has shown that people who took 1 gram of curcumin experienced mood improvements similar to those of people who took Prozac (an antidepressant) instead. The group of people who took both antidepressants and curcumin experienced the best results.
Reduced BDNF levels are also linked to depression and curcumin has also been shown to boost BDNF levels.
Evidence also shows that curcumin may boost serotonin and dopamine – brain neurotransmitters that play a vital role in mood regulation.
Curcumin may help with PMS
A study has shown that women who took curcumin supplements experienced less and less severe PMS symptoms.
Another study on guinea pigs and rats also suggests that turmeric may also relieve menstrual cramps.
More research is needed to confirm this claim.
Curcumin might prevent eye degeneration
A 2018 study on rats has shown that topical curcumin treatments might help protect against eye disease and degeneration. In the study, researchers applied a curcumin eye drop solution to rats two times a day for three weeks and found that untreated rats experienced a 23 percent reduction in retinal cells in comparison to treated rats.
However, so far, no studies were conducted on humans to prove that curcumin is also effective in preventing human eye degeneration.
Turmeric may slow down aging and help prevent age-related chronic diseases
As we have seen, curcumin seems to be very effective in protecting our bodies against certain types of disease and there are numerous studies that support this claim. However, the health benefits of curcumin may not end there. Curcumin may also help slow down aging.
As oxidation and inflammation are strongly associated with aging, studies show that curcumin may slow down this process. In fact, a 2010 study suggests that curcumin could actually make a potent anti-aging supplement.
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