Turmeric often called the ‘Golden Spice’ or ‘Indian Saffron,’ has been a significant component of the Indian diet for centuries and can be found abundantly in Indian food preparations. In the last decade, the popularity of turmeric and its consumption has increased manifold even in Western countries where it is being also used as a flavor in coffee, beverages, and even in ice cream.
Historical records show that turmeric was used as a medicinal herb nearly 4000 years ago in Asia. It finds prominence in Ayurvedic medicine, an alternative branch of medical science, followed extensively in India.
Scientifically named as Curcuma longa, turmeric belongs to the ginger family. The turmeric plant is native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Turmeric is said to have more than 300 natural components, but what really enhances the health benefits of turmeric is the presence of curcumin.
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What is Curcumin?
The root of the turmeric plant contains curcumin. Curcumin is the most significant component of turmeric though it constitutes only 3% of this spice. Curcumin provides turmeric with its brilliant yellow color and it belongs to the curcuminoids family of compounds.
Curcumin has taken researchers by surprise with its health benefits for humans. It is said to have an anti-inflammatory effect and strong antioxidant qualities as well. Exclusive studies are also being conducted to verify the benefits of curcumin in fighting life-threatening diseases like cancer and also determine its anti-aging properties.
The best way to enjoy the benefits of curcumin is to include it in your diet. But for those who are not used to the flavor and smell of turmeric, this may be easier said than done. No worries, there are plenty of curcumin-rich supplements in the market.
When you buy curcumin supplements, ensure that they have the right amount and form of curcumin. Some supplement manufacturers offer ground turmeric spice in a capsule form, which is not as effective as turmeric extracts. According to studies, turmeric extracts have a higher concentration of curcumin in comparison to turmeric powder.
Apart from the supplements, various turmeric teas are also available in the market, which claims to offer the health benefits of curcumin. However, the effectiveness of such teas and related drinks are still not proven.
Summary: Curcumin is the most significant component of turmeric that offers most of the health benefits of this spice. Curcumin provides turmeric with its brilliant yellow color.
The 12 Proven Health Benefits of Turmeric
Although curcumin is said to have innumerous benefits, scientific studies have been able to verify only some of these claims. Let’s take a closer look at these:
Turmeric Has Anti-Inflammatory Properties
While the word ‘inflammation’ evokes a negative reaction and is considered the sign of a disease, the process of inflammation is actually vital to maintain good health. It helps the body to fight against foreign bodies and bacteria, which can otherwise, prove to be fatal. However, high levels of inflammation, along with other infections, lead to several diseases. Studies have shown that curcumin has anti-inflammatory qualities and its properties support fighting life-threatening diseases as well.
A study was conducted on patients who were suffering from chronic anterior uveitis, which causes inflammation in the eye. The 12-week long study was completed by 32 subjects who were divided into 2 groups of 18 and 14, respectively. The group constituting 18 people was given only curcumin, and the other group was administered curcumin along with antitubercular treatment. While the results were positive in both the groups, the second group showed a positive response of 86%.
The reason behind curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties can be attributed to its ability to regulate NF-kB, a protein complex that not only controls the transcription of human DNA, cytokine production and cell survival. Irregular production of NF-kB in the body can lead to chronic diseases. Researchers have noted that curcumin is a highly bioactive compound that helps in regulating the production of NF-kB, which is how it gets its anti-inflammatory properties.
Summary: The curcumin in turmeric is a highly bioactive compound with anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation leads to many diseases.
Turmeric Acts As An Antioxidant
Oxidation damages our cells and this can result in diseases, such as heart disease Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. Antioxidants protect our cells from such damage caused by free radicals.
Many studies have noted that curcumin is rich in antioxidant properties as it nullifies the effect of free radicals in a body owing to its chemical structure. In a 2005 study from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, the researchers found that curcumin activates antioxidant enzymes in the body.
Another study published in 2013 investigated the antioxidant properties of curcumin and its effect on body weight. As part of the study, 32 rats were exposed to subchronic doses of TCDD, an environmental pollutant. The rats were divided into four groups of eight, and one was the control group, the second group was given TCDD at a dose of 50 ng·kg−1 body weight per day, whereas the third group was given curcumin at a dose of 80 mg·kg−1 BW per day. The fourth group was given the combined doses of TCDD and curcumin together.
The results showed that the use of curcumin has a positive impact on fighting the toxic effect caused by exposure to TCDD, leading them to conclude that turmeric has antioxidant properties. However, the impact of turmeric as an antioxidant in humans needs to be researched further.
Summary: Curcumin is rich in antioxidant properties as it nullifies the effect of free radicals in a body owing to its chemical structure.
Curcumin Helps Fight Arthritis
Arthritis generally leads to swelling of joints, along with pain, inflammation, and tenderness. It often restricts movement and makes walking, standing, and other motor functions. thus, making life difficult for those suffering from the disease.
It has been noted that the consumption of curcumin can lead to significant improvement in arthritis patients. In a 2012 study, 45 participants were divided into three groups and were administered either a dose of 500 mg of curcumin or 50 mg diclofenac sodium (a medicine used to relieve arthritis pain) or a combination of the two.
Though all three groups showed an improvement, the results clearly demonstrated that the group that has consumed curcumin showed the most improvement and recovery, alongside a decrease in tenderness and swelling in joints and lesser pain. Since researchers couldn’t find any adverse effects of curcumin, they concluded that curcumin can be safely and effectively used in the treatment of arthritis.
Summary: Consumption of curcumin can lead to significant improvement in arthritis patients. It helps decrease tenderness and swelling in joints and lessens the pain.
Curcumin is Beneficial in Fighting Depression
In today’s world, depression is a rapidly spreading mental disorder affecting millions of people across the globe. Various antidepressants are available in the market today and are used to treat patients suffering from depression. But most of these have undesirable side effects. As a natural alternative, the consumption of curcumin has delivered promising results in treating depression.
According to a 2014 Indian study, the administration of a controlled dosage of curcumin and the antidepressant medication fluoxetine was a potent combination for treating depression symptoms.
The main objective of the study was to compare the efficacy and safety of curcumin with fluoxetine in people suffering from a major depressive disorder. The trial was conducted over six weeks with 60 subjects who showed symptoms of major depressive disorder. They were administered fluoxetine (20 mg) and curcumin (1000 mg) individually or in combination. The combination was found to be more effective. The researchers noted that:
“This study provides first clinical evidence that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with major depressive disorders without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders. “
Summary: Researchers have noted that the combination of curcumin with other antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine was a potent combination for treating depression symptoms.
Curcumin Helps Fight Against Cancer
Considering that curcumin displays both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s not surprising that it may also help in treating diseases such as cancer.
A study conducted by the American Health Foundation, USA, treated rats having various stages of colon cancer with curcumin and this has yielded positive results. The objective of the study was to investigate the chemopreventive action of curcumin when it is administered during the progression stage of colon carcinogenesis in rats.
The researchers noted that administering the dosages of 0.2% curcumin during both, the initiation and post-initiation stages gave significantly positive results.
Summary: Curcumin seems to have chemopreventive action and its administration slowed the progression of cancer in study subjects.
Curcumin Helps in Preventing Heart Disease
The increase in the consumption of processed foods and the sedentary lifestyles we all tend to lead have led to heart disease becoming more common. In recent years, efforts have been made to understand the impact of curcumin on cardiovascular health.
A 2012 study from Chiang Mai University, Thailand investigated whether curcuminoids prevent myocardial infarction after coronary artery bypass grafting in comparison to a placebo. 121 patients, who had the coronary artery bypass procedures, were administered a small dosage of curcumin (4 grams) or a placebo, before and after the operation. The results showed that the participants who took curcumin were at a 65% lower risk of having a heart attack.
Summary: With its potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin lowers the risk of heart attack.
Curcumin Promotes Healthy Cholesterol Levels
Oxidative stress is one of the causes of high cholesterol. High blood glucose levels and chronic inflammation add to the oxidative stress and spike in cholesterol levels. With its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric promotes healthy cholesterol levels in our body.
Curcumin has been found to play a preventive role in cardiovascular diseases by improving vascular endothelial functions. Studies have found that turmeric might work as well as exercise, or even medicines such as atorvastatin, used for treating endothelial dysfunction. Furthermore, since curcumin helps reduce inflammation and oxidation in the body, it naturally helps reduce the risk of heart diseases as well.
Summary: Curcumin improves the functioning of the endothelium. Researchers have found that it works as well as drugs like atorvastatin to lower high cholesterol.
Curcumin May Improve Brain Function
Neurons are a vital part of the brain. Their sustained division and multiplication are critical to healthy brain function. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) drives this process, and low levels of this hormone can lead to problems like depression and Alzheimer’s disease. However, curcumin has been found to help support improvement in the levels of BDNF in the brain.
A 2006 study from Peking University in Beijing, China, investigated the antidepressant potential of curcumin in treating depression. They evaluated the effects of curcumin on BDNF in the hippocampus. They noted a dose-dependent increase in hippocampal BDNF on the administration of curcumin. The study provided
“evidence for the antidepressant-like effect of curcumin, possibly through increased neurotrophic activity, and it supported the notion that curcumin may prove an effective and lasting natural antidepressant.”
BDNF is required for neurons to remain active and vigorous. It strengthens the nerve to nerve connections in the brain and enhances our learning and memory power. Improving your BDNF levels boosts cognition. Thus curcumin supplements are also known for their nootropic capabilities.
Summary: Curcumin seems to have nootropic properties as it boosts BDNF levels in the brain, strengthening nerve to nerve connections and boosting cognition.
Curcumin May Help in Treating Alzheimer’s Disease
Thus, curcumin might help in preventing, or even curing, the damage done by brain-related diseases.
A 2006 study from the UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, USA treated macrophages of six Alzheimer’s disease patients using curcuminoids. They noted that the “Immunomodulation of the innate immune system by curcuminoids might be a safe approach to immune clearance of amyloidosis in Alzheimer’s disease brain.”
What’s more, the ability of curcumin to cross the blood-brain barrier and clear plaques made by proteins in the brain during Alzheimer’s means that it may also be helpful in reducing the damage done by this deadly neurological disease.
Summary: Curcumin may help in treating Alzheimer’s disease by clearing the plaques made by proteins and reducing the damage done in the brain, due to the disease.
Curcumin Increases Stress Tolerance
More than just being a nootropic, curcumin also has adaptogenic properties. adaptogens help us deal with the daily stress in our lives and may even prevent it in the first place. Adaptogens work in many ways. They regulate the release of stress hormones, keeping them balanced.
A 2011 Indian study investigated the role of curcumin in chronic stress and chronic unpredictable stress-induced memory deficits. Pretreatment with curcumin, 25 and 50 mg/kg was found to be effective in reducing the stress and its associated memory deficits. The researchers concluded that:
“Curcumin-mediated antioxidant actions and decrease in corticosterone secretion are responsible for its adaptogenic and memory restorative actions in chronic and chronic unpredictable stress.”
Summary: The adaptogenic properties of curcumin helps regulate the release of stress hormones. It has been found to be effective in decreasing stress levels and the related memory deficits.
Curcumin Promotes Weight Loss
It is evident that curcumin intake can help reduce stress. Elevated stress is a major cause of fat gain, especially in the abdomen. High cortisol levels lead to the accumulation of belly fat since the cells in this area are more sensitive to cortisol.
A 2013 study from the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo in the USA, noted that curcumin’s ability to reduce cortisol levels along with its anti-inflammatory properties help to fight obesity and promote weight loss.
Summary: The stress reducing benefits of curcumin helps promote weight loss. the reduction in cortisol levels and the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin helps with fighting obesity.
Turmeric Helps Treat Diabetes
Turmeric has been used in the treatment of various medical conditions, especially diabetes, in the Indian Ayurvedic healing methods and in traditional Chinese medicine as well.
A 2103 Chinese study investigated the beneficial effects of curcuminoids on type 2 diabetic patients. Type 2 diabetic patients who were overweight/obese were administered 300 mg of curcuminoids or a placebo for a period of 3 months. The curcuminoids supplementation significantly decreased fasting blood glucose and insulin resistance index in type 2 diabetic patients. It also led to a notable reduction in serum total free fatty acids and triglycerides.
Summary: Curcumin may help regulate blood sugar levels. Studies have found that curcmin intake of 300mg/day for three months notably reduced fasting blood glucose and the insulin resistance index.
How to Include Turmeric in Your Diet
There is no specific recommended daily dose that has been suggested for turmeric. However, as per the FAO/WHO committee, the daily per day requirement has been set as 1.4 mg/pound, which is roughly equivalent to 3mg/kg. Various studies have verified the fact that a daily dose of up to 8000 mg can also be well-tolerated and had not caused any side effects.
Turmeric has been used in Indian cuisine for centuries. It has become the main spice that is used to give not just yellow color to foods but also to enhance taste and provide a unique flavor. Turmeric is also taken in countries like India along with milk.
Turmeric milk is considered to have several beneficial medicinal properties and is commonly taken during harsh winters. In the Western world, it has also been used as a flavor in coffee. Apart from using it in curries or mixing it with milk, it can also be used in the following ways:
- It can be used in the spice mixtures used to prepare barbecue marinades.
- It can be added to soups, which will not just add color but also enhance the flavor.
- It can be mixed with oil and other ingredients to prepare salad dressings. Using it with oil might also increase the absorption of curcumin in the body.
- Turmeric can also be added to smoothies, shakes, etc.
- Apart from using turmeric powder in the food items, it can also be taken in the form of supplements that are available in the market.
- There are various teas and other such products which claim to contain the curcumin extracts and turmeric.
Simply put, the easiest way to consume turmeric and get its maximum benefit is by adding a pinch of turmeric spice to your food items. If the taste bothers you, taking a curcumin supplement is the next best option.
Turmeric has a yellow color due to the presence of curcumin, but this yellow color can often stain your clothes or leave a mark on your skin. These stains, however, can be removed with the help of a good bleaching agent or detergent powder.
How to Improve Curcumin Absorption
Curcumin has got so many health benefits, but to enjoy these benefits the curcumin you consume needs to be absorbed by your body. Curcumin is known to have poor bioavailability.
To ensure improved absorption, curcumin should be consumed with black pepper. Studies have proven that curcumin absorption in the body increases by 2000% when taken with pepper. This is because the black pepper has a substance called piperine, which helps in increasing curcumin absorption in the body.
It is also recommended to consume it with fatty substances such as oil, butter, or even full-fat milk. Curcumin, being fat-soluble, is absorbed quickly by the body and thus, provides more benefit if it is mixed with foods having high-fat content. When you add turmeric to any food preparation, remember to add a drizzle of oil along with it, such as in salad dressings or as part of gravies.
Bromelain, a protein extract found in pineapples, is also known to enhance the absorption of curcumin. Many health supplements combine the two to offer you the maximum benefits from curcumin-based products.
Possible Side Effects
Turmeric is not known to cause any drastic side effects. But it may cause some undesirable side effects if consumed in high quantities. Depending on how sensitive you are to this active ingredient, you may experience some of the following discomforts.
- Higher doses of turmeric and curcumin (ranging from 500 to 12,000 mg) can lead to diarrhea, headache or rashes.
- Turmeric is known to stimulate the production of gastric acid in our stomachs, which might aid digestion, but negatively impact others, depending on the body’s metabolism.
- People who consume blood-thinning medication are usually told to avoid turmeric or curcumin, as it may also have blood-thinning properties; a side effect of its purifying properties. For the same reason, pregnant women should avoid its consumption in large quantities.
- Since turmeric is highly-susceptible to adulteration, fillers like barley, wheat or starch, or potentially more toxic ones, like colors, or heavy metals like lead might be present. One of the commonly-used colors, metanil yellow is banned in the USA and Europe.
There is, however, little and conclusive evidence to show that small doses of sustained curcumin consumption – in the form of turmeric powder or curcumin supplements – have any significant adverse effects on the human body.
The Final Note
There is no doubt that turmeric is a spice that offers you many health benefits. While the best way to include it in your diet is to add turmeric to your food, the taste and flavor might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Furthermore, the circulation of adulterated turmeric is also on the rise and such turmeric contains hazardous colors, fillers, and substances that might do you more harm than good.
If including turmeric or curcumin in your staple diet is challenging, due to its availability or taste, you should consider taking curcumin supplements. In fact, curcumin supplements offer you a more effective way to enjoy these benefits as curcumin extracts have been proven to be much more effective than taking turmeric powder. Since most supplements are enriched with black pepper extracts, the curcumin absorption increases manifold in the body.
However, be sure to check the dosage, quality, additives, and price of the supplement before buying them. Several well-known brands manufacture high-quality curcumin supplements. You can easily buy these online. Whichever way you take it, make sure you include turmeric in your diet to enjoy the many benefits of this wonderful spice.