Turmeric has been an ingredient in curry for thousands of years, and for some very good reasons. Imparting color and flavor to food may seem like the primary function of the golden yellow rhizome of Curcuma longa, but this spice could have been favored for its health effects. They were well known to the medicine men of yore who used it in many herbal preparations.
Turmeric has a firm place in traditional Chinese Medicine and the Indian system of medicine called Ayurveda. It is liberally used in Asia to treat cuts and wounds and boils on the skin. A paste of turmeric and milk cream is often applied to the face as part of regular skin care. It is supposed to retain the youthfulness of the skin and to ward off acne. Small amounts turmeric powder is added in almost all vegetable and meat dishes. A teaspoon of turmeric mixed in hot milk is sometimes taken as a general tonic or to treat specific health issues.
Now that turmeric is widely available everywhere – and can even be grown at home, here are some very good reasons to include it in your diet:
1. Turmeric aids digestion
This is obviously one of the functions of turmeric as a culinary spice. It generally acts by increasing the secretion of digestive juices, especially bile secretion by the gall bladder. No wonder this spice is liberally used in dishes high in fat.
Children complaining of stomach discomfort are usually given ½ teaspoon of turmeric powder mixed with 1 teaspoon of honey. Apart from this conventional use to relieve gas and bloating, studies have proven that curcumin can be effective in treating indigestion or dyspepsia.
Turmeric is safe for general use, it shouldn’t be used simultaneously with antacids prescribed to lower acid secretion.
2. Turmeric has excellent anti-inflammatory action
The ability of turmeric to reduce inflammation is well documented and exploited in many herbal preparations. Many arthritis sufferers find that including turmeric in their food reduces pain and swelling, and helps them have increased mobility and a better quality of life.
According to a study on a specific Ayurvedic preparation containing turmeric, it was found to be more effective in reducing pain and disability due to osteoarthritis than other conventional treatments. The University of Michigan Health system has assessed turmeric as being superior to commonly prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents in relieving pain and stiffness resulting from osteoarthritis as well as rheumatoid arthritis. It is a safer alternative too.
3. Turmeric has high antioxidant activity
Normal metabolic activities within our cells result in the formation of highly reactive free radicals that can do damage to the tissues and organs. They are a common cause of chronic inflammation. Free radicals can even cause DNA damage that triggers abnormal cell growth. Environmental pollutants, exposure to UV radiation, and the many toxins that enter our body through processed foods add to the problem.
Antioxidant molecules that neutralize free radicals are always in high demand and turmeric happens to have high antioxidant activity like many other spices do. Taking turmeric regularly as part of your diet ensures a regular supply of antioxidants.
4. Turmeric promotes healing of ulcerative colitis
People with ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBD) often find that their symptoms ease up occasionally, only to suddenly flare up for no apparent reason. It is a fairly common problem seen across cultures, but its relatively lower incidence in Asian populations is often attributed to food habits, including the use of turmeric in curries.
While there is no way of establishing the validity of this claim, clinical studies have shown that people who took curcumin while they were in remission were less likely to have flare-ups, compared to others who were given a placebo. The exact mechanism by which turmeric reduces the frequency and severity of IBD is not clear, but the antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating properties of the herb could be at work here.
5. Turmeric improves liver function
Turmeric has always been considered a liver tonic. It improves liver function even in situations where significant degeneration has already occurred. A South Korean study demonstrated this in people who had moderately high levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT), which is a marker of impaired liver function. After a 12 week period of turmeric administration, their liver function improved and markers of liver damage were lowered.
Turmeric has a protective action against liver cancer, and may even help treat existing tumors.
6. Turmeric helps with cholesterol control
Cholesterol is essential for our body, but we all know excess cholesterol in the blood can clog the arteries and cause atherosclerosis, one of the major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Turmeric has cholesterol-regulating properties that have been studied extensively. It acts in several different pathways to reduce blood cholesterol, especially the bad kind called low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
When LDL circulating in the blood gets oxidized, it tends to form atherosclerotic plaques that result in the narrowing of arteries. Turmeric has been found to reduce the amount of circulating cholesterol as well as prevent its oxidation. The reduction in blood LDL levels is achieved by increasing liver metabolism, which in turn increases cholesterol uptake from the blood.
Macrophages or blood cells that are meant to clean up the blood often gorge on cholesterol, which renders them useless. The curcumin in turmeric prevents this by suppressing the cholesterol receptors in these macrophages. This prevents them from ingesting cholesterol molecules and turning into macrophage foam cells that further clog the arteries.
Cholesterol control in diabetic patients is a challenge because of lowered liver function. But turmeric helps here by both controlling blood sugar and enhancing liver function.
7. Turmeric improves immunity
Turmeric helps you fight colds and other seasonal infections. Turmeric in milk is often given to children during cold and flu season to increase their resistance to diseases. Antimicrobial properties of turmeric against viruses, bacteria and fungi may be a reason for the protective effect, but its immune boosting action is just as potent.
8. Turmeric increases brain function
Turmeric has been used for ages to improve brain function, but now we have more solid evidence on this property. Curcumin has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that are responsible for the growth and maintenance of nerve cells. High levels of BDNF improve memory, cognitive function, and mood.
9. Turmeric improves mood and reduces the risk of depression
Mental stress as well as physical ailments contribute to depression, which, by a conservative estimate, affects more than 20% of the population. Antidepressant drugs have become money spinners for pharmaceutical companies, but they are associated with many side effects. Curcumin acts in multiple ways to protect you from depression. In fact, turmeric is the main component of the anti-depressive formulation Xiao Yao San in the traditional Chinese medicine.
The metabolic rate is very high in the brain, which naturally results in the formation of free radicals, but many antioxidants have limited access to the brain because of the blood-brain barrier. Curcumin can cross this barrier and reduce the oxidative stress in the brain. It increases the level of glutathione available for free radical scavenging.
Curcumin regulates neurotransmitters in the brain that helps improve mood. Increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor could be another way in which turmeric tackles depression.
10. Turmeric counteracts age-related degeneration
Some of the visible signs of aging may be graying of hair, wrinkled skin, and loss of muscle mass, but many internal changes take place simultaneously. Apart from the decline in memory and cognitive function, weakening heart, deteriorating joint health, and gradual loss of hearing and eyesight can decrease the quality of life as we age.
Although the aging process is natural and inevitable, the medical world is focusing on delaying the process. Turmeric has shown promise in this area. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help keep the tissues and organs in the body healthy. Curcumin is cardioprotective and neuroprotective. It delays or even prevents degenerative conditions like macular degeneration, cataracts, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
When curcumin is administered to middle-aged mice, it increases their lifespan. Regular use of the spice may have a similar effect on people. Lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in Asian populations could be attributed to many factors, but a study on people in the 60 to 93 age group has revealed a connection between curry-eating and age related cognitive decline. Another study at UCLA has shown that curcumin helps macrophages to remove the beta-amyloid plaques found in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.
Some common myths of turmeric use:
Curcumin is identified as the most important active ingredient in turmeric. It is widely studied in laboratory and clinical settings. However, it forms only 3-5% of the spice. That has given the general impression that a turmeric extract with higher concentration of curcumin is essential to provide the health benefits. That is a misconception based on modern pharmaceutical practices.
Modern medicine insists that the more concentrated a substance, the more effective it is. Also, active ingredients in their isolated and purified form are thought to be more potent than their naturally occurring combinations. This is the exact opposite of the theory and the practice behind many natural medicine systems, including Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine that uses turmeric extensively.
There are several other less-known bioactive agents in turmeric, each one bringing their own unique properties to the table. More importantly, their collective or synergic action could be behind the health effects of this wonderful spice. Hence, take turmeric in its natural form by either using pure turmeric powder or small pieces of the fresh or dried turmeric root.
How to eat more turmeric
Knowing the health benefits turmeric may not turn you into a curry lover. Actually, you don’t have to use curry powder at all to derive turmeric’s benefits. Use a quarter teaspoon turmeric powder when you sauté vegetables. It also goes well with eggs. Stir in ¼ tsp. as you beat eggs for making omelets or scrambled eggs. Mix it in your marinade for meat and fish. Add a small piece of fresh turmeric to your smoothies or milk.
How much turmeric do you need to eat every day?
As for dosage, remember the rule of all spices and herbs: a little goes a long way. For general use, a teaspoonful of turmeric powder in divided doses should suffice. To increase the absorption and bioavailability of curcumin and other active components in turmeric, mix it with black pepper or healthy fats such as coconut oil.