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Is turmeric good for you?
Sir Michael Caine takes tablets to keep his mind sharp, and Thandiwe Newton adds powder to her moisturiser, but is turmeric worthy of the hype?
It turns out that this popular spice can do more than add flavour to recipes - turmeric may benefit your body and brain, and even help prevent and treat several health conditions.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a Southeast Asian plant in the ginger family. Its stem is used as a popular cooking spice, commonly used in curry powders and other Asian and Middle Eastern inspired dishes. You may recognise turmeric for its vivid yellow-orange colour and its ability to dye the foods it flavours.
What is turmeric used for?
Traditionally, turmeric has been used as a medicinal herb - Chinese medicine and Ayurveda medicine have both used this spice to cure and prevent illness for thousands of years1.
It's been adding flavour and colour to Southeast Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern meals for just as long, and its popularity as a culinary spice has now spread to kitchens all over the world.
Today, it's often touted as a super food and is also formulated into a dietary supplement that people take in the hopes it will ease a variety of health conditions.
In recent years, more scientific evidence is supporting the traditional claims reaching back thousands of years - that turmeric may help prevent and treat health problems.
The main active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. This compound benefits our health through2:
- Anti-inflammation - long-term inflammation plays a role in several diseases, and curcumin fights inflammation, although high doses are needed to for medicinal results.
- Antioxidation - oxidative damage caused by reactive molecules is believed to be an important mechanism behind many diseases. Curcumin can neutralise these molecules.
Clinical trials have also explored potential turmeric benefits for specific health conditions and diseases.
Many people sip turmeric tea when they have a cold or generally feel under the weather. Turmeric may indeed help to fight off several viruses, from the common cold and flu to norovirus. Curcumin limits the replication of many viruses, bacteria, and fungi in the body3, although keep in mind that the amount of curcumin in turmeric tea is unlikely to have a significant effect.
Preventing or treating type 2 diabetes
Curcumin in turmeric may be useful in preventing or treating type 2 diabetes in the future. This is because it can keep blood sugar levels steady and reduce inflammation, but more clinical trials with people are needed to determine any meaningful treatment methods4.
Protecting heart health
Turmeric and curcumin may help to keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.In particular, it may help people at risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood lipid levels - the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood5. This in turn can lower blood pressure.
Delaying or reversing Alzheimer's disease
While research is in the early stages, there's some evidence that the benefits of turmeric and curcumin extend to brain health. Curcumin may increase brain levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that supports learning and memory. Many brain disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, are linked to decreased levels of BDNF6.
Turmeric may inhibit the growth and spread of cancerous cells and the growth of new blood vessels in tumours. It may even help to prevent certain types of cancer, particularly cancers of the digestive system7. However, always discuss with your doctor any supplements you may be using and turmeric should not be used instead of modern medicine.
The health benefits of boosting BDNF levels in the brain can also be seen in the treatment of depression. There's also some evidence that turmeric increases serotonin and dopamine. These are hormones in the brain that help us feel happy8.
Relieving joint pain
Given that turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, it makes sense that it could ease the symptoms of arthritis - a health condition causing pain and inflammation in your joints. In one study of 45 people with rheumatoid arthritis, those treated with turmeric extracts experienced the most improved symptoms9.
Turmeric side effects and considerations
- While many studies continue to explore turmeric benefits, the impact of this natural substance in humans remains unclear and requires more research.
- Turmeric spice and over-the-counter supplements or creams are generally considered safe in the recommended amounts. However, mild side-effects may occur in some people, particularly when used in large amounts - reported examples include diarrhoea, nausea, and stomach pain.
- Some alternative practitioners administer turmeric and curcumin through IV (intravenous) therapy. This is unsafe, as scientists are yet to understand how high doses affect the human body. Turmeric administered through IV has resulted in one reported death so far.
- When consumed in amounts greater than those commonly found in food, turmeric may have adverse effects in pregnant people.
How much turmeric is safe to consume per day?
The recommended daily dose is around 1.5-2 g of turmeric powder per day, as there have been no reported side-effects at this dosage10.
What does this look like?
- In food and drinks - this is around one-third to half of a teaspoon per person. So, if you're making a curry for four people, you can add around one and a half to two teaspoons of spice.
- As a tablet supplement - never exceed the recommended dose on the label
What about turmeric shots?
Consuming turmeric in liquid form can also make it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients. Ginger and turmeric shots are an increasingly popular health shot - see our recipe and the benefits of ginger here.
- Prasad and Aggarwal: Herbal Medicine Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects.
- Menon and Sudheer: Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin.
- Jennings and Parks: Curcumin as an antiviral agent.
- Zhang and Kitts: Turmeric and its bioactive constituents trigger cell signaling mechanisms that protect against diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
- Qin et al: Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk.
- Mizoguchi et al: Lower brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels are associated with age-related memory impairment in community-dwelling older adults.
- Giordano and Tommonaro: Curcumin and cancer.
- Ramaholimihaso et al: Curcumin in depression: potential mechanisms of action and current evidence.
- Chandran and Goel: A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.
- Sharifi-Rad et al: Turmeric and its major compound curcumin on health: bioactive effects and safety profiles for food, pharmaceutical, biotechnological and medicinal applications.