Health Benefits of Turmeric, Nature’s Spice
Turmeric: talk about a rock-star spice. Turmeric, which gives your curry and Indian foods that bold yellow-orange pigment, carries an impressive — some might say astounding — array of health benefits.
Sometimes called the Golden Spice or Indian saffron, turmeric is a plant with a long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4,000 years. Ground turmeric root has been used in Indian and Chinese cooking, and its medicinal benefits are as well-prized as its unique flavor.
Modern medicine has finally caught up with those benefits. According to a 2011 review, over 3,000 publications about turmeric came out within the last 25 years. Experts express equal enthusiasm. “If there were ever a spice that deserved a whole book written about it, turmeric would be the clear winner,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, “It’s pretty much my favorite spice.”
What is Turmeric?
If you’ve ever tasted turmeric powder in a dish, you’re likely to remember its potent, bold flavor. Used for centuries as both food and medicine, turmeric belongs to the ginger family. Turmeric rhizomes (stems) are dried and ground to a yellow powder. Among the benefits that Bowden says deserve a whole book, turmeric can normalize the chronic inflammation that plays a role in nearly every disease. The anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric have been incredibly well researched.
Turmeric can also help with exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness, boosting recovery and performance in active people. Its anti-inflammatory benefits, in fact, can even perform similarly to over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen but without their side effects.
Turmeric can help you manage oxidative stress, a condition where free radicals overtake your body’s antioxidant defenses. Along with chronic inflammation, oxidative stress paves a path for numerous diseases. Research shows turmeric has significant antioxidant abilities.
Turmeric has been used medicinally for various conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, skin cancer, and digestive disorders. The list goes on: There aren’t many conditions turmeric can’t benefit, although some are more well-researched and publicized.
However, you can’t mention the numerous medicinal or therapeutic benefits of turmeric without discussing a specific polyphenol or antioxidant called curcumin.
Many of Turmeric’s Benefits Come From Curcumin
Here’s where you have to stop and pause with turmeric — most of this spice’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other glory comes from its active ingredient, curcumin.
What is Curcumin?
Curcumin belongs to a family of compounds called curcuminoids. Two other well-studied curcuminoids, bisdemethoxycurcumin and demethoxycurcumin, provide additional antioxidant and other nutrient support. But curcumin is the most-studied curcuminoid and turmeric’s primary claim to fame.
Getting the Benefits of Turmeric
That’s not to say turmeric doesn’t have other benefits. In fact, more than 100 components have been isolated from turmeric, including volatile oils and nutrients. While less-studied than curcumin, they likely carry their own anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other benefits.
To get all of those compounds, sprinkle organic turmeric powder onto your favorite foods including sauteed vegetables. It is important to use organic turmeric powder because sources that are not organic can become contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
“Turmeric is also one of the easiest spices to use,” says Bowden, “It has a really pleasing taste and a beautiful color, and it tastes good on almost any food you can think of.” Be aware when you use it — because of its deep color, turmeric powder can stain lighter clothing and furniture.
Supplementing with Turmeric and Curcumin
Choosing the right turmeric or curcumin supplement can get confusing because of complications including quality control issues and nebulous terminology including “turmeric curcumin” supplements.
Even when you carefully read labels, finding the right supplement isn’t easy. While some supplements sell turmeric spice as ground (dried) turmeric herb, only about three percent of the weight of turmeric powder is curcumin and curcuminoid compounds that provide most of turmeric’s effects. In other words, a turmeric powder supplement contains the same turmeric powder you would sprinkle onto food. If you like turmeric, sprinkle an organic turmeric powder on to your food. If you dislike the taste of turmeric but want to its nutrients, consider an organic turmeric supplement. Most clinical studies use turmeric extract, which contains higher amounts of curcumin versus the same amount of turmeric powder (just the spice).
Some supplements use a blend of turmeric root powder and extract, typically standardized to contain a certain amount of curcumin or curcuminoids. “Standardized” means that manufacturers ensure every batch of a product is produced consistently, with the same ingredients and concentration of ingredients.
The most superior form, however, comes from a curcumin supplement standardized to contain a certain amount of curcumin or curcuminoids. Isolating curcumin from turmeric provides all of this important compound’s benefits in easy-to-swallow capsules. In fact, you’d have to swallow a teaspoon or more of turmeric to get the benefits of one curcumin capsule.
How Curcumin Affects the Body
Curcumin is a workhorse molecule, and a whole book could discuss its impressive resume. Among them, curcumin influences multiple biochemical pathways including those that impact inflammation and cancer.
Some of the best-known health issues that curcumin can benefit include:
- Cancer: Research shows curcumin can influence the natural treatment of several cancers including colon, stomach, lung, breast, and skin cancers.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Curcumin shows promise for those with autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies show curcumin has a similar impact to NSAIDs without the side effects of medications.
- Osteoarthritis: Animal studies show curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits significantly slow osteoarthritis progression and relieve pain.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders: Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits can support people with GI disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
- Oxidative stress: As an antioxidant, curcumin is a free radical scavenger that also binds and eliminates potentially damaging metals including iron and copper.
- Brain health: Oxidative stress and inflammation play a role in many neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows curcumin protects your brain cells against oxidative stress-induced damage, lowers inflammation, and protects your energy-producing mitochondria.
- Depression: Oxidative stress and inflammation also contribute to depression. Depression, like any disease, is multifactorial, meaning multiple culprits contribute. One study found using 500 mg of curcumin twice daily for four to eight weeks provided anti-depressive benefits for people with major depressive disorders.
- Anxiety: Animal studies also show curcumin can positively impact the behavioral symptoms associated with anxiety.
- Cholesterol levels: As little as 500 mg of curcumin for one week can improve your lipid profile including total cholesterol and HDL (your “good” cholesterol) levels.
- Liver health: Research shows curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits can prevent the progression of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
- Cystic fibrosis: Curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties can also aid in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, characterized by chronic respiratory infections and inflammation.
Finding the Right Curcumin Supplement
So, you want to get the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other benefits of curcumin? From a food-first philosophy, you’ll want to first sprinkle organic turmeric powder onto your food. Even a teaspoon daily can provide its benefits. You might also consider a turmeric tea.
To get the therapeutic benefits of curcumin, however, you’ll also need to supplement. Even when you find the correct one, getting an effective dose of curcumin can be tricky. That’s because curcumin absorbs poorly. Your body metabolizes and eliminates curcumin rapidly, severely reducing its benefits. In fact, some experts argue that about 99 percent of curcumin “goes right through you.”
Researchers have looked for ways to enhance this nutrient’s absorbability, including adding fat-soluble ingredients including lecithin since curcumin absorbs optimally with either a fat-containing carrier or a meal containing plenty of healthy fat.
Curcumin and BioPerine®
Another effective way to increase curcumin’s absorption is with piperine, an alkaloid found in black pepper. In fact, research shows a specific black pepper extract (called BioPerine®) combined with curcumin could increase absorption an impressive 2,000 percent. When you take a curcumin supplement with BioPerine®, you optimize its absorption and get the many benefits of curcumin.
Additionally, piperine carries its own health properties including antioxidant, antimicrobial, and gut-supporting benefits. This black pepper extract also works synergistically with nutrients including curcumin, enhancing their absorption.
The best curcumin supplements contain three curcuminoids: curcumin plus bisdemethoxycurcumin and demethoxycurcumin, sometimes called C3 Complexᴿ or abbreviated C3.
Combining these three curcuminoids provides additional antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other benefits while providing a more well-rounded supplement that mimics the nutrient profile you receive in whole foods.
Using Turmeric and Curcumin as Part of a Healthy Diet
Most quality turmeric and curcumin supplements contain around 400–500 mg of curcumin per capsule. Depending on your condition, you’ll want to take two to four or more turmeric capsules daily in divided doses with meals. To optimize absorption of curcumin, always take quality supplements with a meal containing fat such as wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef.
Talk to your healthcare professional about individualizing doses of curcumin and other supplements for your specific health needs as well as potential contraindications to using curcumin supplements. In some cases, curcumin might affect your requirements for certain medications, but never modify or discontinue these without your physician’s consent.
Clinical trials show that curcumin is typically very well tolerated even at doses of four to eight grams daily (far more than you would likely require). Any adverse effects including GI disturbances normally occur with very high doses.
3 Ways to Incorporate Turmeric and Curcumin into a Well-designed Diet & Lifestyle Plan
Despite clever marketing and media hype, no one supplement or “superfood” can work wonders if you aren’t otherwise maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. Even the most potent nutrient can’t rescue a poor diet, chronic stress, subpar sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to nearly every disease, and you’ll want to tackle these conditions from multiple angles. Sprinkling turmeric on your food and supplementing with a quality curcumin can improve both conditions.
To complement turmeric and curcumin, you also need to create the right dietary and lifestyle approach:
1. Start with what you eat.
An antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet includes wild-caught fish, lots of leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds, and fermented foods including kimchi and sauerkraut. Sprinkle herbs and spices including organic turmeric powder onto your foods. Make filtered water and green tea your primary liquids.
2. Complement with the right nutrients.
A good multivitamin/mineral (for men, women, and children) along with fish oil should be your nutrient foundation. If you aren’t eating cultured and fermented foods regularly, consider a probiotic supplement. After that, add nutrients like curcumin that support your anti-inflammatory and antioxidant pathways.
3. Incorporate the right lifestyle factors.
Stress management, eight hours of solid uninterrupted sleep night, and consistent exercise are among the lifestyle support you need to stay lean, healthy, and feeling vibrant.
While you should be wary of any food or supplement labeled as a miracle or otherwise discussed in hyperbolic terms, curcumin supplements show promise for many conditions that involve inflammation and/or oxidative stress.
Talk to your chiropractor or other healthcare professional about ways to incorporate turmeric into your diet and curcumin into your supplement plan. Combined with the right foods and lifestyle strategies, this powerhouse spice (and its primary nutrient curcumin) can provide numerous benefits and prove a valuable component to your healthy-living plan.