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What Makes Turmeric So Wonderful?

Activity against a wide range of chronic diseases, from Alzheimer to cancer to fatty liver makes turmeric so wonderful that it is a very popular supplement.

A few years ago most Americans had never heard of turmeric. If they had, they thought of it as an exotic ingredient in curries and other Indian dishes. Now, turmeric and curcumin, one of its active ingredients, are among the most popular dietary supplements in the country. What makes turmeric so wonderful?

Looking for Turmeric at the Table:

Most people are actually more familiar with turmeric than they might realize. Anyone who has ever squeezed yellow mustard out of a plastic packet or a squeeze bottle has been consuming turmeric. It gives food a distinctive bright yellow color and tangy taste familiar to anyone who has enjoyed a good curry.

Turmeric as Medicine:

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been prized in India for thousands of years. It is a potent dye that turns cloth a brilliant yellow. But turmeric has also been a crucial part of the traditional Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurvedic practitioners included turmeric in medicines that were swallowed as well as those that were applied to the skin. Some of those topical medicines were used to treat skin conditions, such as eczema, while others were considered effective against sore joints, much as a liniment might be used in frontier America.

Why Is Turmeric So Wonderful? Science Answers:

Modern science has found that compounds like curcumin have anti-inflammatory activity rivaling that of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac (Ahmed et al, Chemical Biology & Drug Design, online July 25, 2017).  Its effects on multiple cellular pathways mean that it could help with a variety of inflammatory conditions (Shehzad et al, Journal of Food Science, online Aug. 3, 2017). Some investigators think that the medical use of curcumin could extend to a wide range of conditions, from Alzheimer disease to rheumatoid arthritis (Fadus et al, Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Sep. 9, 2016).

Some readers have found their own ways to put the power of turmeric to work for them.

One person wrote:

“Turmeric powder (a level teaspoon) and black pepper (a few shakes) mixed into a cup of instant chicken consomme (a rounded teaspoonful) in warm water twice a day has helped a lot with my joint pain. It tastes pretty good and it hasn’t caused me any problems so far.”

Another reader shared this testimonial:

“I have been taking turmeric for the past month. The dose is 500 mg in the morning and another one in the evening for arthritis. I had the swelling in my fingers go down so much that my rings are now too loose.

“I’d rather take turmeric than pop NSAIDS every day, as they aren’t good for the liver and other organs. When the weather changes for the better, I will only take one 500 mg pill. It did take about three weeks for me to notice the difference in my body.”

Turmeric to Fight Cancer:

Other medical applications for turmeric might include boosting the power of colorectal cancer treatment (Shakibaei et al, BMC Cancer, April 10, 2015). Recent research identifies curcumin, allicin (from garlic) and quercetin (from chili peppers, onions and sweet potato leaves, among other foods) as promising compounds against stomach cancer (Haghi, Azimi & Rahimi, Journal of Gastrointestinal Cancer, online Aug. 22, 2017).

There is also evidence that curcumin may be beneficial against prostate cancer (Rivera et al, PLOS One, June 19, 2017). It suppresses proliferation and invasion of certain prostate cancer stem cells (Liu et al, Gene, online Aug. 24, 2017).

Years ago, a cell-culture study conducted at the University of Michigan found that curcumin from the yellow spice turmeric along with piperine from black pepper slowed the growth of breast cancer cells (Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, Dec. 8, 2009). The researchers were looking at cancer stem cells and found that the compounds in these spices affected the proliferation of the abnormal cells but not healthy ones. Piperine increases the effects of curcumin and reinforces the idea that natural compounds work in concert to improve flavor and health. More recent research has elucidated some of the mechanisms by which curcumin fights breast cancer (Wang et al, Journal of Laboratory Automation, Dec. 2016; Banik et al, Journal of Experimental & Clinical Cancer Research, July 19, 2017).

Is Turmeric Good for the Liver?

Nearly a decade ago, scientists found that curcumin might be helpful against liver disease. The research was carried out in mice, so we’ll need to see how well the results apply to people. The results in mice were promising, though.

Animals with chronic liver inflammation were fed diets with added curcumin, a compound in turmeric. After both four and eight weeks, the rodents had less bile duct blockage and less liver scarring (Baghdasaryan et al, Gut, April 2010).

A recent review suggests that curcumin, along with resveratrol, quercetin, epigallocatechin gallate (from green tea) and compounds from Brassica vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, may help heal fatty liver disease in humans (Ferramosca, Di Giacomo & Zara, World Journal of Gastroenterology, June 21, 2017). Apparently these antioxidants are working, in part, through the mitochondria that provide energy at the cellular level.

Who Doesn’t Find Turmeric So Wonderful?

Some scientists are skeptical that taking turmeric or curcumin as a supplement will provide any benefits. One problem is that curcumin is not well absorbed (Chanburee & Tiyaboonchai, Journal of Biomedical Materials Research. Part B: Applied Biomaterials, online March 21, 2017). In India, people usually ingest turmeric in food with fat and other spices like black pepper that can improve absorption. (Think about the last curry you enjoyed.) Research supports the used of black pepper for this purpose (Chen et al, Phytomedicine, April 15, 2017).

The Downsides of Turmeric:

Not everyone can benefit from turmeric or curcumin. Some people develop allergic reactions that manifest as severe skin rashes.

Others who are taking anticoagulant medications should not even try turmeric. It might increase the blood-thinning activity of the drug and pose a risk of hemorrhage. Even by itself, turmeric might trigger bleeding.

You can learn more about turmeric in our latest book, Spice Up Your Health: How Everyday Kitchen Herbs & Spices Can Lengthen & Strengthen Your Life. It is available at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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