Maybe you’ve seen this yellow spice at your local grocery, in your cupboard, or used as an ingredient in your favourite Asian recipes. However, there is a lot more to this spice than meets the eye and it is considered to be one of the most potent natural anti-inflammatories on the planet!
Turmeric has traditionally been used in India for thousands of years as not only a spice in cooking, but also for its medicinal properties. Turmeric’s potential health benefits have been common knowledge in India for many years, but now science can help us to understand how this spice can be used to treat and manage pain, inflammation, and may also be beneficial in numerous inflammatory conditions.
How does turmeric work?
There are compounds found in turmeric called curcuminoids, most notably curcumin. Curcumin is the active ingredient found in turmeric that can help explain turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Unfortunately, the curcumin content in turmeric is relatively low (around 3%, by weight) compared to curcumin content used in many of the studies (around 1g/day) that highlight curcumin's beneficial effects (1).
Another potential complication of curcumin is that it's poorly absorbed in the bloodstream. Luckily there is a natural substance found in black pepper called piperine, that has been reported to enhance the absorption of curcumin by around 2000%! (2) If you really want to reap the benefits of turmeric, it’s best to take a curcumin supplement that contains piperine. Equally important is to take curcumin with meals as curcumin is fat soluble (absorbed in fat) to make sure you’re getting the most out your supplement!
Turmeric as an anti-inflammatory
While acute inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, chronic inflammation can lead to symptoms such as pain, fatigue and is linked to a plethora of inflammatory conditions that includes cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, asthma, skin conditions, depression, anxiety and neurodegenerative diseases (eg. Alzheimer’s disease) (3).
Curcumin is a natural compound that has a potent anti-inflammatory response and may be as effective as common anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspIrin and Advil (ibuprofen)… without the nasty side-effects! (4) It is believed that curcumin can produce these anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting inflammatory molecules (eg. NF-kB, tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and interleukin-12 etc) that are associated with chronic health conditions. Curcumin is also known to block COX-2, LOX pathways that are associated with pain and inflammation.
Turmeric as an Antioxidant
Turmeric is also a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants are needed in the diet to reduce what’s called ‘oxidative stress’ in the body. Oxidative stress can occur when we have an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals (cells that can cause damage in body).
Free radicals are natural part of life, however when we have too many free radicals to antioxidants this can cause oxidative stress resulting in damage to our cells and can trigger a number of inflammatory conditions that include heart disease, arthritis, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease etc (5). (If you want to learn more about antioxidants click here). Curcumin can help to reduce oxidative stress by neutralising free radicals and can even boost your body’s own antioxidants such as glutathione - making it a ‘super’ antioxidant! (6)(7)
Turmeric and Brain Health
Turmeric may even make you smarter. Curcumin has been found to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in the brain that plays a role in the growth of new neurons (nerves in the brain) that can help to improve learning and memory (8)(9)(10). There are common brain disorders such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease that have been linked to lower levels of BDNF, further supporting curcumin's potential role in reducing these conditions through its ability to increase BDNF.
A small trial found that 1gm of curcumin may be as effective as fluoxetine (a common antidepressant) in treating depression (11). While most of the other studies have only been done in mice so far, it’s still exciting to think that turmeric may be able to support depression, improve brain function and reduce memory loss (12)(13).
Turmeric and Arthritis
Arthritis is common disorder that is characterised by inflammation of the joints. This inflammation can cause debilitating pain and loss of function and affects roughly 3.9 million Australians. Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects may help to ease inflammation of the joints and provide relief in those suffering from arthritis.
In fact, one study found that curcumin was as effective as common anti-inflammatory drugs in treating rheumatoid arthritis, a type of arthritis (17). Another study showed that curcumin may be clinically effective in the management and treatment of osteoarthritis, further supporting curcumin's amazing anti-inflammatory benefits (18).
Turmeric and Heart Health
Curcumin may even help to prevent and manage heart disease! One of the ways that curcumin can support heart health is by improving endothelium function. The endothelium are cells that line the inside of your blood vessels. The endothelium plays an important role in heart health, with endothelium dysfunction resulting in an inability to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and other various factors associated with heart disease (14)(15).
Curcumin can also help to reduce atherosclerosis, a common type of heart disease. Atherosclerosis occurs when there is a build of what’s called ‘plaque’ in the arteries causing blockages that can result in heart attacks, stroke, or heart failure. Due to curcumin's potent antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin may help to reduce plaque build-up and prevent atherosclerosis (16).
Photo credit: https://www.britannica.com/science/atherosclerosis
Turmeric and Diabetes
Curcumin may also help to treat and prevent diabetes, and diabetic neuropathy (a condition associated with diabetes). Numerous rat studies have shown that curcumin may be a potential treatment for diabetes due to its ability to reduce blood sugar, improve insulin resistance (a hormone needed to convert sugar to the bloodstream for energy), and support healthy cholesterol levels in the blood. While most of the studies are done in rats, this evidence shows promising effects for those who suffer from diabetes (19).
Turmeric and Cancer
It is estimated that the human body consists of approximately 10-13 trillion cells, with almost all of these cells turned over (replacement of old cells with new cells) every 100 days! Sometimes this turnover of cells can run into issues that can result in the uncontrolled growth of cells - this is what typically happens in cancer (20).
Curcumin has demonstrated to have anti-cancer properties. This may be through curcumin's potent ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent that may help to suppress tumour growth by reducing inflammatory chemicals (eg. NF-kappa B, COX2, LOX, TNF).
In fact, curcumin has a unique ability to selectively kill cancerous cells and not normal cells! Curcumin has demonstrated to be beneficial in numerous cancers including leukemia, stomach cancers, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer and neurological cancer to name a few. While curcumin's role as a cancer treatment is too early to say, curcumin may have an important role as a cancer preventative (21).
Now you know all the powerful health benefits that turmeric has to offer due to its strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) may be beneficial for inflammation, pain, brain health, heart health, diabetes, arthritis, and even certain cancers. Don’t forget to make sure your turmeric supplement contains piperine (black pepper) to get the most out of curcumin's health benefits!
If you have any questions or need further support, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article does not constitute medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.
- Cover image: iStock