You may have heard about the benefits of turmeric, that yellow-orange spice found abundantly in curries and used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic-- East Indian--and Chinese medicine. If you wonder what turmeric can do for you, Barb Van Meerbeke, R.D., diabetes educator with WellSpan Endocrinology, explains why turmeric may be a nice spice to include as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
The science of tumeric
Here's a quick biology primer on turmeric. Curcuminoids are active ingredients in the spice, responsible for that distinctive yellow color. They're comprised of three compounds, of which curcumin is one. It's a polyphenol, meaning it acts as an antioxidant to help prevent cellular damage that occurs in cancer and other diseases, as well as during the aging process.
Turmeric's potential medicinal applications have been appreciated for thousands of years. A 2017 review of the current medical literature around turmeric, published in the journal Foods, found that because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it may help manage conditions such as metabolic syndrome, arthritis, and high cholesterol.
Caution is recommended when interpreting any findings about curcumin's anti-inflammatory benefits, says Van Meerbeke. That sentiment is echoed by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), which says that studies claiming turmeric helps reduce inflammation aren't "strong." Still, with so much flavor and no downside, you might want to give turmeric a chance.
No miracle cure
"It is possible that turmeric might help in terms of decreasing inflammation and pain," says Van Meerbeke. "However, to simply pop a turmeric supplement, continue eating a poor diet, and continue a sedentary lifestyle is not a sound recommendation."
Metabolic syndrome, arthritis, and high cholesterol are more common in people who carry excess body fat. "We know that obesity is inflammatory," says Van Meerbeke. "We know that a poor diet containing too much sugar, too much fat, and too many highly-processed foods is also inflammatory."
On the other hand, she points out, a healthy diet containing recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fat is antiinflammatory.
Arthritis and more
Van Meerbeke says that when arthritis occurs, cartilage loss can cause joints to break down, resulting in stiffness, pain, and loss of movement. "Some promising studies have shown that the curcumin in turmeric, used alone or in combination with current therapies, is effective in reducing pain and swelling."
In terms of additional applications, NCCIH reports that other preliminary studies have found that curcuminoids may reduce heart attacks after bypass surgery and uncomfortable skin irritation from breast cancer radiation treatments.
'Heat up' curcumin's benefits
There's more you need to know about taking turmeric in pill form. "Taking it alone hasn't been shown to improve health because of its poor bioavailability--very little actually enters your bloodstream," explains Van Meerbeke. "One-quarter teaspoon of pepper has been shown to increase the availability of curcumin to the body by 2,000 percent. That's because of the major active ingredient in black pepper--piperine. Consuming turmeric in curries or in any meal that contains fat also improves its bioavailability."
Van Meerbeke cautions that additional research is needed before specific recommendations for curcumin intake can be given. "In the meantime, there is no harm and there may be some benefit from including turmeric in everyday food preparation," she says. "If you plan to take turmeric in supplement form, make sure to tell all your health-care providers about this and any other complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Provide them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care."