Turmeric is arguably the most potent spice on the planet for fighting and potentially reversing disease. This is backed up by thousands of scientific papers which extol the virtues and health benefits of turmeric, this bright yellow spice.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a popular spice often used to flavor foods, in particular Indian curries. Many people who eat it are unaware of the amazing health benefits turmeric offers. It has been used in traditional Ayurveda for thousands of years to treat gastric problems, diarrhea and depression. Known as the ‘warming spice’, turmeric was blended with long pepper and ginger to make a natural herbal remedy called "trikatu".
Turmeric is derived from the Circuma longa family, and related to ginger. The plants have beautiful yellow flowers and sharp, pointed leaves. It grows in South-east Asia, with most of the world's turmeric produced in India.
It’s the rhizomes, or roots, of the turmeric plant from which the spice is extracted. These roots are harvested, boiled and dried, before being ground into a golden-yellow powder. This powder can then be turned into capsules, tablets and fluid extracts.
Turmeric contains a key phytochemical called curcumin, which provides the lion’s share of the benefits. It’s also where turmeric gets its glorious golden-yellow color because curcumin is a plant pigment too. Turmeric contains many other beneficial constituents, although curcumin is the main one.
There have been countless studies published showcasing the health benefits of turmeric. Turmeric is one of the most researched herbs out there, even more so than garlic and ginseng!!
- Turmeric has been consumed for centuries.
- Turmeric powder is extracted from the roots of the turmeric plant.
- Turmeric contains many different compounds.
- Curcumin is one of the most widely researched.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
There have been hundreds of preliminary scientific studies carried out on the health benefits of turmeric. While much more research is needed, in particular on humans, the results so far have been impressive.
However, the majority of these studies have been conducted using extracts of curcumin, one of the components of turmeric. Since curcumin is only one active component of turmeric (about 2 -5 % of the total weight) adding a sprinkling of turmeric to spice up your curry isn't going to get you the full health benefits of turmeric.
Curcumin can be used in the treatment of several diseases, including arthritis, cancer, heart and bowel conditions. It’s best known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, 10 times more powerful than resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine.
Inflammation is important function of the body in the short term. It helps fight pathogens and repair cell damage.
The problems start to arrive when this inflammation becomes chronic, which turning against the body against itself rather than helping it.
Many serious diseases, like heart disease and cancer, are the result of chronic inflammation. The curcumin present in turmeric has been shown to fight this inflammation. It protects against the disease taking hold by blocking the NF-kB molecule, slowing down the inflammatory pathway.
The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin can also help with fat loss. Chronic inflammation within the body causes the growth of fat cells and triglycerides.
Taking turmeric can also aid people with arthritis. Although it can't cure it, in high doses it can be as good as popular medications in reducing the joint pain that’s a symptom of arthritis. In fact several studies have shown that curcumin is an effective natural pain reliever.
Scientists have researched the anticancer effects of curcumin extensively. While more trials are needed, curcumin does appear to have the ability to kill cancer cells and prevent others from growing. As with all natural food-based medicines, taking turmeric offers a means to fight cancer without the toxic effects of many drugs.
As an example, a 2009 study found that curcumin started to destroy cancerous esophageal cells within 24 hours. It’s important to note that this study was carried out on animals. Still, a study on 44 male patients with lesions in the colon found that taking 4g of curcumin over 30 days reduced the number of lesions by 40%. These are promising results as many colon lesions are precancerous.
Developing cancer is a risk increased by our daily exposure to environmental pollutants, as well as substances in some foods we eat. Chemical substances which do not occur naturally in the body are called xenobiotics. Many xenobiotics are classed as carcinogens and can occur in high concentrations in the body. Our liver works hard to detoxify these xenobiotics, received by the kidneys, and to keep toxic waste levels in the body down. Taking turmeric in the right dose assists the liver with this detoxification process.
Curcumin’s antioxidant properties mean that it limits damage from free radicals. These are formed when oxygen molecules split into single atoms, each with one electron. These free radicals seek out electrons to pair with, in so doing causing damage to the body’s cells and DNA. We’re also bombarded with free radicals from environmental pollution. It’s a daily battle between the body and free radicals, but taking turmeric helps reduce that damaging oxidative stress. As an antioxidant, curcumin is comparable in efficacy to Vitamins C and E. Curcumin also stimulates the body’s own antioxidant enzymes.
Free radicals are associated with ageing, so the more we neutralize the longer we keep our youthful vitality. Building up our antioxidant defenses provides a real boost to the immune system.
Turmeric’s powerful ability to fight inflammation may be related to its strength as an anticoagulant. Curcumin affects a process known as eicosanoid biosynthesis, which is involved in inflammation. One type of eicosanoid is thromboxane, which also promotes the platelet aggregation that leads to blood clots. Curcumin is believed to restrict production of thromboxane, which is why it’s known as a good blood thinner.
A 2009 study discovered that curcumin found in turmeric is up to 400 times more potent than a common diabetes drug called metformin. Researchers found that curcumin activates a key enzyme used to lower blood glucose levels. Activation of the this enzyme helps to inhibit diabetes and lower insulin resistance.
If Type 2 diabetes is not controlled it can lead to a range of complications. One of the most serious is diabetic neuropathy. Here the nerves have become damaged, which can lead to muscle weakness, blindness and kidney failure. Animal trials have shown that curcumin protects the kidneys from the damage caused by diabetic neuropathy.
Long term diabetes can also cause oxidative damage to the inside of the blood vessel linings, or endothelium. This leads to high levels of cholesterol, used to repair damaged areas by building up plaque. Taking statins lowers cholesterol levels, but it can also cause adverse side effects. A recent scientific study has shown that curcumin was found to be about as effective as a common statin at reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. This has exciting implications for the treatment of high cholesterol and other heart conditions!
The endothelium plays an important role in various blood-related metabolic functions. It regulates blood pressure and blood clotting. If the endothelium becomes impaired, it can lead to heart disease. Taking curcumin has shown to be as effective as regular exercise in improving endothelial function.
Inflammatory bowel disease covers a range of diseases, including ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s Disease. Current drugs used to treat these conditions target the pain but cannot be taken long term because they damage the intestinal lining. A six month study found that curcumin performed four times better than mesalazine, a common drug for treating the condition. A smaller study found improvements over two months for both UC and Crohn’s Disease patients when taking curcumin supplements. More research is needed but curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties means it’s safe to be taken long term. It heals the intestinal wall, protects against bacterial infections and stimulates probiotic growth. It has been used for centuries in Ayurveda to promote gut healing, aid digestion and relieve bloating. Just don’t overdo the dosage, or it will hinder rather than aid your digestion.
Acute pancreatitis can be very debilitating for its sufferers, even life threatening. It is a condition which causes inflammation of the pancreas. As a strong anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin has been shown to prevent and ease this painful condition. An animal trial found that curcumin reduced pancreas injury by inhibiting activity of the cytokine TNF-alpha.
Curcumin is a strong antimicrobial agent and protects against and inhibits the growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi. It fights viral infections like influenza, urinary tract infections, as well as some fungal infections.
And turmeric doesn’t only help treat physical conditions. It’s a real mood booster too, and believed to help prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Over time, mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, increase after taking turmeric. Curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It can stimulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neurotransmitter function. BDNF is also responsible for promoting new neural connections, and generating new neurons in certain areas of the brain.
A study found that depressed patients taking curcumin had their moods boosted after six weeks by the same as those taking Prozac. Another study suggested curcumin can clear the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. These restrict cognitive function and presage the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. The results could eventually lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s using curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties.
- Countless scientific studies have shown health benefits of turmeric in the treatment of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
- Besides assisting with physical conditions, turmeric and curcumin has been shown to beneficial in the treatment of depression.
How to take turmeric
There are several different forms in which turmeric can be taken. The dried powder adds delicious flavor to many recipes. The peoples of India have been using turmeric to make spicy and sustaining curries for thousands of years. While it's usually added as a powder there's no reason you can't chew on the fresh raw root, but beware the bitter flavor. The root extract, great for adding to salads, is sold in Chinese and Indian supermarkets and keeps for up to a month in the fridge.
Knowing how to take turmeric is your first consideration. You don’t have to restrict yourself to curries. You can make a paste with turmeric and add it to a delicious salad. Or why not take turmeric in liquid form? You can drink it as a delicious tea, or enjoy a long, refreshing glass of turmeric milk.
To make turmeric tea, dissolve one teaspoon (about 2g) of turmeric powder into one cup of boiling water. For turmeric milk, add one teaspoon of turmeric to a glass of cool, refreshing milk. Most health food shops sell turmeric tincture, the liquid extract of the root, which still retains all its amazing properties. You can add two or three drops of this tincture to tea, soup or water.
As well as ingesting turmeric as part of a healthy diet, you can take a concentrated form of the spice in pill form. These supplements work very well but contain a high dosage of curcumin. Added to food, turmeric is impossible to overdose on because of its low bioavailability. But adverse effects can arise if too many turmeric supplements are taken over a long period. These supplements are sold in pharmacies and health food shops and contain mostly curcumin.
It’s even possible to receive some of turmeric’s health benefits by applying it topically. The most popular means of taking turmeric though is in its dried powder form. Some brands of turmeric are better than others though so always choose an organic brand to guarantee purity.
- Turmeric can be taken in a variety of different ways.
- You can sprinkle turmeric powder on your favorite meals or drink it as a tea.
- Turmeric supplements are also available in concentrated pill form and the liquid extract of the turmeric root.
How much turmeric should I take?
By weight curcumin makes up between 2 - 5% of Turmeric’s composition. Curcumin has a large molecular structure, which is why it does not easily pass through the intestinal wall. The ease with which an ingested chemical is absorbed into the bloodstream is referred to as its bioavailability. As curcumin is not very water soluble it is said to have a low bioavailability. Fortunately there are ways to increase its absorption, which we'll come to later. Suffice to say, taking turmeric on its own is not the most efficient way to reap all its benefits.
If you are already on medications, it’s recommended you consult with your doctor before taking turmeric supplements. Any adverse side effects which occur may take a while to develop, depending on your general state of health. It’s important to remember that turmeric is a very safe spice and dosages of up to 12 g a day have been recorded as giving no ill effects.
The maximum dosage of curcumin recommended by the University of Maryland Medical Center is 400 - 600 mg one to three times a day, for adults Typically, supplements come in 350 - 500 mg capsules, so three capsules a day is safe. There is no recommended dosage for children.
For the raw turmeric root, the University of Maryland Medical Center suggests a recommended adult dosage of between 1 - 3 g per day.
Now that we know how much turmeric to take daily, we can ask how long does it take for turmeric to work. Let’s first take a brief look at the side effects that can arise after taking too much turmeric.
Gastric problems are associated with high levels of turmeric over an extended period. These can include acid reflux. It’s also claimed unsafe levels can cause heart arrhythmia, fever, nausea, diarrhea, even kidney stones. Turmeric also thins the blood and lowers blood lipid levels. In the case of the former this can endanger those already taking anticoagulants. With the latter, diabetic patients must watch their turmeric intake. For those with preexisting gallbladder problems, turmeric can make the condition worsen. Pregnant or lactating women should not take turmeric at all as it can cause uterine contractions.
It’s important to note that turmeric is considered a safe herb to take. Cases of side effects are few and far between and are usually the result of taking massive doses of turmeric for long periods of time.
- Curcumin is not very easily absorbed by the body.
- For adults, the recommended curcumin dose is 1 - 3 g per day.
- Side effects of taking too much turmeric are known. This is usually the result of massive doses over a long period of time.
How Long Does It Take For Turmeric To Work?
While there is a plenty of evidence of health benefits associated with turmeric it’s not a miracle one-day wonder. It’s not like taking aspirin to cure a headache.
The benefits are seen over time and a lot depends on the general health of the user and the severity of the medical condition. Often turmeric is taken as an adjunct therapy in association with other drugs. The potency of turmeric may be affected by the nature of these drugs.
So how long does it take for turmeric to work? As an anti-inflammatory, turmeric doesn't work as fast as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) such as Ibuprofen. But turmeric doesn’t produce the adverse health effects associated with NSAIDS. Putting a precise time on turmeric to work is difficult though, since everyone is different.
Recent studies report a broad period of between four to eight weeks for significant changes to occur when turmeric is taken regularly.
But relief from skin inflammation when turmeric is applied topically occurs within hours. This is because the turmeric comes into direct contact with inflamed cells. Applied as a paste it acts immediately.
- The health benefits of taking turmeric are noticed over time, generally 4 - 8 weeks.
- Application of turmeric to help with skin related issues, is MUCH faster!
Turmeric v. Curcumin
So, the bug question is......why should we take turmeric at all if it’s curcumin which is the active component providing all the health benefits? Why not take curcumin supplements, even if we have to forgo the fresh, natural flavors of turmeric?
After all, if it’s only the promotion of good health we’re seeking then surely dosing ourselves with curcumin alone should be enough to fulfill our goal, right?
Well, this leads rather nicely to the question - what is the difference between turmeric and curcumin? Why bother take turmeric?
The answer is simple - the main reason for taking curcumin as part of a turmeric extract is that turmeric contains a lot of other nutritional compounds.
In fact as a spice, turmeric is a very chemically diverse substance, containing a staggering 235 different constituents.
Even better, turmeric is defined as a pleiotropic compound. This means that its chemical constituents can bind to a variety of different enzymes, proteins and other molecules. This multifaceted M.O. gives rise to a host of wonderful health benefits!
One of these constituents is ar-turmerone.
Less well known than it's brother curcumin, ar-turmerone (or aromatic turmerone) is almost as prevalent in turmeric as curcumin.
Ar-turmerone makes up about a third of the composition of turmeric oil and it's known to reduce blood sugar levels and to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin.
A study published in Stem Cell Research & Therapy suggests that ar-turmerone promotes neural stem cell growth which in turn gives rise to the generation of new neurons. Ar-turmerone may also play a major role in recovery of cognitive function for patients suffering from dementia.
Another study found a combination of turmeric oil and fish oil had similar pain inhibition properties to that of aspirin.
Turmeric is full of health-providing nutrients - the golden herb contains plenty of potassium, iron and manganese, mineral elements essential for good health.
Turmeric is also full of fiber and vitamins B6, C and E.
Finally, it contains two other powerful antioxidants, caffeic acid and ferulic acid. The latter is often used in anti-ageing skin care products and as a serum applied with sunscreen.
As you can see, the difference between turmeric and curcumin is considerable!
- Turmeric is a a mixture of different compounds, of which only curcumin has been investigated in any great depth.
- Since turmeric is a mixture, you are MUCH better off taking turmeric than just curcumin alone.
Turmeric and black pepper
As I mentioned earlier, curcumin dissolves poorly in water - it is in fact fat-soluble.
So, for the best possible absortion of curcumin, it's best to take it with food (preferable a meal with some fat in it!).
Of course, most curries contain a healthy amount of fat. Healthy fats like coconut oil or olive oil are good absorption enhancers for curcumin.
Another popular way of improving curcumin’s absorption is to take it with fresh black pepper.
The black pepper we sprinkle on our food is actually a dried ground version of the peppercorn berry. This popular culinary spice is obtained from the flowering Black Pepper vine, cultivated largely in India.
Peppercorns contain a substance called piperine, which gives black pepper its pungent taste and aroma.
Piperine also has another outstanding property - it aids the passage of curcumin through the intestinal wall, helping the curcumin get absorbed.
When consumed with piperine the absorption of curcumin increases by up to 2000%!
Piperine works by increasing the time curcumin remains unmetabolized in the intestinal tract. It does this by lowering levels of the sugar UDP-glucoronic acid in the blood. This dramatically slows the metabolism of curcumin, giving it more time to be absorbed by the intestinal wall.
Without an absorption enhancer like piperine, most curcumin is ineffectively excreted.
Piperine is also an effective antioxidant and antibacterial agent all by itself. Combined with curcumin it offers a potent protection against pathogens and oxidative stress. For best results, always make sure you take turmeric and black pepper together.
- Curmumin is a fat soluble compound and so needs to be taken with a meal to be effective.
- Black pepper (and specifically a compound called piperine) can aid curcumin's absorption into the bloodstream.
- Always make sure you take turmeric with fresh black pepper for maximum benefit!