Turmeric: The Healing Spice and the Power Powder!

Turmeric, a relative of ginger, has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal spice and to add flavor to cooking.  The majority of the plant is grown in India, where it is used as one of the chief ingredients in curry dishes.  Most of the studies on turmeric’s medicinal properties have been conducted in test tubes or on lab animals, so keep that in mind when judging its medicinal abilities.  That said, there are few risks associated with turmeric, which I will briefly mention below, and it is a relatively inexpensive spice, so it can’t hurt to add it to your list of ingredients or supplement with it in capsule form.

Turmeric’s health benefits are mainly attributed to its component, curcumin. Curcumin is a natural phenol that gives turmeric its bright orange-yellowish color, and, like all phenols,  is shown to have antioxidant properties.  Antioxidants inhibit oxidative stress simply by inhibiting oxidation reactions. When an oxidation reaction occurs in our bodies, it produces free radicals as byproducts.  Free radicals start chain reactions and when these reactions occur in cells, they can create a lot of damage or even cell death.  Antioxidants act as reducing agents ( meaning they are oxidized), thus inhibiting or minimizing oxidative cellular damage.  This is an important concept, because oxidative stress has been linked to DNA mutations that result in cancers and other diseases.  For example, the role of antioxidants in heart disease, a number one killer, is well known.  When the cholesterol LDL is oxidized in our bodies, it triggers atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which decreases oxygen supply to the heart and results in heart disease.  The reason so many people refer to LDL as the “bad” cholesterol is based on its ability to be readily oxidized.
Curcumin’s  anti-cancer effects are extensive. It seems to affect numerous transcription factors, enzymes, angiogenesis, and molecular targets.  A great, very detailed summary of all of its cellular targets is presentedhere, in an article published by the National Institute of Health.


Curcumin also displays anti-inflammatory properties.  “Anti-inflammatory” can mean anything from disrupting inflammatory, signaling pathways to blocking an enzyme.  The inflammation process is one big cascade with a gazillion and one players and reactions, which means it is really difficult to identify all of a substance’s anti-inflammatory properties.  The key thing thing to remember is that although inflammation is a necessary process that helps our bodies recover from infections and injuries, it also is at the root of EVERY disease process known to man, as well as the aging process.  The suffix “itis” means inflammation.  Just think of all the diseases that end in “itis” to highlight inflammation’s important role in the disease process. This means an anti-inflammatory substance can potentially have numerous protective effects all over our bodies.The absorption ratio of turmeric is important since that determines how much gets into your blood stream to have a potential, medicinal effect compared to how much stays dormant in your gut.  It was discovered that Piperine, an alkaloid ( a chemical compound that demonstrates more basic than acidic properties) helps with turmeric’s absorption.  As a result, some health experts recommend taking turmeric in capsule form, since the manufacturers mix in piperine, thereby increasing turmeric’s ability to be absorbed.  If you don’t want to drop money on supplements, you can just as easily add pepper with turmeric when cooking, since piperine is in pepper, and the chief ingredient that gives pepper its spicy hotness.


He Looks Pretty Hot. 😉

 So what are turmeric’s proposed, super-healing capabilities? 

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that curcumin worked just as well as ibuprofen for knee osteoarthritis. Common side effects of ibuprofen are constipation, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and more, so using turmeric as a substitute may be beneficial.

Turmeric may  help alleviate stomach problems.  Curcumin stimulates the gallbladder to produce bile which helps aid in digestion.  In fact, turmeric is approved by the German Commission E, the authorizing body of what herbs are prescribed in Germany, for reducing bloating and gas in people with indigestion.  However, turmeric has been show to increase production of stomach acid, which aggravates ulcers, so if stomach ulcers are your main gripe, you may not want to use too much turmeric.

Turmeric’s effect on Ulcerative Colitis, a type of chronic inflammation in the bowel, has also been studied.  In one study, people who took turmeric for their ulcerative colitis had much lower relapse rates at 6 months than those who took a placebo.

Several studies have demonstrated turmeric’s antibacterial effects in test tubes, which may or may not translate over to the human body.  There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that using turmeric onburns help them heal faster.  Sometimes I mix it with 1 tsp aloe and put it on a sunburn for an added effect.  Again, that is based on an observation, not a controlled, clinical study.

Research exists that suggest turmeric prevents LDL from building up in our arteries, thus preventing atherosclerosis and decreasing our chances of developing heart disease.  Turmeric also appears to stop platelets from clumping together, thus decreasing our chances of clot formation.  Keep in mind, however, that its anti-platelet effect may prolong bleeding.

A small controlled study showed that turmeric was as effective as steroids, potent anti-inflammatory drugs, at controlling uveitis in the eye.  There are also numerous studies to suggest that turmeric plays a preventive role in cancer prevention, particularly prostate, breast, skin and colon, although more research needs to be conducted to say that definitively, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend ditching your prescribed medication for turmeric.

There is research suggesting that turmeric helps prevent Alzheimers disease, as it seems to directly combat the amyloid plaques that build up in brains of those suffering from Alzhemiers disease.  One study out of UCLA suggested turmeric has a synergistic effect when taken with fish oil that improves cognition. Of course, this study was conducted in mice, not humans, and mice have less “glucouronidation” than humans.  That means that when humans digest turmeric, more of it is combined with an acid that makes it less likely to cross the blood-brain barrier and effect the brain at all.  (In simple terms, Glucourondiation is just the addition of an acid group, but this particular metabolic process is why it is hard to translate mouse studies into human studies, especially studies particular for the brain.)

Another study suggested turmeric induced neurogenesis in the hippocampus.  Research has shown that depressed people have depleted neurons in this area of the brain, so it is possible that turmeric prevents depression.

As a word of caution, there are noted turmeric-drug interactions, which is why you should always ask your doctor if it is okay to supplement with turmeric.  Especially check in with your doctor if you are on one of the medications turmeric interacts with!  Turmeric can interact with clotting medication and blood-thinning medications ( Coumadin, Plavix, Aspirin)  and increase the risk of bleeding.  Turmeric can decrease the effectiveness of drugs prescribed for heartburn, like Tagamet, Pepcid, Zantac, Nexium, because it increases stomach acid production.  It has also been shown to have a hypoglycemic effect, so it may increase the effectiveness of diabetes medication, and therefore increase the risk of a hypoglycemic episode.

I personally use a turmeric cocktail to help fight my asthma.  Asthma doesn’t end in “itis,” but it is caused by an over-reactive airway, or in general, an over-active inflammatory response. My asthma is worse at night, so I usually boil 1 cup of water, add in 1 tsp of turmeric and drink it before I go to bed.  If I feel I’m getting a sore throat or a cold, I will mix 1 tbsp of honey with turmeric and swallow it 3 times a day ( Note: See my prior blog on the healing properties of honey. 😉 ) 


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