Spotlight on Spice: Turmeric

About a week ago I wrapped up one of this semester’s classes toward my associate’s in Nutrition: Research in Complementary and Alternative Nutrition Therapies. Not gonna lie, it was not an awesome class and unfortunately I did not learn as much as I had hoped about this up-and-coming field. (Lots of emphasis on the Scientific Method, which I believe was covered sufficiently in my 8th grade science class.) Still, one piece of real learning took place in writing the final for the course, a short research paper on a commonly used dietary supplement. There are of course thousands of these food-like substances to choose from–just stroll down the supplement aisle at Whole Foods–but I decided to write my paper on turmeric, having heard rumors of its anti-inflammatory properties. Since I have several friends and family members who suffer from inflammatory autoimmune diseases, I have been curious to sort fact from fiction regarding this particular spice. The research process was an enlightening one, so I thought I would share a bit of what I learned here on the blog. Turmeric is, after all, a food–and a delicious one at that!

For a little background: turmeric is a rhizomatic herbaceous relative of ginger and has been used for centuries in a variety of medicinal capacities. Native to East Asia, the turmeric plant is typically ground to a rust-colored powder known for lending its warm, slightly bitter taste to many Indian dishes. Its healing use dates back nearly 4,000 years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Marco Polo first described the spice in 1280, but mainstream Western interest in its healing powers has arisen only relatively recently, correlating with the increase in popularity of herbal supplementation.

One interesting fact about turmeric is that it contains a compound called curcumin, which can be extracted and is sold as its own separate dietary supplement. Curcumin is the “active ingredient” in turmeric, giving the spice its many purported medicinal functions. However, since bioavailability of curcumin is
generally low and can be aided by black pepper, it is believed to be most
beneficial to ingest turmeric as a spice in food also containing black pepper, or in a supplement packaged with black pepper. Fortunately for those of us who like Indian cooking, most Indian dishes that use turmeric (which is a LOT) also call for black pepper. Makes you think the Indians are on to something, what with that 4,000 year history…

The healing effects, both genuine and purported, of turmeric are numerous and diverse. Maladies treated with turmeric throughout history and at present include rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, digestive conditions, diabetes, wound healing, chicken pox, jaundice, inflammation, menstrual problems, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. This list is by no means exhaustive. If you can name a medical problem, you can probably find someone out there who believes turmeric can help it. So what does the evidence show? Is this sunny spice a cure-all or another over-hyped placebo?

The research—and there is quite a lot of it—surrounding medicinal uses of turmeric is somewhat conflicting. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that “there is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition” because of the lack of clinical trials and testing on human subjects. This skeptical outlook may be overly cautious, though, since numerous peer-reviewed studies have appeared in recent years showing evidence of effective treatments using turmeric. For

  • A study published just this month reveals that curcumin complements the action of DHA on the brain, enhancing its synthesis and leading to anxiety prevention.
  • Another study determined turmeric supplementation to be an effective therapy for maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis.
  • Yet another recent study found that type 2 diabetes patients who received turmeric supplements in addition to their oral medication experienced marked decreases in fasting blood sugar compared to a control group.
  • Turmeric has been shown to work as well as NSAID pain medications for treating osteoarthritis of the knee. Over two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds within the spice work to block the COX-2 enzyme, which promotes pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Over 50 studies have addressed turmeric’s effects on Alzheimer’s disease, indicating that it contains agents that can block the substance that produces plaque on the brain. Quite likely, this explains why elderly villagers in India who consume turmeric in sizable quantities have the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s in the world.

Without a doubt, this list does not cover all the research into the benefits of including turmeric in your diet, but even if the uses listed above were its only advantages, I’d still say it’s a golden powerhouse of a spice. I’m happy to find ways to incorporate it more frequently into my cooking. Look for a turmeric-spiced red lentils recipe coming in my next post! And if you’re interested in recommendations for using turmeric as a supplement, ask your doctor–or check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s recommendations here. (Though I should probably say, so no one sues me, this post is not intended to be medical advice.) I won’t be surprised if, as research continues, turmeric becomes accepted into the usage canon of mainstream medical practice. What a wonderful example of food’s potential power in our bodies for health and healing!

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