The intensely yellow spice known as turmeric is the ingredient in curry powder that gives it its golden hue. The health benefits of turmeric have been extensively studied with earliest accounts dating from 600 BCE (1,2). In 1748 the therapeutic potential of turmeric’s primary active component, curcumin, was first reported (2,3). Further investigation followed with thousands of studies over the ensuing years. Now more than 5600 peer-reviewed studies of turmeric and/or curcumin have gathered together an abundance of evidence for a myriad of benefits that are possible simply from eating this spice.
Much of the benefit from turmeric comes from its prodigious anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric has the ability to regulate numerous factors involved in inflammatory states. This is important because inflammation has been shown to play a major role in most chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and other age-associated health changes (4,5,6,76,77). In fact the potential value of turmeric and its main active ingredient, curcumin, covers an astonishing array of health conditions (7).
HEALTH BENEFITS OF TURMERIC
Curcumin reduces inflammation through several mechanisms including lowering histamine levels, increasing production of cortisone by the adrenal glands and inhibiting production of inflammatory prostaglandins from arachidonic acid (6,8).
Curcumin is as effective as the anti-inflammatory drugs cortisone and phenylbutazone in acute inflammation and half as effective in chronic inflammation (6,9,10). A 2004 study found curcumin to have an equivalent anti-inflammatory effect to that of the drugs celecoxib (Celebrex) and dexamethasone (an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid) and much higher anti-inflammatory effects than aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), sulindac (Clinoril), naproxen (Naproxyn) , indomethacin (Indocid) and diclofenac (Voltaren) (11).
Curcumin can protect against the damaging effects of free radicals that are produced naturally during body processes. Curcumin itself is a strong anti-oxidant, comparable to vitamins C and E (12,13,14,15). Additionally it can boost the activity of other antioxidants present in the body (16,17).
Many studies show the ability of curcumin to cause cancer cell death and also to sensitize resistant cancer cells to conventional treatments (18,19,20,21,22,23). A very recent study, published in August 2018, confirms that curcumin is an efficient killer of cancer cells (24).
Curcumin fights cancer by affecting its primary development, growth and spread into other tissues. Curcumin does this by regulating multiple signaling pathways, influencing tumour cell survival, tumour blood vessel growth and cancer proliferation, all of which enhance cancer treatment (25,26).
Curcumin has shown an ability to inhibit the spread of colorectal cancer that is comparable to the chemotherapy drug, oxaliplatin (27).
Research indicates that turmeric may be a formidable opponent for cancer of the brain. Glioblastoma is a fast-growing and especially lethal form of brain cancer with a survival rate of less than two years. Two recent studies point to curcumin as a viable treatment option for this deadly disease. A 2016 review of previous studies illustrates that curcumin is an effective killer of gliobastoma cells and can inhibit the spread of gliobastoma tumours in the test tube and in animal models (28). Another study showed that oral ingestion of curcumin does result in physiologically active levels of curcumin within gliobastoma tumours (29). Studies in humans are needed to elucidate the therapeutic activity of curcumin in human gliobastoma tumours.
Adding to the potential effectiveness of curcumin in cancer is its tendency to target stem cells, the cells from which cancer arises. Radiation and chemotherapy have not been effective against stem cells and in fact may actually promote their growth thereby accelerating patient death (30).
Curcumin also exhibits cancer prevention attributes. One 30-day study showed that 4 gm of curcumin daily reduced the number of lesions in the colon that turned cancerous by 40% (31).
Curcumin can lower the risk of heart disease by helping to reverse many steps of its development through anti-oxidant, anti-thrombotic, anti-proliferative and anti-inflammatory effects (32).
Curcumin can decrease blood cholesterol (32).
Curcumin prepared from turmeric has the same significantly beneficial effect on endothelial function as both the statin drug, atorvastatin (33), and exercise (34). The endothelium is the thin membrane lining the blood vessels that is instrumental for cardiovascular health and is key to atherosclerosis prevention (33).
A study found that people who were undergoing coronary bypass surgery experienced a dramatic decrease in post-surgery heart attacks. 30% of those taking a placebo experienced a heart attack after the procedure compared to only 13% of those taking 4 gm of curcumin a day (35).
Curcumin has benefits in preventing prediabetes from becoming full-blown diabetes with improvements in fasting blood sugars, hemoglobin A1C, insulin sensitivity and in the function of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas (36). Curcumin has demonstrated more than 500 times the ability of the drug metformin to increase glucose uptake into body tissues and suppress glucose production by the liver making it of potential value in treating type-2 diabetes (37).
In those who are already diabetic, a teaspoon of turmeric daily results in similar improvements (38).
Curcumin can prevent platelets from clumping together to form clots thereby improving blood circulation. The drug aspirin is commonly used to prevent blood clots through its action on platelets; the anti-platelet effects of curcumin are surprisingly similar (39).
Curcumin is beneficial in depression. A 2011 study found that curcumin could reduce depressive behavior in an animal model as effectively as the common anti-depressants, fluoxetine (Prozac) and imipramine (40). A 2014 randomized controlled trial with human participants compared the drug fluoxetine (Prozac) to curcumin. Both fluoxetine and curcumin showed similar improvements in depression but taking both fluoxetine and curcumin resulted in the best improvement of depression (41).
A 2014 study found that 2 grams a day of turmeric (Curcuma domestica) was as effective as 800 mg daily of ibuprofen for knee osteoarthritis but with fewer gastrointestinal side effects. Subjects rated higher satisfaction with turmeric (91.1%) than with ibuprofen (80.4%) (42).
A randomized study of curcumin in rheumatoid arthritis showed more improvement in the subjects taking 500 mg of curcumin than in those taking 50 mg of diclofenac, a drug commonly used to reduce joint tenderness and swelling in the disease. The bonus is that curcumin has no damaging side effects while diclofenac can have many (43).
It appears that curcumin can regulate epigenetic effects in our bodies (44). Epigenetics is the study of factors that affect DNA, turning specific genes on or off, and determining whether a disease develops or good health is maintained. Human beings carry genes that have a predisposition to develop diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. However, these genes cannot express themselves until they are turned on. Lifestyle and diet are major influences on epigenetic changes.
Curcumin is able to turn off the genes that promote chronic diseases through a process in the body called methylation (44). When a single carbon atom joins up with three hydrogen atoms a methyl group is created, and the way in which this group combines with or vacates other molecules becomes an on/off switch for many bodily processes including inflammation; detoxification of hormones, heavy metals and chemicals; neurotransmitter balance; immune response; and especially gene expression (45). Methylation is now known to contribute to the progression of many diseases such as cancers of the prostate, colon and lung, diabetes, cognitive diseases, inflammatory disorders and autoimmune diseases.
EFFECTS ON AUTO-IMMUNE DISEASES:
Curcumin appears to be a safe and effective medication for achieving and maintaining remission in patients with ulcerative colitis. In 2015 a randomized, placebo-controlled study found that adding curcumin (3 gm per day) to mesalamine treatment (a drug regularly used in the treatment of ulcerative colitis) allowed 65% of patients to achieve remission from ulcerative colitis compared with only 12% remission in those taking mesalamine and placebo (46). A 2006 study found that taking curcumin along with the usual anti-inflammatory drugs used in ulcerative colitis reduced relapse rate at six months from 20% in those taking placebo to 5% in those taking curcumin. When the curcumin was replaced with a placebo the relapse rate of the group previously taking curcumin quickly increased back to around 20% (47). A 2013 review of curcumin use in ulcerative colitis re-examined and confirmed the benefits of curcumin in this disease (48).
Whole turmeric supplementation (1/4 tsp with each meal) can help patients suffering from the auto-immune disease lupus by decreasing some of its main manifestations including protein and blood in the urine and high blood pressure (49).
EFFECTS ON THE STOMACH:
Curcumin may be able to heal gastric ulcers. A trial on 25 patients with endoscopically-diagnosed gastric ulcer showed that 48% of participants who consumed 600 mg of powdered turmeric five times daily had complete healing of their ulcer after four weeks and 75% of them were ulcer free after 12 weeks (50). No adverse reactions were noted. The drawback of this trial is the lack of a placebo so we don’t know what percentage of ulcers might have healed on their own.
EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN:
Animal studies reveal that curcumin can improve age-related deterioration of brain function such as that occurring in stroke, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases (51).
Curcumin can boost BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a type of growth hormone for the brain (52,53). Contrary to what scientists previously believed, research has now discovered that neurons not only form new connections throughout life, they can also multiply and increase in number. BDNF is the factor that makes this happen. Adequate BDNF in the brain can prevent age-related decreases in brain function and is related to improvement in brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and depression (54,55,56).
Studies have found that curcumin can help clear away amyloid plaques, the tangles of protein that are a key feature of Alzheimer’s Disease (57).
Scientific evidence shows that curcumin can increase levels of the brain transmitters serotonin and dopamine (5,58).
A review from 2016 concluded that using the powerful anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin to help heal spinal cord injuries shows potential as a safer approach than the conventional therapy of surgery and corticosteroids (59).
Both turmeric extract and oil can inhibit growth of a variety of disease-causing micro-organisms such as bacteria, molds, protozoa, fungi and yeasts (60,61,62).
DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, one of the essential fatty acids for humans that must be obtained through diet. Its deficiency is linked to anxiety, Alzheimer’s Disease, depression and schizophrenia. Curcumin can increase the amount of DHA in the brain. A study on rats showed that curcumin enhances the synthesis of DHA from its dietary precursor, α-linolenic acid, and also elevates the enzymes involved in this synthesis. Additionally curcumin can increase the synthesis of DHA by the liver (63). These effects may be an indirect result of the ability of curcumin to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation.
EFFECTS ON DAMAGED DNA:
Curcumin reduced and repaired DNA damage caused by arsenic-contaminated water in children in India (64,65). Damage to DNA from arsenic is a cause of cancer. A study randomly selected participants from the area to ingest either curcumin/black pepper capsules or a placebo. The placebo had no effect but, one month after starting the curcumin/pepper capsules, DNA damage began to decrease. After three months of treatment, the amount of damaged DNA damage had decreased back to the baseline level, as if the exposure to arsenic had never happened (64,65).
HOW TO INCLUDE TURMERIC AND/OR CURCUMIN IN YOUR LIFE
WHOLE TURMERIC OR CURCUMIN?
Though much of the study on turmeric has been done using curcumin, it is becoming clear that whole turmeric may actually have greater beneficial effects (66). Curcumin is just one of many active constituents of whole turmeric (67). It appears that the different elements that are a part of turmeric work better together rather than separated out as in a curcumin supplement (68). Surprisingly turmeric with the curcumin removed can be as beneficial or even more beneficial to health than turmeric-containing turmeric extracts (67).
Whole turmeric is also more easily absorbed by the body than curcumin. Generally curcumin is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream. Consuming whole turmeric (fresh or dried) allows its natural oils to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin by bypassing the liver and being absorbed directly into the lymph system. This can increase curcumin absorption by seven or eight times (69).
The liver considers turmeric a foreign substance and strives to remove it from the body. One way it accomplishes this is to make curcumin more water soluble so that it is easily excreted. There is an easy method to combat this process. Simply eat black pepper along with curcumin or turmeric. Piperine, a substance found as part of black pepper, is a strong inhibitor of the liver’s conversion of curcumin for excretion (70). Adding black pepper to a meal containing curcumin or turmeric can increase its absorption by as much as 2000% (72).
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU EAT?
The easiest and most efficient way to consume curcumin is by eating turmeric itself. You need to eat only a small amount to gain its advantages. About ½ teaspoonful of turmeric daily is enough. You can choose either the fresh root or the dried powder. Curcumin makes up a very small proportion of whole turmeric, with pure turmeric containing up to 5% curcumin by weight. There is a much smaller amount of curcumin in curry powders (70,71).
What about piperine? How much is required to improve absorption of curcumin. This is definitely not an exact science with concentrations of curcumin in turmeric and piperine in black pepper both varying considerably. However, general calculations can be done. So here they are (72,73);
Turmeric contains about 5% curcumin and black pepper contains about 5% piperine (70,71,74).
If you’re using 1 tsp (about 3100 mg) of turmeric in a recipe you are getting approximately 155 mg of curcumin.
Scientific investigations have shown that the optimum ratio for curcumin absorption is 100 parts curcumin to 1 part piperine.
To get a 100:1 ratio you’ll need 1.55 mg of piperine.
At piperine concentration in black pepper of about 5%, this translates into about 30 mg of black pepper.
One teaspoonful of black pepper weighs about 2300 mg.
30 mg of black pepper is only about 1/60th of a teaspoon. In practical terms just add a small shake of black pepper.
POSSIBLE ADVERSE EFFECTS OF TURMERIC:
Turmeric is very safe however it has the potential to cause stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, allergic reactions and may interfere with blood clotting due to its anti-thrombosis activity (75).
Turmeric from countries such as India and Bangladesh is sometimes intentionally contaminated with lead chromate, a bright yellow substance used to hide evidence of pests and enhance its colour (78). Unfortunately, most turmeric available for purchase in North America is from one of these countries. Chalk powder, starch, flour or sawdust may also be added as a bulking agent. Be sure to check the source of the spice you are buying. Purchasing fresh turmeric root or organic turmeric powder can be a safer choice (78).
It is possible to check for adulterations in your turmeric yourself. Mix a teaspoonful of turmeric powder in a clear glass of warm water. Do not stir. If it contains lead chromate, red streaks will immediately be visible. Let it sit and check on it after twenty minutes. If the powder settles to the bottom of the glass and the water is clear above it, the turmeric is pure. Cloudy water or particles floating on the surface can indicate chalk, starch, rice flour, sawdust or other adulterants (79).
With all the health benefits that turmeric offers, it is a good ingredient to include in your daily diet. Most people don’t cook a turmeric-containing meal every day but it is easy to add a small amount of turmeric along with a dash of black pepper to many dishes without affecting the taste. We add it to our daily morning smoothie. (See the post entitled, “Good Morning to a Brand New Day”). With the diverse flavours from the variety of ingredients that go into making a healthy breakfast smoothie, the mild taste of a little turmeric and pepper is not even noticed.
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