Turmeric is a buzz word in health communities, touted as a superfood, but why is such a basic-sounding spice considered so amazing? It comes down to turmeric’s ability to cut inflammation in the body, and a host of other health-supporting reactions.
What Is Turmeric?
The history of turmeric goes back thousands of years (literally) to Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, where it was used a spice and flavoring. It has a warm, earthy flavor that is often paired with ginger or cumin, and is the main spice in a curry mixture.
Turmeric is a naturally bright orangeish-yellow color, and can actually stain skin or surfaces when left. It is sometimes used as a coloring to give mustard a bright yellow color, since on its own, mustard is a drab color of brown.
Medicinal Uses of Turmeric
Turmeric is much more than a basic seasoning, and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, with the earliest references being as a remedy for food poisoning, disease, fever, excess body fat, and even parasites.
The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is what gives it all of its anti-inflammatory properties and what makes it interesting to us today. Curcumin has been the subject of so much research that you will get nearly 12,000 hits if you search PubMed, a research database.
So what does all of this research tell us about turmeric? Read on for the 17 most proven and popular ways that turmeric can improve health and fight disease.
1. Works Like an Antioxidant
Much of the breakdown in the body happens in response to oxidative stress, or when free radicals overwhelm the body’s natural antioxidant defense lines. Think of oxidation as what happens when something rusts: you don’t want that happening within your body.
You need antioxidants to scavenge the “rust-causing” free radicals. Turmeric is a fount of antioxidant activity thanks to the active ingredient, curcumin, which can scavenge free radicals and neutralize them.
2. Supports Cardiovascular Health
Heart disease causes well over 600,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone and is also the world’s leading cause of death in both men and women. In an age of dietary confusion over what keeps the heart safest, turmeric emerges as at least one nutritive support for a strong heart.
A compound in curcumin can help to maintain the lining of the blood vessels, helping to ensure that they continue to function as they should, as well as prevent oxidative damage that can lead to the inflammation of the arteries.
Bonus: turmeric also helps to prevent the similar oxidative breakdown that can lead to strokes, too. In research, turmeric has been shown to be as effective, if not more, than medication designed to reduce the effects of cardiovascular disease.
3. Works as a Natural Mood Booster
Mental health can feel extremely complicated, but much of anxiety and depression are rooted in physical conditions relating to inflammation. Curcumin can help to boost the mood, and can increase the happy and balancing neurotransmitters in the brain (dopamine and serotonin).
As such, it can help to relieve the effects of depression and anxiety, acting as a natural anti-depressant. In some cases, it can be significantly more effective than prescription alternatives, since it works with the same mechanisms but comes with far fewer side effects.
Turmeric can also support a healthy brain in other ways by boosting proteins that support neurons and encourages the creation of new neurons, leading to improved learning retention, memory, and higher thinking.
4. Cuts Inflammation in the Body
Inflammation is meant to be a healing process within the body, but in modern society, inflammatory processes can become chronic as a result of our constantly stressed out, on the go lifestyles.
Chronic inflammation can lead to tissue injury, widespread pain, and even disease. Turmeric has potent anti-inflammatory action within the body, and can even help to ease physical signs of inflammation: redness, swelling, tenderness, and pain.
This is possible because the active components of turmeric can help to down-regulate the enzymes and proteins that cause the inflammatory response to start in the first place.
Essentially, it can act as the breath of fresh air that blows out the fires of internal inflammation.
5. Supplies Micronutrients to the Body
Modern diets tend to be lacking in an abundance of micronutrients, especially when people run short on vegetables and fruits.
Turmeric is rich in micronutrients that are essential for good health, balanced hormones, and just about everything else, including manganese, iron, vitamin B6, potassium, and vitamin C.
While it doesn’t contain every essential nutrient, these tend to be common deficiencies, and can help to provide more dietary balance.
6. Protects Against Cognitive Decline
Cultures who eat significantly more amounts of turmeric on a regular basis have fewer instances of brain-related and inflammatory-related diseases and disorders.
Curcumin can cross the blood brain barrier, which is why it can actually help to calm inflammation that happens in the brain as a result of stress, excess glucose, and other triggers.
The brain is far from static, and can actually build new neurons and regenerate when it is given the right nutrients as well as cooled levels of inflammation and distress.
This makes turmeric especially protective against Alzheimer’s and dementia, two rapidly increasing age-related disorders.
7. May Protect Against Excessive Blood Clotting
Blood clots are a terrifying prospect, especially if you have a genetic propensity to developing them. Clots typically form in response to the concentration of blood platelets in one location.
Clotting is also referred to as having “sticky blood.” Curcumin has been shown by research to help reduce platelet concentrations and can make the blood more slippery.
Clotting is ultimately an inflammation-derived process, as a result of specific molecules that get activated in response to inflammation, which can lead to platelet concentrations.
Curcumin can act protectively in the body to work against these inflammatory molecules. Because of this, people who are on prescription blood thinners need to be careful of interactions with turmeric, so should always consult their doctor before adding it to their diet or supplementing with it.
8. Boosts the Immune System
Turmeric can also help to modulate the immune system. This means that if you’re struggling with suppressed immunity and frequently get ill, it can boost the immune system’s ability to function and can lead to fewer illnesses and a better stamina.
Alternatively it can also suppress an overactive immune system, as with autoimmune disease, and can decrease internal damage from an immune system that is attacking its own body.
Turmeric can enhance antibody response to make them smarter, which is why it has an overall balancing effect on immunity. Beyond that, turmeric is also antimicrobial, and it can help to combat bacterial infections.
9. Slows the Effects of Aging
In a similar way to being protective against Alzheimer’s and other brain disease, turmeric can also help to generally slow the effects of aging across the entire body. Age is often related to degeneration of various aspects: brain, sight, cells, digestion, and more.
Oxidation is thought to be blamed for these symptoms of aging, and since turmeric is a whole-body antioxidant that can be taken regularly, it may well combat this process.
10. Promotes Balanced Gut Health
Turmeric is not only a superfood spice, but it also can help to improve an imbalanced gut and healthy digestion, which is essential for the absorption of nutrients. You can eat the best diet in the world, but if your digestive tract can’t absorb the nutrients from food, it is pointless.
Turmeric helps to ease inflammatory symptoms in the digestive tract, and can soothe digestive-related pain, as well as leaky gut, which is why one of the first ancient uses was a digestive calming tonic.
11. Helps Fight Joint Pain
While inflammation might be to promote healing, when it gets stuck in constant “on” mode, it can lead to chronic pain and arthritis. Curcumin is a research-proven method of helping to alleviate arthritic pain and to calm general system-wide inflammation pain.
It is especially helpful for people who have extremely sore joints or for athletes who chronically overuse certain areas, such as runners with their knees or baseball players with their swinging or pitching arms.
Curcumin can even help to relieve pain in rheumatoid arthritis, a disease with an autoimmune component, and can be so effective that it works better than prescription medications used to quell inflammation.
12. Might Protect Against Cancer
Cancer is a dangerous word that no one wants to think about, and numerous diets and products claim to be protective against cancer.
Thankfully, curcumin and cancer have been the subject of literally decades of research, so the body of proof is there: curcumin can help to suppress the reproduction of tumor cells, can down-regulate cancer cell receptors, and can inhibit the activity of cancer reproduction.
Curcumin can fight against cancer cells in several ways, which is why it is so beneficial and protective. It disrupts the cancer process, and can even prevent cancer cells from forming.
Curcumin can also help to rid the body of carcinogenic substances, further helping to prevent problematic developments down the road.
Perhaps the best part is that curcumin is not harmful to good cells, whereas most cancer treatments are. Curcumin of course can’t replace all cancer treatment, and isn’t a guaranteed method of healing in every form, but research shows that it’s a promising dietary intervention with widespread therapeutic abilities.
It has specifically been linked to protection against and a reduction of cancer when in the colon.
13. Acts as a Natural Pain Reliever
Because it can so effectively reduce inflammation, turmeric can work as well or better than NSAID pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, especially when used on a regular basis.
This is because it can eliminate causes of inflammatory pain before they begin, instead of simply addressing the sudden symptom of them.
14. Can Prevent and Reverse Diabetes
Curcumin can help to normalize blood glucose levels in both type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. It can also help to reduce or relieve diabetes-related complications, like retinopathy and neuropathy.
Turmeric can also lead to improved insulin sensitivity, which can help to reverse metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance. Research has proven that curcumin is 400 times more potent than metformin, a commonly prescribed drug to help manage type 2 diabetes and PCOS.
15. Can Promote Weight Loss
Turmeric can boost the body’s metabolism naturally without leading to over-hyped side effects like other metabolism boosting supplements. Turmeric can also reduce weight-induced symptoms of inflammation, putting the body in a better state to release weight.
Turmeric can also help to decrease the number of unhealthy fat cells within the liver, pancreas, and muscle.
16. Supports Intestinal Health
Without healthy intestines, we cannot be healthy people. Curcumin can not only support basic intestinal health, but can be therapeutic for conditions that are autoimmune or inflammatory in nature like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and IBD.
Not only can it reduce the inflammation driving the disease, but it can protect and repair the lining of the intestines, and can also help to boost production of the beneficial and protective good gut bacteria.
17. Supports Liver Health and Natural Detox
The liver is the body’s largest organ that, among other things, is responsible for detoxing the body by collecting toxins and prepared them for elimination through the kidneys and intestines. Because the liver comes into contact with these toxins, it can be prone to damage, as well.
Turmeric can not only help to improve the liver’s ability to function but can also boost antioxidant levels to keep the liver healthy and free from oxidative damage. Turmeric can also help to reverse the effects of fatty liver disease.
How To Take Turmeric
Turmeric comes in both powdered (food) form and supplemental form. Both can be beneficial to health, but it’s essential to understand that for the body to use the active ingredient in turmeric, black pepper needs to be present for absorption.
Supplements should contain this, and dietary intake should be paired with a small bit of organic black pepper.
To use in your diet other than in curries, you can make golden milk lattes by frothing coconut milk, adding a teaspoon of turmeric, coconut oil, and some vanilla.
You can also add a pinch or more of turmeric when cooking just about anything, including soups, stews, eggs, granola, rice, vegetables, smoothies, and more.
How to Use Turmeric Topically
Turmeric can also be used topically for anti-inflammatory skin benefits.
- It can be mixed with coconut oil and smeared on acne or pimples to help cut inflammation
- The same mixture can be put on cuts/scrapes to help speed healing time
- It can be used as a face mask to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and signs of aging
- It can be paired with coconut oil and baking soda and used as a teeth whitening agent.
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- Di Lorenzo C, Dell’Agli M, Badea M, et al. Plant food supplements with anti-inflammatory properties: a systematic review (II). Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2013;53(5):507-516.
- Ryan JL, Heckler CE, Ling M, et al. Curcumin for radiation dermatitis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of thirty breast cancer patients. Radiation Research. 2013;180(1):34-43.
- Wongcharoen W, Jai-Aue S, Phrommintikul A, et al. Effects of curcuminoids on frequency of acute myocardial infarction after coronary artery bypass grafting. American Journal of Cardiology. 2012;110(1):40-44.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.