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Spice of life: a closer look at the benefits of all-powerful turmeric

Turmeric contains a powerful antioxidant with many benefits, and it’s been used medicinally for thousands of years. Learn if this ancient remedy can improve your health.

What is turmeric?

Also known as Curcuma longa, turmeric is part of the ginger family. It is related to other spices such as cardamom and galangal. The aboveground part of the turmeric plant consists of tall, narrow stems, each topped by a distinctive white or pink flower. But if you're curious about turmeric as a health supplement, you're probably more interested in its root.

The knobby sections of the turmeric root resemble a miniature, dark orange version of ginger. Most commercial turmeric is grown in India, although the plant flourishes in many tropical locations. When dried and ground up into a powder, turmeric root gives a golden tinge to traditional dishes from around the world. It is an irreplaceable ingredient in Indian curries, Iranian khoresh dishes, and the Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout.

A staple of ancient medicine gains popularity in the West

In addition to culinary and religious uses, turmeric has played an important role in traditional medicine systems for millennia. The Ayurvedic system uses turmeric for many things, including cleaning cuts and soothing upset stomachs. Other systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine, prescribe turmeric to treat the gallbladder and improve blood circulation.

Curcuminoids: the secret to turmeric’s healing properties

Turmeric’s health benefits are derived from a group of molecules called curcuminoids. Curcumin is the most well-known compound in this group. Researchers have yet to figure out exactly how curcuminoids work at the molecular level to create such a wide range of positive health effects. The prevailing theory is that curcuminoids restore signaling between cells, which can improve the overall function of the body.

If you’ve done a lot of research on turmeric, you might have heard that it is best used along with black pepper. This is because black pepper contains piperine, a compound that prevents curcuminoids from getting broken down in the liver. In a 1998 study, this increased the amount of curcumin in the bloodstream by 2,000%!

The many health benefits of turmeric

While turmeric has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, the first research article on the health effects of turmeric to be published in a Western medical journal appeared in a 1937 issue of Lancet.

Since then, researchers have carried out thousands of studies on the health benefits of turmeric. The results of these studies show that not only is turmeric safe and nontoxic, but it also has the potential to combat a wide range of common diseases.

In some cases, scientists found that turmeric is even more effective than typical pharmaceutical treatments. Here are five therapeutic uses of turmeric that are validated by clinical research:

1. Soothe an upset stomach

A 2006 study showed that turmeric provides relief to patients with stomach ulcers. It also helps to relieve indigestion by suppressing the response of a key receptor that triggers heartburn.

2. Fight infections due to viruses and bacteria

Curcumin improves the health of many organs that may succumb to infection, whether it is the skin, the respiratory tract, or the stomach. In fact, turmeric paste has been used to keep wounds clean for millennia.

3. Inhibit cancer growth

Curcumin has been widely shown to have cancer-fighting properties. It specifically targets tumor cells, while leaving healthy cells unaffected. Curcumin’s anti-carcinogenic effect is achieved by suppressing the growth and reproduction of cancerous cells.

4. Reduce joint pain

A pilot study published in 1980 demonstrated that curcumin was just as effective as phenylbutazone, a popular prescription treatment, at reducing tenderness and inflammation in the joints of patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Since then, curcumin has been shown to reduce the severity of osteoarthritis symptoms with fewer adverse side effects than some pharmaceutical alternatives.

5. Reduce inflammation

Uveitis, inflammation located in the middle layer of the eye, impairs vision and represents a major cause of blindness in the US. Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effect has been observed in patients with uveitis. In a 2010 study published by _Clinical Ophthalmology_, curcumin was shown to reduce the discomfort resulting from this disease.

Spice up your health with turmeric

Feeling fired up about turmeric? Here's how you can add this orange spice to your life. Turmeric is an affordable, convenient and tasty way to improve your well-being.

Many grocery stores carry turmeric powder in the spice aisle. It can be added to curries, roasted vegetables, marinades, and more. Turmeric’s subtle pungency and brilliant yellow color immediately perk up a dish.

Asian or Indian supermarkets often stock fresh turmeric in the produce section. Use grated fresh turmeric (or the powdered stuff) in all types of drinks, from smoothies or tea. Turmeric lattes, most often made with a non-dairy milk (such as coconut or almond), can provide a nourishing start to your day.

However, if you don’t want to add turmeric to your diet, you can find a direct dose of curcumin in the supplement aisle. Both “turmeric” and “curcumin” are widely available in capsule form, and provide different advantages. Curcumin and turmeric are safe and non-toxic, even in larger doses.

Dr. Jeffrey Gladd, an integrative physician, says: “Those with inflammatory concerns looking to harness the benefits of this anti-inflammatory herb should look for products where the most active components have been extracted. I have seen many patients with inflammatory bowel disease or arthritis find relief with the addition of turmeric to their regimen.”

Those with diabetes should be mindful that turmeric may decrease blood sugar levels. Pregnant or nursing women should consult with their doctor before taking turmeric, or any nutritional supplements.

To know whether turmeric is right for you, consider taking an online health assessment that considers your diet, lifestyle and wellness goals.