Turmeric: What are the Health Benefits of this Yellow Root?

Turmeric is ever-present in many Asian cuisines. It has made its way into many diets and has been used as a natural remedy for centuries. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, a naturally occurring compound that gives turmeric its chemical, antioxidant, and health properties. It is likely effective in treating some conditions, like osteoarthritis, high blood cholesterol, and allergies, while other conditions require more research. As a spice or food additive, it will not likely affect one’s health. More concentrated forms of turmeric or curcumin are more likely to have an effect. If you are taking medications like blood thinners or diabetes medications, turmeric should be taken with caution. Always consult a pharmacist or a healthcare provider before you start any new supplement or medication.  

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What we know as “turmeric” is actually the powdered root or rhizome of Curcuma longa, more commonly known as the turmeric plant. This plant is native to South-East Asia. The cultures of these regions have been using turmeric for a variety of purposes for centuries. 

Turmeric is commonly used as a food and a spice and is the main ingredient in curry powder. It has a fragrant aroma, with a bitter, peppery, biting taste that is somewhat reminiscent of ginger. It has a distinct yellowish color and, when consumed, can stain saliva yellow. Because of this excellent staining property, turmeric powder is used as a fabric dye. It even has utility as a coloring agent for many foods and medicines. Additionally, because it is safer than artificial dyes, it has replaced their use in many foods that need yellow coloring. 

Turmeric is also a powerful antioxidant. This enables it to extend the shelf life of many food products, like cooking oils and some fruit juices. 

Unsurprisingly, thanks to turmeric’s widespread use as food, spice, dye, and antioxidant, it has found its way into medicine.

Turmeric Use in Traditional Medicine

Turmeric has been used in oriental medicine for centuries for a vast array of ailments

  • Strengthening the overall energy of the body
  • Relieving gas
  • Ridding the body of worms
  • Improving digestion
  • Regulating menstruation
  • Dissolving gallstones
  • Relieving pain associated with arthritis

Due to its extensive use in oriental medicine, it was a matter of time before western medicine investigated the effectiveness of turmeric extracts using the scientific method. 

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Turmeric Use in Western Medicine

There are numerous compounds found in the turmeric plant. These compounds are called curcuminoids. The active ingredient and hallmark curcuminoid in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin is likely the key ingredient responsible for all of the health effects of turmeric. Despite being the most abundant active curcuminoid in turmeric, curcumin has a very low concentration in curry powders – only about 3%. However, it is still plentiful enough to give turmeric its signature yellowish tint, flavor, and aroma.

Purified turmeric extracts contain a lot more curcumin than curry powders. They can contain as much as 75% of curcumin. 

Therefore, curcumin extracts are much more suitable for use in science and medicine. To date, there have been thousands of papers published on turmeric and its extracts

Turmeric Health Effects and Benefits

Turmeric has been investigated in countless disorders and disease states but was shown to be likely effective only in a handful of them. 

Please note that turmeric is not a replacement for medical advice or diagnosis, and you should always consult your primary healthcare provider before taking any new medication or supplement (whether available as a prescription or non-prescription). 

The most promising results involve these conditions:

  • Osteoarthritis
    • Taking turmeric three times a day was found to work similarly to taking ibuprofen three times a day. 
    • Less gastrointestinal problems were noted in patients that used turmeric. 
    • Patients had to take turmeric extracts for at least two to three months before they saw any benefit.
    • Hay fever
    • Patients that took turmeric extracts every day for two months reported less allergic symptoms, such as less sneezing, itching, nasal discharge, and congestion. 
    • It is worth mentioning that this study did not compare turmeric to other medications, like Benadryl, Claritin, or other antihistamines. 
    • Unlike antihistamines, patients that took turmeric did not develop drowsiness.
    • Elevated blood lipids (cholesterol)
    • Your blood lipid panel includes measurements of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – the bad cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – the good cholesterol, and triglycerides. Together, they are known as total cholesterol. 
    • Elevated LDL is a risk factor for heart disease, and high triglycerides can also lead to major health problems 
    • Having a good arsenal of cholesterol-lowering agents is beneficial. Studies show that turmeric extracts taken twice daily for at least three months can reduce triglycerides. Its effect on other components of the cholesterol panel is controversial.
    • Turmeric should be used as an adjunct (i.e., add-on) to cholesterol-lowering therapy, and should not be a replacement. 

Turmeric is used for a plethora of other conditions, such as depression, rheumatoid arthritis, upset stomach, and Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately, data on these disorders is sparse, inconsistent, or contradictory.

The inconsistency of turmeric doses and preparations is another problematic aspect of turmeric research. When studying turmeric extracts, the amount of curcumin used can be as small as 500 mg a day or as high as 8 grams a day.

To make matters even more complicated, turmeric has a very low “bioavailability.” This means that when you consume ground turmeric, curry powder, turmeric extract, or even pure curcumin, very little of the active ingredient actually gets absorbed into the body. Most of it just passes right through you. 

The good news is that scientists have developed better preparations of turmeric extracts. When these extracts are combined with an oil, or used with special nanoparticles, the absorption of curcumin increases substantially. For example, when a more bioavailable turmeric extract was taken, pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis improved much more than when typical preparations of turmeric were used. 

Turmeric seems to be generally regarded as safe. Still, if you are considering taking turmeric please consult with your pharmacist or primary healthcare provider first as it may not be appropriate for all individuals. As with any supplement, there is a possibility for drug interactions and harm. Notably, with warfarin, a potent blood thinner, and with some diabetes medications, such as glyburide. Adding high levels of curcumin to medications that reduce blood sugar can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels.  

Bottom Line 

Turmeric has been used as a food, spice, dye, and natural remedy for centuries. We have been able to properly investigate this peculiar plant thanks to science and improvements in technology. 

Consuming turmeric in the form of curry powder or plain ground turmeric root most likely will not have actual health benefits. At most, it will stain your saliva yellow and add an extra flavor to your meal. 

Using a more purified extract that contains more curcumin will potentially yield more health effects. It is also important to remember that it may take a few months to see any changes in your health. 

Turmeric is not a quick-fix or a substitute to medications and instead should be treated as an adjunct to medications. Additionally, it has known drug interactions. If anyone is planning on adding turmeric to their medications, a discussion with a healthcare provider is warranted before taking turmeric. 

Reference List

1. Schonbeck J, Frey R. Turmeric. Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Encyclopedia.com. Updated August 8, 2020. Accessed August 13, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/turmeric

2. Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Turmeric, the Golden Spice: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, eds. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 13. Accessed August 13, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/

3. Hay E, Lucariello A, Contieri M, et al. Therapeutic effects of turmeric in several diseases: An overview. Chem Biol Interact. 2019;310:108729. doi:10.1016/j.cbi.2019.108729

4. Stani? Z. Curcumin, a Compound from Natural Sources, a True Scientific Challenge – A Review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2017;72(1):1-12. doi:10.1007/s11130-016-0590-1

5. Kuptniratsaikul V, Dajpratham P, Taechaarpornkul W, et al. Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study. Clin Interv Aging. 2014;9:451-458. Published 2014 Mar 20. doi:10.2147/CIA.S58535

6. Wu S, Xiao D. Effect of curcumin on nasal symptoms and airflow in patients with perennial allergic rhinitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2016;117(6):697-702.e1. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2016.09.427

7. Qin S, Huang L, Gong J, et al. Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):68. Published 2017 Oct 11. doi:10.1186/s12937-017-0293-y

8. Gupta SC, Patchva S, Aggarwal BB. Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trials. AAPS J. 2013;15(1):195-218. doi:10.1208/s12248-012-9432-8

9. Hashemzadeh K, Davoudian N, Jaafari MR, Mirfeizi Z. The Effect of Nanocurcumin in Improvement of Knee Osteoarthritis: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Curr Rheumatol Rev. 2020;16(2):158-164. doi:10.2174/1874471013666191223152658

10. 10 Proven Health Benefits of Turmeric Curcumin Supplements https://lyfebotanicals.com/health/turmeric-benefits/

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