sack of tumeric powder on a wooden table

Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family that adds the bright yellow to curry powder. Like ginger, the part we eat and use as medicine is the rhizome, or underground stem. People have been using turmeric for many centuries. Archeologic analyses of pots discovered near New Delhi in India uncovered residue from turmeric, ginger, and garlic that dates back as early as 2500 BCE. In part because of its use in ancient healing traditions such as Ayurveda in Southeast Asia and in traditional Chinese medicine, it is now being promoted in the West as a dietary supplement for a variety of conditions including arthritis, ulcerative colitis, respiratory infections, allergies, liver disease, depression, dementia, and cancer.

Curcumin – the Magic Ingredient 

The active component of turmeric is curcumin, a natural polyphenol with strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Researchers are interested in the possible benefits for the many health problems related to inflammation. For use as a dietary supplement the turmeric is crushed to a powder and the curcumin is extracted and put into capsules. It can also be made into a paste and applied directly to the skin. 

Turmeric is widely used in the US as a preservative and a coloring agent in foods and beverages from energy drinks to butter.

Curcumin in Studies

Researchers are investigating whether it may help fight diseases in which inflammation plays a large role, such as arthritis and ulcerative colitis. There is interest in the use of curcumin in the treatment of dementia, but so far there is not enough clinical evidence to recommend it as a treatment.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is funding research to determine whether and how curcuminoids may be converted in bone tissue into substances that may have effects on bone diseases. Animal studies have shown curcumin to suppress ovarian cancer cells. As with many herbs, plants, and supplements, the effects of turmeric-curcumin on human health are complex and more research and studies are needed to prove whether they can be used effectively against disease.   

Problems with Studying Curcumin

While turmeric and curcumin are being actively studied, there are challenges. Curcumin has what is called low bioavailability, which means that not much of it reaches the bloodstream when it is taken orally. This is due to it being poorly absorbed in the first place, then what is absorbed is quickly metabolized, and eliminated from the body. Yes, that means possibly bright yellow pee! Researchers are investigating ways to improve curcumin’s bioavailability with the use of piperine which is an active component of black pepper and a known bioavailability enhancer. 

How to use Tumeric and Curcumin 

  • Use more turmeric in cooking. Regularly add it to rice or soups as well as where it is called for in recipes.
  • Take turmeric as a supplement capsule. Curcuminoids have been approved by the FDA and recognized even at doses between 4000 and 8000 mg/day and up to 12,000 mg/day of 95% concentration of three curcuminoids: curcumin, bisdemethoxycurcumin, and demethoxycurcumin.
  • A liquid “shot” of curcumin for your smoothie is available.
  • Whenever I have a head cold, I add a tablespoon of turmeric to a bowl of boiled water and make a towel hood to breathe in the turmeric laden steam. 
  • Turmeric supplement use may not be safe during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. The amounts used in cooking or in food products are safe.  

What About Safety?

Turmeric used as a spice is certainly safe and a good anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. As with most everything, dose matters. Curcumin products from a reputable company are probably safe when taken orally or applied to the skin in the recommended amounts. There might be some people who experience gastrointestinal problems from capsules such as stomach upset, diarrhea, or nausea. As products are modified to improve their bioavailability this could lead to harmful effects as well as increased benefits.

It is always smart to talk with your healthcare provider about any supplements you are considering adding to your routine. 

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