It seems every day someone begins touting the many health benefits of a new herb or spice. As a result, if someone starts talking to you about turmeric benefits, it’s normal to be sceptical.
This guide will provide a deep dive into turmeric, its history as more than just a flavour enhancer and its reported benefits to health and wellbeing.
A Brief History of Turmeric
To understand why we know so much about turmeric benefits, it’s important to take a step back and put the spice in context by looking at its history. It was first used in Southwestern India some 4000 years ago and after it was introduced, it quickly spread throughout the subcontinent and the rest of Asia. Initially, it was used only in cooking, as it adds a distinct taste that many of us now consider synonymous with Indian and Thai food.
However, after becoming mainstream in Ancient India, healers and doctors of the time began to study it for its medicinal properties. Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurveda, has had turmeric at the center of its doctrine since ancient times.
In fact, turmeric appears in one of the first Ayurvedic texts, Compendium of Caraka, written between the 4th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. In this record, Ayurvedic healers identified turmeric as a good remedy for food poisoning. But since then, both practitioners and researchers alike have reported turmeric to have a whole host of other health benefits.
What Makes Turmeric Special?
As a still unknown entity outside of India and South Asia, it’s fair to ask why turmeric is so special. Sceptics might claim a placebo effect is at work, and that turmeric itself does not do what many of its proponents say. However, scientific and medical researchers have studied turmeric extensively in order to help us understand exactly why it is so effective in treating such a range of health conditions.
In short, it’s not the turmeric itself that has been found to provide health benefits. Instead, it’s the compounds found inside turmeric that are the active ingredients that are good for your body. The main active ingredient in turmeric is the polyphenol curcumin. Polyphenols are organic chemicals known to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Furthermore, turmeric contains turmerone. We know a little less about turmerone, but studies have found that it helps facilitate the absorption of curcumin.
The Challenge of Obtaining Turmeric Containing Curcumin
Before we go further into detail about the many different benefits of turmeric and curcumin, it’s important to point out some of its limitations. For example, most of the turmeric you buy in a store, which is often labelled as “curry powder,” doesn’t have much curcumin in it. Studies suggest store bought turmeric contains only 3% curcumin, which really isn’t enough to experience the positive effects of turmeric.
As a result, people interested in adding turmeric to their diet often end up consuming curcumin supplements, turmeric extracts, or other products, such as specialty turmeric drinks, that contain higher concentrations of curcumin.
And to help the body even more, make sure any turmeric product you buy comes with black pepper. This is because its main ingredient, piperine, has been shown to assist the body in absorbing curcumin, which increases its benefits to the body.
Turmeric, or curcumin (turmeric’s key active ingredient), reportedly has many different health benefits, ranging from pain relief to improved brain function. But before detailing each one of these effects, it’s important to point out that turmeric alone cannot solve all your problems.
As a result, make sure to seek medical advice should you have a serious condition. Turmeric may in some cases be able to support your recovery, but it likely can’t solve your problem on its own.
Having said that, here are some of the ways turmeric has been reported to improve your health.
1. Provides Anti-Inflammatory Relief
Inflammation, also known as swelling, is a common health concern for many people, especially the elderly or athletes. Joints or other muscles can become inflamed as a result of overuse, underuse, or simply old age. And if left untreated, it can cause significant damage to the body.
Faced with this prospect, many people have turned to synthetic drugs, specifically paracetamol and ibuprofen for pain relief.
Natural remedies can present alternative treatment options (particularly for those unable to take paracetamol or ibuprofen for any reason), and many people suffering from inflammation such as elderly individuals and athletes have found turmeric to be effective for them.
In fact, clinical trials also have found that the anti-inflammatory properties in turmeric to be equally if not more effective than synthetic drugs in reducing swelling and inflammation, with these findings published in esteemed journals such as Clinical Interventions in Aging. As outlined in this study, turmeric can be applied topically in an ointment for immediate relief. Or, it can be consumed through supplements or specialty drinks, which can help to reduce pain from prolonged inflammation.
2. Improves Brain Function and Memory
We’ve learned a lot about how the brain works in recent years. For example, a long-held belief was that neurons, what our brains are made of, could not divide and multiply after early childhood. However, this has been proven to be false.
The brain’s ability to form new connections and create new neurons depends on the release of the hormone NDNF. Studies have found that decreased levels of NDNF are what lead to lower levels of brain function. As published in ScienceDirect, turmeric has been found to promote higher NDNF levels in the brain, which helps to explain why turmeric is a popular supplement among those that want to improve cognitive function and memory. Ultimately, more NDNF makes it easier for the brain to create new neurons and neural connections, which translates into increased cognitive capacity and memory.
3. Facilitates Digestion
Digestion is one of those bodily functions we tend to only think about when we have a problem. And it’s when something goes wrong that we realise just how delicate this system is. For it to work properly, many different things need to work together, starting from the saliva in your mouth, and ending with your intestines’ ability to extract nutrients and dispose of waste.
It should come as no surprise then that the digestive system requires a mix of different nutrients to work properly. Fibre, vitamins, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents are all needed to help the body produce the enzymes and motions it needs to process food. We can get these nutrients through a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. But this isn’t practical for all people, particularly for selective eaters or those on a restricted diet for any reason.
Turmeric, or more specifically, curcumin, can give your body an injection of the different vitamins it needs to properly digest food. And research published by the World Journal of Gastroenterology suggests curcumin can be a useful remedy for many different digestive health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, offering sufferers the chance to use something more natural than synthetic drugs or laxatives.
4. Helps Burn Fat
Another benefit of turmeric that’s closely related to its ability to improve digestive health is that it can help the body to burn fat. It’s true that weight is not the only indicator of overall wellbeing, but there are many reasons to want to keep body fat levels under control. And turmeric alone is not a weight loss miracle worker. Only a well-balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats or protein alternatives and water combined with healthy exercise can help you lose weight.
Yet if you struggle with your weight, turmeric may be able to provide some support. Curcumin (one of turmeric’s main active ingredients) has been shown to suppress inflammatory messaging in pancreatic, muscle and fat cells. It also helps to boost your body’s metabolism, which makes it easier for you to break down fats and foods that the body doesn’t need. And, it has also been found (as published by The Journal of Nutrition) to reduce the growth of fat cells in rats, suggesting turmeric may help your body from accumulating fat.
5. Cleans the Body
The human body is a delicate yet highly complex machine. And like many other machines, it performs better when it’s clean. Think about an engine. Oil buildups and sludge, or reduced friction from rust, can cause it to run less efficiently, which can produce all sorts of problems.
In the body, free radicals are primarily responsible for breakdowns in efficiency. Too many free radicals will put the body under considerable oxidative stress, and this can lead to many different health conditions, ranging from decreased brain function to lower immunity against germs and other foreign substances. As a result, we should all be concerned with trying to reduce the amount of free radicals in the body.
Turmeric is especially effective in doing this, which is why it’s considered to be one of the most effective antioxidants out there. It can help the body fight against free radicals and oxidative stress in two ways. First, turmeric’s chemical makeup blocks these free radicals from having an effect on the body. And second, it provides a boost to your body’s antioxidant mechanisms. The body recognises the risk posed by free radicals, and it has a defence system in place to limit their effect. But sometimes it needs help, and supplementing your diet with turmeric containing carcumin may provide this help. Turmeric’s ability to provide a twofold defence against free radicals is what makes it such a powerful antioxidant.
Some Things To Consider About Turmeric
Turmeric may be able to help restore balance to your digestive system, but it can also result in gastrointestinal stress if consumed too much. Turmeric helps the digestive system to process waste, and so while increasing intake can help you make up for deficiencies, too much of it can have the opposite effect.
This is not a “more is always better” situation. Instead, pay attention to how much turmeric you’re ingesting per day, and if you experience stomach issues, such as indigestion, stomach aches, nausea or gas, consider cutting back.
Furthermore, pregnant women should try to reduce their turmeric consumption. It’s safe for pregnant women to consume it in small amounts, as a spice in foods or other natural blends for example, but it might not be safe for them to take it as a supplement. This is because turmeric has an effect on hormonal levels in the body. Pregnant women are already under hormonal stress, and even though there’s limited evidence to suggest turmeric can be harmful, most suggest limiting consumption during pregnancy to avoid any issues.
The use of turmeric as a health supplement has a rich history. Ancient Indian doctors used it to treat a wide variety of conditions, helping to cement turmeric deep into Ayurvedic traditions.
And nowadays, modern medicine is catching on to this centuries-old remedy and conducting research that supports many of the claims that have been made by Ayurvedic doctors for years. This is giving people more and more confidence in the all-natural remedy, leading to more widespread use. As more research continues to come out describing the health benefits of turmeric, we can expect to learn more about this magical root. Furthermore,it tastes great, too, making it an ideal supplement to all of our diets and dishes.
If you haven’t already, consider adding more turmeric to your diet, either by drinking specialty turmeric drinks containing the raw ingredient, using it as a key ingredient in recipes, or taking a supplement. This will allow you to enjoy all the health benefits of turmeric both now and long into the future.