Turmeric, scientifically known as Curcuma longa, boasts a rich history in traditional medicine, much like many other spices. Beyond imparting its vibrant yellow hue to curry, turmeric is renowned for its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This spice is typically cultivated from the rhizomes, or roots, of a flowering plant found in India and various Southeast Asian regions.
The primary active compound in turmeric, curcumin, responsible for its distinctive yellow pigment, is at the heart of the extensive health benefits attributed to this spice.
“Curcumin is a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, and it also holds potential benefits in terms of slowing down the aging process, preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly alleviating depression,” explains Liz Shaw, RDN, the creator of Shaw Simple Swaps.
Dana White, RD, the owner of Dana White Nutrition, points out that because turmeric (and curcumin in isolation) doesn’t readily enter the bloodstream, indulging in a curry once a month is unlikely to provide the required anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. To attain the levels of turmeric and curcumin deemed beneficial in research studies, supplementation is often necessary. It’s worth noting that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements, and there is no established safe or recommended daily intake for curcumin or turmeric.
Nevertheless, if you opt for a turmeric supplement that also includes black pepper, you may unlock additional benefits. Black pepper contains piperine, a compound that enhances the bioavailability of turmeric, as Dana White explains. “Bioavailability” refers to how much of a substance is absorbed and utilized by the body.
For instance, an earlier animal study revealed that combining 2 grams of curcumin with 20 mg of piperine per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) increased bioavailability by a staggering 2,000%.
Of course, further research is needed to determine whether similar outcomes can be achieved in humans. Below, we outline several potential health benefits associated with turmeric and curcumin.
1. Curcumin May Help Prevent (and Possibly Treat) Certain Types of Cancer
Curcumin, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, holds promise in the treatment and prevention of various cancer types, including colorectal, pancreatic, prostate, breast, and gastric cancers, all of which are linked to inflammation and tumor growth.
Research in mice suggests that curcumin can inhibit the growth of tumor cells and may even prevent their formation entirely. It achieves these effects through various mechanisms, such as impeding the development of malignant cells at different stages of the cell cycle, blocking cell signaling pathways, or inducing the apoptosis (cell death) of cancerous cells.
While the effectiveness of curcumin in treating cancer in humans has not been definitively established, ongoing research continues to explore its potential.
In some studies, curcumin, or turmeric, has shown promise in alleviating certain cancer-related symptoms. For instance, research based on 11 studies investigating the impact of turmeric on prostate conditions, including eight involving individuals with prostate cancer, suggests that supplements containing curcumin or turmeric may offer benefits.
While some studies reported no significant effects of curcumin or turmeric supplements on patients with prostate conditions, others indicated positive outcomes, including improvements in blood levels of prostate-specific antigen (a protein linked to prostate cancer), urinary frequency and urgency, and overall quality of life.
It’s important to note that further research is required to fully understand the extent of curcumin’s impact on prostate conditions, particularly cancer.
2. Curcumin May Help Delay or Reverse Alzheimer’s Disease
Turmeric shows potential in providing brain protection, even against common degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. This protection is believed to occur through the elevation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein found in the brain and spinal cord crucial for maintaining the health of nerve cells (neurons) and regulating their communication. These functions are vital for learning and memory.
Since declining BDNF levels are associated with prevalent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, turmeric, particularly its active component curcumin, may have a role in preventing or slowing down brain aging.
However, it’s important to note that much of this research has been conducted in rodent models. Therefore, further studies are necessary to establish the effectiveness of turmeric in preventing and treating common brain diseases in humans.
3. Curcumin May Help Ease Symptoms of Osteoarthritis
For individuals dealing with osteoarthritis (OA), curcumin appears to be a safe and effective long-term treatment option, thanks to its potent anti-inflammatory properties. This conclusion was drawn from a review of curcumin’s therapeutic use for osteoarthritis.
In a previous trial, participants with osteoarthritis who took 1,000 mg of Meriva daily experienced significant improvements in stiffness and physical function after eight months, while the control group did not. Meriva is a patented medication that blends a natural curcuminoid mixture (75% curcumin, 15% demethoxycurcumin, and 10% bisdemethoxycurcumin) with phosphatidylcholine (found in foods like eggs and soybeans) and other ingredients.
Another recent clinical study explored the potential effects of curcumin supplementation on individuals with knee osteoarthritis. After six weeks, the group receiving 40 mg of nanocurcumin in a capsule every 12 hours reported significantly reduced pain and stiffness compared to the control group.
Moreover, a mouse study indicated that topical application of curcumin substantially alleviated pain, while oral administration of 50 mg of curcumin per kg of body weight significantly slowed OA progression.
However, further research is needed to determine whether these specific benefits also apply to humans.
4. Curcumin Is an Anti-Inflammatory
One of the primary advantages of turmeric is its widespread use for inflammation reduction, with curcumin being the key component responsible for this property. In fact, at the appropriate dosage, curcumin could potentially be a more potent anti-inflammatory agent than common medications like aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil), which are commonly employed for inflammation management.
Nonetheless, further research is necessary in this field to substantiate these claims.
Given that chronic inflammation is a contributing factor in many chronic diseases, curcumin might hold potential in treating conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, and arthritis.
5. Curcumin May Help Treat or Prevent Diabetes
A previous analysis of research suggested that curcumin might hold potential for both treating and preventing diabetes, including related conditions like diabetic nephropathy, commonly known as diabetic kidney disease, which affects individuals with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
It’s worth noting that many of these studies were conducted on animals rather than humans, which is a limitation.
For example, one study found that administering 80 mg of tetrahydrocurcumin (a primary component of curcumin) per kg of body weight to type 2 diabetic rats for 45 days resulted in a significant reduction in blood sugar levels and an increase in plasma insulin.
Another study involving obese mice with type 2 diabetes showed that curcumin supplements helped lower blood insulin levels after 16 weeks.
Curcumin may assist in improving insulin resistance, managing blood sugar levels, and reducing blood lipids (fatty compounds present in the blood), according to a recent review by experts.
Furthermore, curcumin could potentially mitigate some of the factors that contribute to diabetes, including insulin resistance, elevated blood sugar levels, and hyperlipidemia (a condition characterized by high fat levels in the blood; one form involves elevated LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels). This is due to curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, further human research is needed for confirmation.
6. Curcumin May Help Protect Against Heart Disease
According to a study, curcumin may enhance endothelial function, which refers to the condition of the delicate membrane lining the interior of the heart and blood vessels. This membrane plays a significant role in regulating blood pressure.
Reduced endothelial function is associated with aging and an increased risk of heart disease. Consequently, curcumin may potentially reduce the risk of developing heart disease and counteract age-related declines in function.
In a study involving post-menopausal women, researchers assessed how an eight-week aerobic exercise program and a curcumin-containing supplement impacted endothelial cell function. Both the exercise and curcumin groups showed similar improvements in endothelial function, while there were no changes in the control group.
Another study compared atorvastatin (Lipitor), a commonly prescribed medication for reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, with curcumin. The results showed that both atorvastatin and curcumin were equally effective at improving endothelial function in individuals with type 2 diabetes (a condition frequently associated with heart disease).
However, further research is needed to determine whether curcumin is a safe and effective long-term treatment option for individuals with heart disease.
7. Turmeric Protects Your Body From Free Radicals
Free radicals, a group of highly reactive atoms produced by our bodies and found in environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke and industrial chemicals, can pose a threat to your health. Antioxidants play a crucial role in preventing potential harm from these free radicals.
Free radicals can negatively impact your body’s DNA, proteins, and fats, potentially leading to a variety of common diseases and health conditions, including cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Spices like turmeric, which are rich in antioxidants, have the potential to provide protection against the damage caused by free radicals.
In particular, curcumin, a component of turmeric, has demonstrated the ability to scavenge various types of free radicals, regulate enzymes responsible for neutralizing free radicals, and inhibit specific enzymes from generating certain types of free radicals, as indicated by a review.
8. Turmeric May Improve Skin Health
Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties suggest its potential as a beneficial treatment for various skin conditions, including acne, eczema (atopic dermatitis), photoaging, and psoriasis. However, robust scientific research in this area remains limited.
Before making recommendations, healthcare professionals should conduct further research to fully understand the advantages of turmeric for skin health. One evaluation indicates that oral curcumin, in particular, might be an effective and safe treatment option for psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory skin condition.
Another review suggests that topical curcumin treatments could be effective for managing skin conditions, especially considering previous research that indicates the general safety of curcumin even at higher doses. However, the bright yellow-orange color, low solubility, and instability of curcumin at high pH levels make it an unattractive option for topical skin therapy.
According to a study, curcumin is likely to be most effective when used in conjunction with other skin treatments rather than as a sole substitute due to its limited absorption.