7 Powerful Health Benefits of Turmeric

Popular in India as a spice and Ayurvedic medicinal herb for millennia, turmeric has an astonishing range of positive effects on our physical and mental wellbeing. Turmeric is a good source of curcumin, a strong anti-inflammatory compound with antioxidant effects.

Curcumin is the substance that gives turmeric its characteristic deep orange pigment. Interestingly, curcumin usually passes through our digestive system unabsorbed unless it is consumed along with black pepper. Piperine, a compound present in black pepper increases our bodies' absorption of curcumin by 2000%.
It is common in Indian cuisine to begin a dish by toasting spices in fat (like ghee) before adding the rest of the ingredients. This helps our bodies to absorb the active ingredients (including the curcuminoids) in turmeric because they’re fat-soluble.
It's important to remember that while most of the clinical trials quoted in this article were done on pure curcumin, which is available in tablet form, but also optimal absorbed when turmeric is taken in food along with black pepper and some fat component.
turmeric root in it's bright yellow powdered form
Turmeric root in it's powdered form

1. Anti-inflammatory

The consensus is clear in the medical community that most of the chronic conditions that afflict a lot of us in the 21st century are caused by constant minor inflammation.

Conditions like rheumatism, heart disease, certain cancers, and other degenerative illnesses can be improved or prevented by addressing inflammation in the body.

Curcumin is so powerful as an anti-inflammatory that it even rivals some pharmaceuticals specifically developed to reduce inflammation.

2. Antioxidant

Oxidation occurs in our bodies when very reactive molecules called free radicals are formed from various natural processes. These molecules have unpaired electrons, which makes them prone to reacting with and damaging other important molecules in our cells like proteins and even our DNA.

Antioxidants are important because they combat the damage from oxidation reactions at the cellular level, protecting you from several diseases and premature aging.

Curcumin has been clinically proven to have powerful antioxidant effects. It works in two ways; firstly, it actively neutralises free radicals, making them unreactive and unable to interact with other molecules. It also boosts the function of the body’s naturally occurring antioxidant enzymes, providing a two pronged defence against oxidative damage in your cells.

3. Reduced risk of heart disease

Unfortunately, heart disease continues to be a leading cause of death in the world and can often be mitigated through lifestyle choices. Although heart disease is an umbrella term for many different issues, research suggests that curcumin may be able to ‘turn back the clock’ on existing heart issues as well as preventing them from occurring in the first place.

The layer of tissue that lines our blood vessels (called the endothelium) is vital in maintaining good blood pressure among other important functions. There is a lot of evidence that curcumin facilitates the work of the endothelium with one study showing that it works as well as regular exercise. It is clear then that a combination of regular exercise and regular consumption of turmeric as part of a balanced diet would massively reduce your risk of developing heart disease and associated complications.

4. Prevents Cancer

The various forms of cancer that exist all have one similarity: rapid and unnecessary cell growth.

Although there have been no studies in humans suffering from cancer, curcumin has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells under laboratory conditions, and to reduce the growth of blood vessels within tumours and the spread of cancer throughout the body in studies conducted on animals.

Evidence suggests that it could also prevent cancer from occurring in the first place.

Several cancers of the digestive system begin with lesions in the colon. A study from the University of Illinois in men with existing lesions of the colon showed that just 4g of curcumin per day reduced the number of lesions by 40% within 30 days. This could mean that turmeric is effective in preventing the precursors of cancer.

5. Prevents Alzheimer’s Disease

The best kind of treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s is prevention.

Medical scientists believe that both inflammation and oxidative damage in the cells play a key part in the development of Alzheimer’s, and as we mention above, the curcumin in turmeric minimises the effect of both.

As it is difficult to ethically perform studies on human beings, there is limited evidence to show that curcumin could be a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s. However, Alzheimer’s is characterised by a build-up of proteins called amyloid plaques, which research has shown can be destroyed by the curcumin in turmeric because it can cross the barrier between the blood and the brain.

6. Can treat Arthritis

As an inflammatory disease, arthritis is a very common issue in societies where standard diet and lifestyle contribute to inflammation.

Several studies show curcumin to be a powerful anti-inflammatory, and the ones carried out with people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis are particularly interesting.

A 2012 study by the Nirmala Medical Centre observed the effects of treating rheumatoid arthritis patients with curcumin alone, in combination with the arthritis drug diclofenac sodium, and with diclofenac sodium alone.

The groups treated with curcumin alone showed the highest percentage of improvement, and their results were significantly better than the group treated with the arthritis drug alone. As well as showing the superiority of curcumin, the study also showed that it is safe, has no adverse effects, and can be used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals as well as being effective alone.

7. Fights Depression

A trial conducted on 60 patients diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (characterised by pervasive low mood) split people into three groups of 20. The first group was given a 20mg dose of fluoxetine (brand name Prozac), the second group a 1000mg dose of curcumin, and the third group a combination of both.

The results after 6 weeks showed a very close amount of improvement in symptoms between the group on fluoxetine and the group on curcumin. The people who took the combined treatment had the best outcome.

This suggests that curcumin is at least as effective in the treatment of depression as the world’s leading anti-depressant medication, and can improve the effects of that same medication when they are taken together.

Although the trial was small-scale (only 60 participants across 6 weeks), the results are encouraging, especially considering that there is evidence that suggests that curcumin could also be used to improve mood and vitality in people who don’t have clinical depression by increasing the levels of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

dewy leaves of the turmeric plant
Dewy leaves of the turmeric plant

It is important to remember that one doesn’t need to buy curcumin supplements to experience these benefits. It is easy to incorporate turmeric into your diet in soups, curries, and even in your tea! It has a warm and earthy flavour that goes well with many other aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

Don't forget to add a pinch of black pepper!

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