Food isn’t just a delicious way to satisfy cravings, it can also act as medicine in many cases. Different types of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, and meat products offer their own unique set of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients that can give you a health boost when consumed. One item in particular gets lot of attention for its potential health properties, and this naturally yellow spice is often used in curry-style dishes as the main flavor ingredient. You guessed it, we are talking about turmeric.
This yellow spice is widely known as a way to add flavor to your favorite meals or drinks, or as a supplement to take in capsule form. But what does the research say about turmeric benefits, and are there any downsides to incorporating this ingredient into your daily routine? Read on to find out, and for more healthy eating tips, check out the 72 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.
Turmeric is in the same plant family as ginger, and the root of turmeric looks very similar to ginger root. According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, this plant has been used in the past as Ayurvedic medicine (a traditional practice incorporating holistic medicine) in India and China as an aid for respiratory and joint issues. Now, many people take turmeric supplements to help with many inflammatory issues.
What is turmeric?
Much of the research that you’ll see about turmeric benefits will commonly discuss the properties of Curcumin as its main component. With that being said, what are some of the health benefits related to this yellow powder?
If you’re unfamiliar with oxidative stress damage, it is what occurs when you too many free radicals in your body, which are known as unstable atoms in the body that can lead to faster aging and chronic disease. When there are too many of these and not enough antioxidants (which fight off free radicals) in your body, oxidative damage can occur. This is why you hear a lot of praise for foods that are high in antioxidants like berries, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some fish products.
What are the health benefits of turmeric?
Antioxidants can also be found in some spices, including turmeric. According to a report published in The Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Uses of Curcumin in Health and Disease, curcumin is considered have antioxidant properties, and therefore is associated with helping to fight free radicals in the body and can even help contribute to the protection against diseases like atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, and even some cancers.
Knee osteoarthritis is one of the most painful and common age-related joint disorders. A typical first-line treatment is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac. In a small study in the journal Trials, researchers assigned 139 patients with knee osteoarthritis with either 500 milligrams of curcumin three times a day or a 50-milligram diclofenac tablet twice daily for 28 days. At days 14 and 28, the subjects receiving the turmeric reported a 50% improvement, similar pain relief noted by the subjects taking the prescription drug. Surprisingly, the researchers also noticed that those taking curcumin lost, on average, 2% of their body weight in four weeks.
Are there any downsides to turmeric?
A number of animal studies have suggested that curcumin may aid in weight loss and reduce belly fat. While much more research is needed, some small human studies indicate that bioavailable forms of curcumin supplementation may have a positive effect on body composition. A 2015 study of overweight people who had trouble losing weight on a 30-day diet and lifestyle change program showed that supplementing with 800 milligrams of curcumin for 30 days led to significant reductions in weight, body fat, and hip and waist circumference.
Several studies have suggested that there may be a turmeric benefit related to preventing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, including a 2009 study from the Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program at Auburn University. This research compared curcumin to the common diabetes medication metformin, and found the anti-inflammatory spice to be even more potent than the prescription drug at lowering blood glucose.
Other research published in 2012 in Diabetes Care tested curcumin supplementation in a group of 240 people with prediabetes. The subjects were randomly assigned to take either curcumin capsules or placebo capsules for nine months. After the test period, more than 16% of the people in the placebo group developed type 2 diabetes compared to none in the curcumin-treated group. Researchers say the study demonstrated that curcumin improves the function of insulin-producing β-cells in the pancreas. Diabetes is a result of the loss or dysfunction of these important cells.
Research has shown that curcumin can block certain inflammatory stimuli and suppress inflammation. One study in Advances in Nutrition in 2018 concluded that “supplementing the diet with curcumin, an anti-inflammatory polyphenolic compound from the curry spice turmeric, is a potential approach to prevent accelerated cognitive decline by counteracting chronic inflammatory processes.”
Other research indicates that curcumin may protect the brain from toxins—aluminum, in particular. Aluminum is known to impair memory and spatial learning, and this metal can enter the human body through the gastrointestinal tract and lungs through cookware, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products.
In an animal study published in January 2021 in Biomed Research International, researchers injected aluminum chloride into mice that were given oral doses of turmeric extract and a turmeric extract essential oil. In the study, part of which put the mice through a challenging maze, the turmeric seemed to significantly reverse the cognitive symptoms from the toxic aluminum. What’s more, the turmeric fed to the mice seemed to protect brain cells in the hippocampus from damage.