Turmeric – chances are you’ve seen this spice mentioned in your favorite recipe book, or on the shelves of your local store.
Turmeric is extracted from the turmeric plant, and is commonly found as a yellow/orange powder. Turmeric has been used in India for millennia, both as a cooking spice and a medicine, and is what gives curry its distinctive color.
Recently, scientific studies have backed up ancient claims about the health benefits of turmeric in your diet. This article will take an in-depth look at 13 evidence-based, scientifically proven health benefits of this curious spice.
Before we start: Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound with proven health benefits
Turmeric possesses its medicinal properties due to the presence of a compound called curcumin. Approximately 3.14% of the weight of turmeric is actually curcumin (1), which has proven anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties (2).
It is important to note that studies conducted on the health benefits of turmeric are typically done on turmeric extracts with very high concentrations of curcumin. It is difficult to reach the same levels of curcumin intake using turmeric regularly as a spice, and therefore supplements which have a higher concentration of curcumin than regular turmeric are recommended.
Additionally, studies have shown that curcumin has a poor bioavailability – this means that a lot of it is not absorbed into the blood stream, thus losing a large part of its therapeutic value.
This problem can be largely avoided by using “bioavailability enhancers” which improve curcumin’s absorption into the body. Commonly used to do this is black pepper, which contains a a naturally-occurring substance called piperine. A study has shown that after taking 2g of curcumin with 20mg of piperine at the same time, the absorption of curcumin was increased by 2,000% without any side effects (3). Many turmeric/curcumin supplements therefore also contain piperine.
Now that you’ve understood what curcumin is, we can look at the numerous health benefits of its intake.
1. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties
Perhaps the most cited health benefit of turmeric is its ability to fight inflammation (4). Inflammation in the body can take many forms, and can be beneficial, but chronic inflammation can play a role in conditions such as arthritis, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and even asthma (5).
Studies have clearly demonstrated the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, with one study suggesting it can be more effective in fighting inflammation than medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen (6). It does this on a molecular level, by inhibiting NF-kB, the molecule responsible for turning on the genes which cause inflammation in your cells (8). It also has the added effect of not causing as many side effects (7).
Curcumin can therefore play an important role in fighting inflammation-related conditions, as will be further discussed in this article.
2. Turmeric is an antioxidant
Chances are you have already heard of the negative effects of “oxidants” on your body. Oxidants are believed to be a cause of aging, and can contribute to a wide-range of diseases (8). Oxidation is caused by molecules called “free radicals”, which can damage cells in your body (9).
Antioxidants, which are present in many foods, work by reacting with and blocking free radicals, thus preventing them from reacting with your body cells (10). Studies have shown that curcumin has considerable antioxidant properties, and can be used to reduce the damage caused by free radicals (11, 12, 13).
Our bodies also naturally produce enzymes to block free radicals. Curcumin has an additional effect of stimulating the activity of these enzymes, thus further blocking free radicals in your body (14, 15).
Via these two mechanisms, the curcumin found inside turmeric can be an effective tool for fighting aging (16) and reducing the risk of certain diseases (17).
3. Turmeric can protect against heart disease
Heart diease is a worldwide epidemic, and is the leading cause of death for men and women in the USA, being the cause of approximately 1 in 4 deaths (18).
Studies have shown that curcumin can play a major role in reducing the risk and progression of heart disease (19). One of the mechanisms behind this is believed to be how it affects the lining of your blood vessels, known as the endothileum.
The endothileum plays a major role in regulating blood pressure, blood clotting and in maintaining a functional vascular system. Dysfunction of the endothileum is directly related to vascular disease, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancer and many other conditions (20).
Curcumin can considerably improve the function of the endothileum, with studies showing that curcumin intake is as effective as 8 weeks of aerobic exercise in improving vascular endothelial function (21).
Curcumin has potential to protect against heart disease in many other ways. A study conducted on rats has shown that curcumin inhibited molecules involved in heart failure, known as p300-HAT, which prevented the development of heart failure in these rats (22).
Furthermore, both inflammation and oxidative stress play a role in heart disease, and curcumin possesses both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (22, 23).
4. Curcumin can lower the risk of (and potentially treat) some types of cancer
Cancer can express itself in many different ways in the human body, but it is characterized by the development of cancerous cells which divide uncontrollably and proliferate, causing damage to tissues and organs (24).
Studies conducted on curcumin have shown that it’s intake can reduce the risk and slow down progression of certain types of cancer (25). It does this on the molecular level via mechanisms such as regulating cell checkpoints and pathways within the immune system (26, 27).
Curcumin can promote the death of cancerous cells (via apoptosis) thus preventing their growth and reducing the risk of metastasis (cancer spreading to other parts of the body) (28, 29). Additionally, curcumin can reduce angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) in tumors, a process which supplies tumors with blood and oxygen (30).
Curcumin might also play a role in cancer prevention, although there has been no conclusive studies regarding this (31, 32).
It has been suggested that until more studies have been published, curcumin should be avoided for cancer treatment due to its low bioavailability and its potential to interact with certain drugs, although it must be noted that this is a rapidly developing field of research (33).
5. Curcumin can enhance brain function and lower the risk of brain disease
Neurons are nerve cells found in the brain, spinal cord and throughout the human body. In the past, it was believed that neurons found in the brain were all formed during the embryonic stages, and that no new neurons can be formed throughout our lives. However in the 1980s, it was proved by researchers that new neurons can in fact be produced in certain parts of the brain (for example, researchers at Rockefeller University were able to produce new neurons in the brain of adult songbirds) (34).
The process of new neurons being produced in the brain is driven by a growth hormone known as Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) (35). Low amounts of BDNF has been linked with brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, depression and Parkinson’s disease (36, 37, 38).
This is where Curcumin comes in: various studies have displayed that intake of Curcumin is linked to increased levels of BDNF (39, 40). This has the potential to treat, delay or altogether prevent progression of brain conditions such as depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (40, 41, 42).
Due to the increased BDNF levels, curcumin may also lead to improved memory (43).
6. Turmeric can be used to treat arthritis
Arthritis, which is characterized by inflammation of the joints (44), is a chronic condition affecting as many as 37% of Americans (45).
Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin can be effective in controlling and managing inflammation and pain linked to arthritis.
A study involving turmeric-extract intake (of around 1g of curcumin per day) in rheumatoid arthritis patients displayed it is as effective as medication in the management of pain, although the study stresses that larger studies are required to draw conclusions (46).
A different study drew the conclusion that curcumin was more effective in managing pain than a commonly used anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac sodium (47).
Other studies have concluded that curcumin reduces inflammation and synovial hyperplasia in rheumatoid arthritic rats (48).
Although more research is certainly necessary, there is significant scientific data to back the use of curcumin in the management of arthritis.
7. Curcumin can treat and prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
We have already mentioned how curcumin stimulates higher levels of BDNF, which can lower the risk of brain disease (49). Studies have shown the curcumin can go even further in the prevention Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).
One of the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease is the accumulation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain (50). Various promising studies have shown that curcumin can reduce the buildup of these plaques, thus improving the cognitive state of Alzheimer’s Disease patients (51, 52).
Furthermore, Alzheimer’s Disease is linked to both inflammation and presence of free radicals in the brain (which leads to oxidative damage) (53, 54). As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, curcumin may have a role in reduces oxidation and inflammation in AD patients.
8. Turmeric can be used to treat depression
There is a growing interest in the use of curcumin as a natural antidepressant.
A review of six clinical trials involving 377 patients with depression displayed that circumin was “safe, well-tolerated, and efficacious among depressed patients” (55).
In a randomized controlled trial, a group of patients who took curcumin displayed similar improvements to a group of patients that took fluoxetine, a widely used antidepressant drug. Patients that took both fluoxetine and curcumin at the same time, displayed the most promising results (56).
The mechanism of how curcumin treats depression is not fully understood, although it is likely related to its increasing BDNF levels in the brain (more specifically, in the hippocampus) (57). There is also limited evidence suggesting that curcumin boosts the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain (58).
9. Turmeric can help treat diabetes
Curcumin may play an important role in preventing the progression of type-1 and type-2 diabetes and related diabetic complications.
A systematic review of studies conducted on humans suggests that curcumin could reduce blood-glucose levels in diabetic patients, which in turn decreases the risks of complications such as diabetic neuropathy (59).
A 2019 review demonstrates that curcumin supplementation clinically improved glycemic control and the lipid profile of diabetic patients, with no serious adverse effects (60).
There has also been numerous studies conducted on animals which displayed reduced blood sugar, and increased insulin levels when using curcumin supplementation (61, 62).
Curcumin also has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and cardioprotective properties, all factors which reduce the risk of diabetic disease (63, 64).
10. Turmeric can regulate the immune system
Our immune system is an essential part of our bodies which helps us fight harmful viruses and bacteria. However, in some people the immune system overexpresses itself, leading to autoimmune disorders such as allergies, arthritis, asthma, cancer and heart disease (65).
Curcumin has demonstrated that it can reduce the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines which are linked to these disorders, and can therefore play a role in the therapy of autoimmune conditions (66).
11. Turmeric can help treat skin conditions
Many conditions of the skin, such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and skin cancer, are linked to both inflammation and oxidation of the skin. Curcumin has well-known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can help treat these conditions (67).
A 2018 study has shown that oral supplementation of curcumin can be an effective treatment for psoriasis patients, although “further placebo-controlled studies are needed before recommending oral curcumin as a valid treatment for psoriasis” (68).
Turmeric extracts might also be beneficial to the skin when used topically. In a 2016 review of 18 studies where turmeric was used both orally and topically, ten of the studies showed a “statistically significant improvement” in the treatment of patients who had a range of skin diseases (69).
12. Turmeric can help protect against eye disease
Glaucoma is an eye condition that causes damage to your eye’s optic nerve. This is typically due to a buildup of pressure within the eye (70). This can lead to progressively worsening eye sight and even blindness.
Due to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-osmotic properties, curcumin can play an important role in treating and preventing the progression of eye diseases such as glaucoma (71). A 2018 review of clinical and preclinical studies has demonstrated the efficacy of curcumin in the treatment of retinal disorders (72).
13. Turmeric can slow down aging and fight age-related diseases
Many people use turmeric as an anti-aging supplement due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties (73). Scientific data has also shown that turmeric can boost brain function and prevent age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cardiac conditions and cancer (74).
Turmeric, often nicknamed the “Golden Spice”, is a naturally occurring plant extract which has numerous scientifically proven health benefits. These benefits are mostly due to the presence of curcumin, which is found inside turmeric.
Benefits of curcumin include fighting inflammation, fighting oxidation, boosting brain function and protecting the body against diseases such as heart disease, brain disease, diabetes and eye disease.
Turmeric in the diet is often not enough to get the full benefits of the spice, and it is recommended to take turmeric supplements which contain a higher concentration of curcumin – preferably with the presence of piperine, to improve the absorption of curcumin.
Studies investigating the health benefits of turmeric are still ongoing and are not conclusive.
Important: Turmeric supplements might not be appropriate for you. You should always consult your doctor before taking any natural supplement.