If you’re looking to eat your way to better health, don’t forget the spice cabinet. In particular, one vibrant yellow-orange spice called turmeric has garnered headlines for its apparent ability to supply a range of health benefits.
“Turmeric is a popular spice, sometimes known as the ‘golden spice,’ that’s derived from the root of the turmeric plant,” says Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. Part of the ginger family, turmeric hails from India and Southeast Asia and shows up frequently in cuisine from that region.
In addition to enhancing flavor and color, turmeric has long been revered for its therapeutic benefits. As such, it’s a key ingredient of certain Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines. These two eastern health practices “have used turmeric for treatment of pain and inflammatory disorders” for centuries, Kanda explains.
More recently, “western medicine has started to study this spice to better understand its benefits” because it seems there really could be something to using turmeric for a variety of health benefits, including:
- Inflammation: reducing systemic inflammation and increasing the body’s ability to resist the effect of free radicals, chemical compounds that essentially age cells and can contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
- Arthritis: relieving joint pain associated with arthritis. “The Natural Medicine Database reports that taking 500 milligrams of turmeric two to four times daily for four to twelve weeks can help ease symptoms that accompany osteoarthritis,” Kanda says.
- Cognition: increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a brain hormone that can help keep your brain more nimble and better able to fend off age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
- Blood vessels: improving the ability of the lining of the blood vessels to repair themselves, which could reduce blood pressure, risk of blood clots and strokes and the risk of heart disease.
- Cancer: slowing or halting the growth of cancer cells. “Turmeric is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, which means it’s anti-cancer,” says Daryl Gioffre, a celebrity nutritionist and author of “Get Off Your Acid: 7 Steps in 7 Days to Lose Weight, Fight Inflammation and Reclaim Your Health and Energy.” Many types of cancer thrive on inflammation throughout the whole body, and there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests turmeric might one day be used as not just a prevention, but also a treatment for cancer.
- Immunity: boosting the immune system. “Turmeric has prebiotic-like properties, which enable it to positively influence gut microbiota, supporting the gut-immune connection,” says Acacia Wright, a registered dietitian at Orgain, a clean protein brand based in Irvine, California. Prebiotics are a kind of indigestible fiber that feed probiotics – the healthy microorganisms that live in the gut and contribute to a range of bodily functions and overall wellness. Improving the gut microbiome may make you less susceptible to a variety of infections and diseases.
How Turmeric Works
Turmeric provides a solid dose of phytochemicals – plant compounds that help fight inflammation and oxidative stress, or the daily wear-and-tear our bodies endure every day. In addition, this spice contains plenty of vitamin C, which can boost the immune system, and is a good source of manganese, iron and potassium.
But when it comes to health benefits, turmeric’s biggest selling point is its hallmark compound: curcumin.
Research has indicated that curcumin may play a protective role in fighting inflammatory disease by helping reduce the body’s inflammatory response to everything from food and drink to stress and pollution. Kanda says this is important “because chronic inflammation promotes many disease states,” including:
“Evidence supports that phytochemicals from natural foods such as spices and herbs are safe and effective therapies to potentially help reduce inflammation and can possibly be beneficial in prevention of inflammatory diseases,” Kanda says, though she adds that “further large-scale scientific evidence is still warranted to identify turmeric’s long-term effectiveness.”
Overall, it seems that turmeric is a great spice to add to your cooking – and possibly even as a supplement – though many nutritionists, dietitians and doctors agree that it’s generally better to get all your nutritional needs met via whole foods rather than relying on supplements.
However, Kanda notes that research into the health benefits and potential risks of turmeric is still evolving. More work needs to be done until we know for certain how turmeric works, what the right dose is to prevent or treat certain conditions and whether there are any long-term drawbacks to using turmeric for health reasons.
One difficulty with turmeric is establishing how much of the curcumin is actually bioavailable, or able to be used by the body. “Most of the compound is excreted in feces and only traces appear in the blood,” Kanda notes. “What this means is more research is needed for identifying methods in improving the bioavailability by various delivery systems into the body.”
One thing that is known is that piperine, black pepper’s signature compound, can boost absorption of turmeric by 2000% according to some research. If you’re opting for a curcumin supplement, choose one that also contains piperine, which is often sold under the name BioPerine.
Kanda notes that if you’re supplementing with turmeric, be aware that some people who have consumed high levels of turmeric extracts have reported some mild side effects including stomach upset, dizziness or diarrhea. If you have anemia or low levels of iron, you should probably not be taking high doses of turmeric as it may inhibit the absorption of iron from your diet.
And if you’re going to have surgery, consider skipping the turmeric supplement for a while beforehand, as high doses of turmeric supplements have been associated with slower blood clotting. This could cause more bleeding during and after surgery.
As with all things related to supplements, be sure to speak with your doctor before you start taking anything to make sure there are no adverse interactions with other medications or supplements you may be taking and to make sure that supplementation makes sense for you.
Cooking With Turmeric
While science is still working out the particulars of supplementation, Kanda says “we can all reap the benefits of turmeric by using whole or ground dried turmeric in cooking.” Try adding it to poultry, seafood and lentil-based dishes to enhance color and as a flavor accent. “You can sprinkle it in any dish along with your other favorite seasonings, such as thyme, cumin or garlic. And if you enjoy mixing marinades, try adding turmeric.”
You can also add it to healthy drinks such as smoothies or teas. “Golden milk” is a delicious mixture of milk and turmeric that also provides protein and calcium.
Tropical Turmeric Smoothie
Want a tropical turmeric treat? Kanda offers the following mango turmeric smoothie recipe that’s easy and delicious:
- 1/3 cup plain yogurt.
- 1/3 cup almond milk.
- 1/2 inch peeled, fresh ginger root.
- 1/2 inch peeled turmeric root (substitute with 1 teaspoon turmeric powder if you cannot find fresh turmeric).
- 1 roasted golden beet (peeled).
- 3/4 cup frozen mango.
Place the ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.