The Amazing Health Benefits of Turmeric

Inexpensive, mild-tasting turmeric may have health benefits for nearly every system in the body, say some nutritionists. Swapan Photography/Shutterstock

Turmeric, an orange-colored spice imported from India, is part of the ginger family and has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years.

In addition, ayurvedic and Chinese medicines utilize turmeric to clear infections and inflammations on the inside and outside of the body. But beyond the holistic health community, Western medical practitioners have only recently come on board in recognizing the health benefits of turmeric.

Here are some of the ways turmeric may benefit your body.

Blocking cancer

Doctors at UCLA found that curcumin, the main component in turmeric, appeared to block an enzyme that promotes the growth of head and neck cancer.

In that study, 21 subjects with head and neck cancers chewed two tablets containing 1,000 milligrams of curcumin. An independent lab in Maryland evaluated the results and found that the cancer-promoting enzymes in the patients’ mouths were inhibited by the curcumin and thus prevented from advancing the spread of the malignant cells.

Powerful antioxidant

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals in the body, helping to reduce or prevent some of the damage they can cause.

While more research is necessary, early studies have indicated that curcumin may help prevent or treat several types of cancer including prostate, skin and colon.

Lower risk of Alzheimer's disease

A study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry revealed that curcumin may improve memory and mood swings in people who suffer from mild cases of memory loss.

Researchers had a group of 40 adults between the ages of 51 and 84 take either a curcumin or placebo pill for 18 months. At the end, the memory and attention of participants who took the curcumin pill improved by 28%.

While the exact reason why turmeric can improve memory isn't known, doctors believe it's because the spice has anti-inflammatory properties. "It may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer's disease and major depression," Gary Small from UCLA told NDTV.

Potent anti-inflammatory

Turmeric is a potent, natural anti-inflammatory. In a University of Arizona study that examined the effect of turmeric on rats with injected rheumatoid arthritis, pretreatment with turmeric completely inhibited the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the rats. In addition, the study found that using turmeric for pre-existing rheumatoid arthritis resulted in a significant reduction of symptoms.

Some research shows that curcumin might ease symptoms of uveitis — long-term inflammation in the middle layer of the eye. Other research shows that taking turmeric daily for several months may improve kidney function for people with kidney inflammation.

Turmeric's leaves(Curcuma longa) - but turmeric's health benefits come mainly from its root.
Turmeric comes from the curcuma longa plant. Skyprayer2005/Shutterstock

Osteoarthritis pain relief

Turmeric may also be helpful with another type of arthritis. Some research has shown that taking turmeric extract can ease the pain of osteoarthritis. In one study, turmeric worked about as well as ibuprofen for relieving osteoarthritis pain.

Indigestion and heartburn aid

Curcumin works with the gallbladder, stimulating it to make bile, which may help with digestion. In Germany, turmeric can be prescribed for digestive problems. Some research shows that turmeric may help upset stomach, bloating and gas. Turmeric may also help reduce the occurrence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in people who are otherwise healthy.

Heart disease

Studies have suggested curcumin may help prevent the buildup of plaque that can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Impact on diabetes

Early studies suggest that taking turmeric daily can cut down the number of people with prediabetes who develop diabetes.

Raw is best

Natalie Kling, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist, says she first learned about the benefits of turmeric while getting her degree from the Natural Healing Institute of Neuropathy. “As an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiseptic, it’s a very powerful plant,” she says.

Kling recommends it to clients for joint pain and says that when taken as a supplement, it helps quickly. She advises adding turmeric to food whenever possible and offers these easy tips. “Raw is best,” she said. “Sprinkling it on vegetables or mixing it into dressings is quick and effective.”

If you do cook it, make sure to use a small amount of healthy fat like healthy coconut oil to maximize flavor. Kling also recommends rubbing turmeric on meat and putting it into curries and soups.

“It’s inexpensive, mild in taste, and benefits every system in the body,” Kling says. "Adding this powerful plant to your diet is one of the best things you can do for long term health.”

Quality matters

Turmeric is for sale at a market
Turmeric is for sale at a market. ChiccoDodiFC/Shutterstock

Safety can be an issue with turmeric, recent research finds. Turmeric is sometimes laced with pigments to enhance its brightness. In some cases those pigments can include lead, which contributes to cognitive issues and other serious issues. Lead is a neurotoxin that has long been banned from food for safety reasons.

Consumer Reports recently tested 13 turmeric products along with 16 echinacea products because these are the two most popular botanical supplements after horehound. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, sales of turmeric grew 30.5%. Of the 13 turmeric products tested, one had lead levels that exceeded Consumer Reports' threshold standards and one had aerobic bacteria levels that exceeded the group's set standards.

"Higher aerobic bacteria levels don’t necessarily make a supplement unsafe to take, but they can indicate that products were manufactured or processed in unsanitary conditions," according to the report.

None of the products had lead levels that exceeded standards set by the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), but one had lead levels that exceeded Consumer Reports' stricter threshold. According to James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, "No amount of lead is acceptable."

Earlier this year, a Stanford University study found that the pigments added to turmeric in Bangladesh may contain lead chromate.

In the study, published in Environmental Research, researchers discovered that turmeric was likely the cause of blood lead contamination in Bangladeshis. They didn't find evidence of contaminated turmeric outside of Bangladesh, and say that food safety checks are incentives for spice processors to limit the lead added to turmeric that will be exported.

However, the researchers caution, "the current system of periodic food safety checks may catch only a fraction of the adulterated turmeric being traded worldwide." Since 2011, they point out, more than 15 brands of turmeric — distributed to countries including the U.S. — have been recalled due to excessive levels of lead. The research authors suggested that an "immediate intervention" was needed, bringing together producers and wholesalers to find solutions.

How to shop smart

Supplements like turmeric are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food, not drugs. So they aren't put through the same safety tests as medications. Therefore, it's up to consumers to be vigilant about what they buy. Here are a couple of tips from Consumer Reports about how to be safe when buying them:

Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Don't rely on a pharmacist or health store employee for advice. Consumer Reports sent "secret shoppers" to 34 stores in seven states and in most cases the pharmacists were unaware of potential risks of supplements or reactions with prescription medications. Instead, ask your primary health care provider for advice.

Look on the label, but don't rely on it. Many products have certifications that verify a supplement contains what is on the label. But just because a product doesn't contain heavy metals, pesticides or other contaminants, doesn't mean the supplement is safe for you to take. It depends on your medical conditions and medications.

View Article Sources
  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Turmeric. Updated May 2020.

  2. Kim SG, Veena MS, Basak SK, et al. Curcumin Treatment Suppresses IKKβ Kinase Activity of Salivary Cells of Patients with Head and Neck Cancer: A Pilot StudyClin Cancer Res. 2011;17(18):5953-5961. doi:10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-11-1272

  3. Menon, Venugopal P., and Adluri Ram Sudheer. “ANTIOXIDANT AND ANTI-INFLAMMATORY PROPERTIES OF CURCUMIN.” The Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Uses of Curcumin in Health and Disease, edited by Bharat B. Aggarwal et al., vol. 595, Springer US, 2007, pp. 105–25., doi:10.1007/978-0-387-46401-5_3

  4. Giordano A, Tommonaro G. Curcumin and CancerNutrients. 2019;11(10). doi:10.3390/nu11102376

  5. Small GW, Siddarth P, Li Z, et al. Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month TrialThe American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2018;26(3):266-277.

  6. NDTV. Turmeric May Help Improve Mood, Aid Memory Lowering The Risk Of Developing Alzheimer’s: Study. Published January 25, 2018.

  7. Menon, Venugopal P., and Adluri Ram Sudheer. “ANTIOXIDANT AND ANTI-INFLAMMATORY PROPERTIES OF CURCUMIN.” The Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Uses of Curcumin in Health and Disease, edited by Bharat B. Aggarwal et al., vol. 595, Springer US, 2007, pp. 105–25., doi:10.1007/978-0-387-46401-5_3

  8. Funk JL, Frye JB, Oyarzo JN, et al. Efficacy and mechanism of action of turmeric supplements in the treatment of experimental arthritisArthritis Rheum. 2006;54(11):3452-3464. doi:10.1002/art.22180

  9. Gupta SC, Patchva S, Aggarwal BB. Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trialsAAPS J. 2013;15(1):195-218. doi:10.1208/s12248-012-9432-8

  10. Ghosh SS, Gehr TWB, Ghosh S. Curcumin and chronic kidney disease (Ckd): major mode of action through stimulating endogenous intestinal alkaline phosphataseMolecules. 2014;19(12):20139-20156. doi:10.3390/molecules191220139

  11. Daily JW, Yang M, Park S. Efficacy of turmeric extracts and curcumin for alleviating the symptoms of joint arthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trialsJ Med Food. 2016;19(8):717-729. doi:10.1089/jmf.2016.3705

  12. Di Ciaula A, Portincasa P, Maes N, Albert A. Efficacy of bio-optimized extracts of turmeric and essential fennel oil on the quality of life in patients with irritable bowel syndromeAnn Gastroenterol. 2018;31(6):685-691. doi:10.20524/aog.2018.0304

  13. Li X, Lu Y, Sun Y, Zhang Q. Effect of curcumin on permeability of coronary artery and expression of related proteins in rat coronary atherosclerosis heart disease modelInt J Clin Exp Pathol. 2015;8(6):7247-7253.

  14. Chuengsamarn S, Rattanamongkolgul S, Luechapudiporn R, Phisalaphong C, Jirawatnotai S. Curcumin Extract for Prevention of Type 2 DiabetesDiabetes Care. 2012;35(11):2121-2127.

  15. Forsyth JE, Nurunnahar S, Islam SS, et al. Turmeric means “yellow” in Bengali: Lead chromate pigments added to turmeric threaten public health across BangladeshEnvironmental Research. 2019;179:108722. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2019.108722

  16. Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports Tests: Turmeric and Echinacea. Published October 30, 2019.

  17. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA 101: Dietary Supplements. Updated July 15, 2015.

  18. Consumer Reports. How to Choose Supplements Wisely. Published October 30, 2019.