Health review: Turmeric – the superfood of superfoods??

After literally thousands of years, Turmeric seems to have emerged from it’s curry cocoon and made its way into the limelight as a top superfood. From teas to broths to face masks, turmeric is making its appearance all over the supermarket and social media. But what’s all the hype really about, and is turmeric really all that it’s touted to be? Find out here!

Spoiler alert: Turmeric appears to have many potentially enormous health benefits. While there have been thousands of studies on Turmeric or one of it’s major components  – curcumin – many of these studies have been performed on animals, making it difficult to extrapolate to humans.

A Brief History

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Originating in Southeast Asia, turmeric has a nearly 4000 year history of medicinal and religious use. It’s first users appear to be those from the Vedic culture in India. It has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine – one of the world’s oldest healing systems developed in India about 3000 years ago. Ayurveda takes a holistic approach to health promotion, and is based on the belief that health depends on a balance of mind, body, and spirit.

The name “turmeric” comes from the Latin phrase for “meritorious earth,” referring to it’s bright yellow mineral pigment when ground up. In Sanskrit, there are many words for turmeric, including several that refer to it’s golden yellow color and others that refer to it’s medicinal properties. Meanings of some of the names referring to medicinal properties include “gives delight to heart,” “one that wins over disease,” “which cures fever,” “killer of worms,” “capability,” “killer of fat,” “which dissolves fat,” “which gives fair complexion,” “enhancer of body complexion,” and “killer of poison.”

The plant that produces turmeric belongs to the ginger family. Turmeric contains over 100 components including volatile oils and curcuminoids. It is used in countless food and cosmetic products (mostly for coloring purposes) including cheeses, yellow cakes, orange juice, and of course curry. Two teaspoons of ground turmeric contains about 16 calories and is an excellent source of manganese and iron.

Uses and Benefits

Studies show that turmeric does exhibit anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, choleretic (i.e., detoxifying), antimicrobial, and carminative activities. It is used as an herbal remedy for many different medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, urinary tract infections, digestive disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, allergies, and even cancer.

The Studies

Countless studies support turmeric’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, choleretic, antimicrobial, and carminative activities. A review of multiple studies published in 2009 concluded that strong evidence exists of the medicinal value of turmeric. Some notable studies are summarized here.

  • A 2001 phase II clinical study (on humans) found that turmeric may help reduce and even eliminate peptic ulcers.
  • A 2004 study by Tikal et al. found that turmeric used in cooking and medicine has significant antioxidant activity including the ability to scavenge radicals, reduce iron complex, and inhibit peroxidation.
  • A 2004 clinical study (on humans) found that turmeric may help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • A 2006 study found that turmeric may be helpful in protecting seafood against contamination by the pathogen V. parahaemolyticus.
  • A 2007 study found that turmeric helps inhibit growth of histamine producing bacteria.
  • A 2008 study found that curcuma oil had a neuroprotective effect after ischemic injury in rats.
  • This 2009 study explored a possible mechanism through which turmeric reduces inflammation.
  • A 2009 study found that turmeric oil exhibits anti-tumorogenesis, including by inhibiting cell proliferation.
  • A 2009 study found that turmeric is a safe antiviral treatment for people with liver diseases caused by hepatitis B virus. This 2001 study also found that turmeric oil had antiviral activity against viruses affecting the respiratory tract.
  • A 2013 review of scientific literature on various medicinal foods concluded that turmeric was one of several spices exhibiting medicinal properties, including chemopreventive properties and protection against damage to cellular structure. The researchers also concluded that the spices studied (including turmeric) may boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.
  • A 2013 study found that even curcumin-free turmeric exhibits anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
  • This chapter from Herbal Medicine: Bimolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd edition goes into great detail about the medicinal properties of turmeric.

In sum…

If you’re experiencing infection, inflammation, or inflammation-related disease, it couldn’t hurt to try to some turmeric. All the studies I found on turmeric concluded that it has some medicinal properties. However, most of the studies were done in vitro or on animals, so their direct application to humans is uncertain. That being said, the few studies that have been done on humans have been promising and turmeric has been used medicinally for thousands of years, presumably with some success. From what I could tell, none of the studies reported any potentially adverse side effects of the super-herb.

On a side note, I drink turmeric tea every day 😉

As always, I would love to know your thoughts and/or experiences!!

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