It may not share cinnamon’s popularity, but turmeric is another spice with powerful culinary and medicinal qualities that deserves our attention. Turmeric, known officially as curcuma longa and historically as Indian saffron, is a rhizome (root) of the ginger family. Its horizontal root system is dug up, baked, and ground into a bright orange powder, which then goes into any number of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian dishes. Pretty much every curry you come across anywhere, for example, includes a generous portion of turmeric. Common yellow mustard also includes turmeric, mostly as a food colorant. Recently, the health benefits of turmeric have come to light, and people are looking for more ways to get more turmeric into their diets.
Turmeric imparts a unique flavor: slightly bitter and a bit spicy, with a mustard-like scent. Upon tasting a dab of turmeric powder by itself for the first time, one is reminded of curries and other Asian stews. It’s a bit of an “Aha!” moment – when you taste it, you can finally put your finger on the earthy flavor that’s so common in your favorite dishes from around the world. Turmeric itself is actually fairly mild and unassuming, so using it as a solitary spice won’t turn every dish into a curry bonanza – in case you were worried.
In this article, I’ll cover the health benefits of turmeric, the science behind it, and how to get more of it.
Turmeric and Curcumin Benefits: What the Science Says
Turmeric and extracts of turmeric (curcumin) have been used for ages for a variety of ails, and especially for conditions rooted in inflammation such as:
- Certain types of arthritis
- Upset stomach
- Respiratory issues
- Skin conditions (used topically)
Years ago, I did a short piece on the anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory effect of turmeric. Turmeric was shown to improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels in rodent models. Mice given the supplement were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and they enjoyed greater body fat losses. Good, promising stuff all around.
Curcumin Supplements and Altzheimer’s and Dementia
A growing body of research shows that curcumin may help alleviate the troubling symptoms of age-related cognitive decline. A sampling of the research…
- Curcumin supplementation has shown promise in improving and preventing Alzheimer’s disease.1
- Sustained low doses of curcumin were actually more effective in reducing beta-amyloid plaques, the hallmark of Altzheimer’s disease, than higher doses.2
- Altzheimer’s Disease incidence is lower in regions where turmeric is commonly used in cooking,3 like in India (compared to the United States) and in East Asia (compared to Europe).4
Curcumin May Protect Against Some Cancers
Curcumin may have anti-cancer effects.5 Here are a few of the research studies we have so far.
- Curcumin was shown to induce breast cancer cell apopstosis (where cancer cells destroy themselves).6
- Unlike many other anticancer agents that suppress the host’s immune system, curcumin may actually restore the immune system.7
- Disrupted cell growth is a large factor in cancer development, and curcumin may have a regulatory effect on cell function.8
- Large and small bowel cancer rates are relatively low in India, especially among rural folks (eating a more traditional diet, one assumes).9
Turmeric and Curcumin for Arthritis, Aches, and Pains
- Turmeric extract high in curcumin shows promise as a safe and effective approach to rheumatoid arthritis10
- Curcumin may inhibit the type of inflammation associated with arthritis11
- Topical curcumin may speeds up the healing of wounds12
- Curcumin may reduce muscle soreness and the resultant performance loss after exercise13
How to Take Turmeric
In general, you can use turmeric powders in cooking, or you can take a turmeric or curcumin supplement in capsule form.
Here are a few ways to experiment with turmeric powder in the kitchen:
- Turmeric pairs well with fish, often accompanied by little else than salt, pepper, and some lemon juice.
- Make a creamy cup of “Golden Milk,” or turmeric tea.
- For roasted chicken, I’ll sometimes rub the dry, raw bird with a turmeric-butter mixture before it enters the oven.
- You can turn that same turmeric butter into turmeric ghee – in Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric and ghee have a potent synergistic effect. Just mix softened butter with turmeric a couple hours before clarifying it.
- Add a few teaspoons to your chili for a subtle earthy flavor.
- The next time you roast a winter squash, sprinkle the finished flesh with turmeric, cinnamon, and butter.
- Make some easy turmeric scrambled eggs.
- Roast fresh cauliflower dusted with turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper and tossed in your cooking fat of choice.
- Try this hearty lamb and kale soup with turmeric.
Turmeric Supplements, and More Concentrated Curcumin Supplements
Since it’s difficult to get a functional dose of curcumin from turmeric spice powder alone, a lot of people turn to curcumin supplements. They are easy to find and relatively inexpensive. To bolster absorption, look for a supplement that contains a small amount of black pepper or piperine (the active ingredient in black pepper).
Curcumin Dosage: How Much Turmeric Should You Take?
Most of the research on turmeric has revolved around curcumin, an active, antioxidant component of the spice. By weight, curcumin content of turmeric powder goes no higher than 3.14% – not a terribly large amount, considering the therapeutic curcumin dosages being studied.14 Doses of between 2-6g are typically used in curcumin research, and it’s basically impossible to eat enough turmeric to ingest that amount of curcumin.
Say you wanted a daily intake of 3g of curcumin, obtained through turmeric powder. Assuming you had the strongest stuff, you’d have to take about 3 ounces (conversion reminder: 16 ounces is 1 pound is 454 grams) of turmeric powder on a daily basis. That’s a lot of spice powder. I don’t care how much you love Indian food – it’s not going to be easy. Luckily, curcumin is widely available in capsule form, it’s non-toxic, and doses of up to 12g daily have been safely used. Note, though, that curcumin is a potential anticoagulant, so anyone taking prescription anticoagulants should check with their physician before supplementing.
Despite the focus on extracted curcumin, the epidemiology of cancer in India and other turmeric-using countries suggest that low, regular doses are beneficial, especially in cancer prevention. I love the taste, myself, so I’ll continue to use it regardless. I think you should, too. As with anything, though, you could go overboard, so don’t take too much.
Got any great turmeric recipes? Any success stories after using it as a health supplement? Let us know in the comments.
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