A Spotlight on the Wonders and Marvels of Turmeric

If you are someone who simply loves to cook or try out a new recipe once in a while, especially those that have an Indian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern origin, you’ll most probably have come across a vivid yellow-orange spice known as turmeric. Who would have thought that this relative of ginger, fascinatingly, has also been largely used in medicine for centuries to combat health problems such as breathing difficulties. In fact, turmeric has been lately deemed to be a type of superfood that one could consume to treat cancer symptoms, fight depression, and so many more!

Though, what exactly can turmeric really do for your health, knowing that there are probably a lot of false misconceptions out there? With that in mind, let us all take a deep dive to understand more about how turmeric can help our body.

What is turmeric?

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Turmeric (scientifically named as Curcuma longa) is a plant that is native to Southeast Asia and comes from the ginger family known as Zingiberaceae. It is typically commercially cultivated in India, whereby its rhizome (i.e. underground stem) is commonly used as a type of traditional medication as well as a culinary spice. In fact, turmeric is a major ingredient found in curry powder, and it is critical to not confuse this space with the Javanese turmeric root (scientifically termed as Curcuma zedoaria). 

There are approximately 100 compounds found within turmeric, and these are more popularly recognised as curcuminoids. In particular, curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is the most important curcuminoid found within turmeric, and it is also the compound that gives turmeric its distinctive yellow colour. 

The medical potential of turmeric

Turmeric has been historically utilised in Ayurvedic medication as well as other forms of traditional Indian and Eastern Asian (e.g. traditional Chinese medicine) medicinal practices. Specifically, in India, turmeric has been conventionally used to treat certain diseases and disorders affecting our skin, upper respiratory tract, digestive system, as well as joints. 

In our world today, turmeric has been promoted to be a type of dietary supplement that can be consumed to help alleviate a number of health conditions. Such conditions include allergies, respiratory infections, arthritis, dysfunctions in the digestive system, liver diseases and depression (just to name a few).

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What are the benefits of consuming turmeric?

Since turmeric contains curcumin, which is a compound that possesses powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, let’s take a deep dive into how these properties are beneficial to our body.

Nonetheless, it would be important for you to take note that the majority of studies mentioned in this article utilised turmeric extracts which are standardised to have large quantities of curcumin. 

Curcumin is a natural anti-inflammatory compound

In general, inflammation is an incredibly critical process within our physiological system. However, inflammation can also be extremely dangerous should it be left uncontrolled.

This is because inflammation can help to defend your body against foreign invaders (also known as pathogens) such as bacteria or viruses, in addition to assisting with repairing any damages caused by these invasions. If inflammation were to be absent, these pathogens would have simply overwhelmed our body and immune system, killing us in the process.

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Even though experiencing an acute and short-term inflammation during a period of pathogen infection has been proved beneficial for us, Aggarwal et al. (2008) specified that inflammation can eventually transform into a major issue if this process were to become chronic and start to attack your body’s own tissues out of a sudden. With that in mind, many researchers are now supporting the idea that chronic inflammation is responsible for various types of chronic illnesses. As a matter of fact, chronic inflammation has been proven to be the key culprit in the majority of chronic diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, metabolic disorders, as well as autoimmune and neoplastic diseases, as highlighted by Coussens and Werb (2002) and Libby (2002). To make matters worse, many different forms of cancer actually originate from sites of chronic inflammation, irritation and infection. Hence, any medication or substances that can be used to combat chronic inflammation is of utmost importance as an agent to treat, or even prevent, these diseases from being initiated.

The good news is that Goel et al. (2001) reported that curcumin (that is found within turmeric) has the ability to inhibit the production of a variant of enzyme termed as cyclooxygenase (COX)-2. In essence, COX-2 plays a critical part in the development of  colon carcinogenesis. Therefore, this study essentially implies that curcumin may have an advantage as a type of chemopreventive agent useful against colon cancer.

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At a molecular level, curcumin possesses some bioactivity that is extremely useful in fighting off inflammation. Fascinatingly, curcumin is so powerful at this that its anti-inflammatory was thought to be somewhat equivalent to those exerted by anti-inflammatory medication, minus the adverse side effects (which makes this case even more favourable). This was an observation that was well-documented by Jurenka (2009) and Takada et al. (2004) 

A potential explanation for its biological tract was presented by Singh and Aggarwal (1995), who found out that curcumin prevents NF-kB (nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells) from performing its function, whereby NF-kB is presumed to play a big part in regulating our immune response to external infections through inflammation. In particular, NF-kB is basically a molecule that travels into the nuclei of our body cells and activates the genes associated with triggering inflammation.

Curcumin could be taken to boost your brain function

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Neurons are basically cells that have the capability to establish new connections. However, in specific regions of our brain, neurons also have the ability to multiply themselves and thus increase in number. As mentioned by Binder et al. (2004), one of the main drivers of this multiplication process would be a growth hormone known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is typically found to function inside your brain. 

Taking that into consideration, it comes with no surprise to learn that most of the common neurological conditions have been associated with the reduction in the BDNF levels within our brain, whereby such conditions include depression and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, this observation has actually been scientifically backed by Phillips et al. (1991) and Shimizu et al. (2003).

In spite of that, there is a silver lining in this cloud. This is because the research by Xu et al. (2006) and Hurley et al. (2013) have both demonstrated that curcumin has the ability to increase the amount of BDNF within our brain. This essentially implies that curcumin might be an effective agent that could help delay, or perhaps even reverse, the development of several types of brain diseases and age-associated deterioration in brain function. In fact, curcumin could also indirectly help you to boost your memory, but controlled clinical trials in people will be a necessity in order to prove this hypothesis.

Curcumin could assist in lowering your risk of heart disease

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As mentioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), heart disease is the number one cause of death in our world today. And there would be no prize for figuring out that the intricate processes of heart diseases is an incredibly complex one, with various processes and factors contributing to its pathogenesis. Henceforth, this has driven much investment and research initiatives for scientists to dissect the biology of this disease.

Notwithstanding, curcumin may help reverse several of the key steps that contribute to the development of heart disease. One might even say that the main benefit of curcumin in the context of a heart disease would be its capability to boost the function of our endothelium, which are basically the lining of our blood vessels. 

To elaborate further, it is well understood that a dysfunction in our endothelium is a key driver of heart disease as this results in our blood vessels no longer being able to take control of the blood pressure, blood clotting process in addition to several other processes. This has been an observation that has been highlighted by Toborek et al. (1999).

Various research initiatives have proposed that taking curcumin results in an improvement in endothelial function. Akazawa et al. (2012) brought forward the idea that the medical effects of ingesting curcumin ingestion is similar to those of aerobic exercise training, whereby both of these can help to reverse the age-associated decline in endothelial function to a similar extent.

Turmeric can help prevent cancer

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Cancer is mainly a disease that is prevalent amongst the elderly population, and it is largely characterised by uncontrolled cell growth. Current methods to treat cancer typically involve the use of poisonous mustard gas, chemotherapy, radiation, and or even targeted (and often invasive) therapies.

Curcumin has been investigated as a natural herb that may be beneficial towards cancer treatment, and it has been seen to have an effect on the development and spreading of cancer cells at a molecular level. 

A review written by Anand et al. (2008) suggested that  curcumin plays a key role in disrupting a number of cell signalling pathways, such as the process of apoptosis, cell cycle, proliferation, survival, invasion, angiogenesis, metastasis, and inflammation. In essence, the group reported that curcumin presented an ability to affect multiple types of cancer, including leukaemia and lymphoma, gastrointestinal cancers, genitourinary cancers, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, lung cancer, melanoma, neurological cancers, and sarcoma. 

Meanwhile, studies by Ravindran et al. (2009) demonstrated that curcumin could help to slow down or prevent angiogenesis (meaning the generation of new blood vessels within tumours) and metastasis (which means the spread of cancer). This would ultimately contribute to the death of cancer cells in the long run. Besides that, the laboratory works by Kawamori et al. (1999) and Bar-Sela et al. (2010) indicated that curcumin can halt the growth and development of cancer cells within animal subjects.

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Curcumin might assist in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease development

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Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of neurodegenerative disorder in our world today, whereby it is the leading causative agent of dementia. The unfortunate news is that there is no suitable treatment made available for this disease yet. As a result, preventing this disease from initiating in the first place is of utmost importance. 

It has been well-known amongst the scientific community that inflammation and oxidative damage are one of the key contributors to Alzheimer's disease pathogenesis. Interestingly, a key component that acts as an important feature of Alzheimer's disease is the accumulation of protein tangles that are known as amyloid-beta (αβ) plaques.

Nonetheless, a review authored by Mishra et al. (2008) suggested that, in its role as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, can assist in the improvement of Alzheimer's disease patients’ cognitive function. This might be due to curcumin being able to cross the blood-brain barrier, as implicated by Hamaguchi et al. (2010).

Other than that, Zhang et al. (2006) postulated that curcumin could trigger a type of white blood cell of our immune system known as macrophages to engulf and digest these amyloid-beta plaques, thereby removing  these plaques completely from our brain.

Curcumin could be an excellent painkiller for arthritis patients

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Arthritis is a term given for a class of diseases that are known to cause pain, swelling and stiffness within our joints. It is a condition that can affect anybody, for it can exert an unpleasant effect on individuals of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds.

Given that curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory compound, this brings about the possibility that curcumin might be able to help with easing the pain caused by this medical condition. In a research investigation conducted by Chandran et al. (2012), whereby they observed patients who are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, they learnt that curcumin was actually way more effective in comparison to an anti-inflammatory drug. Besides that, Belcaro et al. (2010) evaluated a drug called Meriva, which consists of a proprietary complex of curcumin along with soy phosphatidylcholine. The group eventually reported that this medication is considered to be clinically effective in the management and treatment of osteoarthritis.

Curcumin has incredible benefits against depression

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Other than all the aforementioned clinical applications of curcumin, curcumin has shown some promise in treating depression.

A controlled trial led by Sanmukhani et al. (2013) involves randomising 60 people with depression into three groups. To dive into the finer detail, one trial group was given Prozac (which is a type of antidepressant medication), whilst another group was given one gram of curcumin with the third group receiving both Prozac and curcumin to consume. After an experimental period of six weeks, they found that taking curcumin has resulted in cognitive improvements that are considered to be similar to the effects exerted by Prozac. Specifically, the trial group that was given both Prozac and curcumin produced the best clinical outcome. Hence, based on the results reported by this relatively small study, this research group demonstrated that curcumin could be as effective as an  actual antidepressant.

Similar to Alzheimer’s disease, depression is also linked to decreased levels of BDNF. Nevertheless, thanks to the ability of turmeric to heighten the concentration of this hormone, turmeric therefore shows great promise as an efficient antidepressant. In fact, one study noted that introducing 50, 100, or 200 mg/kg of curcumin in rats over 10 days resulted in a dose-dependent increase in BDNF. Specifically, the rats that were given the higher dose of curcumin (200 mg/kg) presented the most notable antidepressant effects.

Curcumin may help treat or prevent diabetes

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Based on a past review of studies, curcumin was suggested to be able to help treat or even prevent the progression of diabetes as well as its associated conditions such as diabetic nephropathy (also called diabetic kidney disease). In particular, diabetic nephropathy has been shown to impact individuals who are diagnosed with either type-1 diabetes or type-2 diabetes.

For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism investigated obese mice that have type-2 diabetes. They eventually found out that taking curcumin supplements has been linked to disrupt the links between obesity and type-2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM).

Another study discovered that introducing 80 mg of tetrahydrocurcumin per kilogram body weight, which is one of the key components of curcumin, to rats that have type-2 diabetes over 45 days resulted in a significant reduction in blood sugar levels. This was also supplemented with a rise in the concentration of plasma insulin within the rats’ bodies.

Still, many of these research investigations have been conducted only on animals. Therefore, further investigation needs to be conducted on humans first before this hypothesis can be accepted (or rejected).

Turmeric may improve skin health

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With credits given to the anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties of turmeric, it has been widely proposed that turmeric could be an effective agent in treatment a wide variety of skin-related medical conditions, such as acne, eczema (atopic dermatitis), photoaging, and psoriasis.

A 2018 review published in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences postulated that taking oral curcumin, specifically, might be an highly efficacious and safe treatment option for patients diagnosed with psoriasis, which is a notorious form of chronic inflammatory skin disorder. However, more studies will be necessary before any recommendations by physicians can be made. 

Other than that, another review implied that the topical application of curcumin could be helpful in the treatment of skin disorders. This is because previous past research postulated that curcumin is a relatively safe medication, even when it is consumed at relatively high doses.

How to take turmeric?

Despite all the optimism surrounding turmeric and its medical potential, the sad news is turmeric (as well as curcumin on its own) does not absorb very well into our bloodstream. As a result, including turmeric in curry once every month is not a viable method of supplementing yourself with its much desired anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. 

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Hence, you would need to take turmeric supplements in order to achieve the quantity of turmeric and curcumin that is demonstrated to offer the key therapeutic benefits. Alternatively, you might be able to reap the benefits of turmeric through the addition of black pepper anytime you are consuming it. In fact, you could even consider trying a turmeric supplement that includes black pepper!

The reason behind this is because there is a compound within black pepper that is known as piperine. Piperine basically helps turmeric to be much more bioavailable, which means that more turmeric can thus be absorbed or able to be utilised by our body.

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What are the side effects of turmeric?

Overall, turmeric and curcumin appear to be well tolerated by the majority of the population. However, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) mentioned that some of the most typical side effects found within people who take curcumin include gastrointestinal and include constipation, dyspepsia, diarrhoea, distension, gastroesophageal reflux, nausea, vomiting, yellow stool and stomach ache.

Due to the capability of curcumin to increase the secretion of bile within our body, individuals who suffer from medical conditions involving the obstruction of the bile duct, cholangitis, liver disease, gallstones and any other biliary disease ought to refrain from taking turmeric and curcumin supplements.

Besides that, turmeric has also been shown to interact with several types of medications. In particular, turmeric has been implicated in slowing down the process of blood clotting. Thus, consuming turmeric together with anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications, both of which may also slow down blood clotting, would result in the increased chances of bruising and bleeding. 

Nevertheless, turmeric is most probably safe when it is taken orally, or when it is applied onto our skin over a short time period. Still, just like any other food supplements, the quality and safety of these products may not be guaranteed. Thus, customers are strongly advised to always buy their turmeric supplements from a trusted source in order to reduce the health risks associated with  unlicensed food products.

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The big picture

All in all, turmeric is a type of spice that holds a positive reputation for its medicinal properties. As a result, turmeric has received renowned interest from the medical and scientific community, and even the top culinary enthusiasts! This is all mainly due to turmeric being the key source of the polyphenol, curcumin.

In particular, curcumin has a lot of scientifically-backed health benefits, including its potential to stop the development of conditions such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s diseases as well as cancer. Due to curcumin’s many positive therapeutic benefits, it would be somewhat fair to consider that consuming turmeric could indirectly contribute to a person’s longevity. Not to mention, these medical applications, in combination with its pharmacological safety and negligible cost, render curcumin an attractive agent to be further explored.

Verified by a Healthcare Professional

Anastasiia Myronenko

Anastasiia Myronenko

Anastasiia Myronenko is a Medical Physicist actively practicing in one of the leading cancer centers in Kyiv, Ukraine. She received her master’s degree in Medical Physics at Karazin Kharkiv National University and completed Biological Physics internship at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, Germany. Anastasiia Myronenko specializes in radiation therapy and is a fellow of Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists.