Few foodstuffs have had scientists scratching their heads in wonder over its potential more than the widely-lauded spice called turmeric. Native to Southeast Asia and a cousin to ginger, the big fuss isn’t necessarily about the exuberantly-hued turmeric itself, but a component within called curcumin — a phytochemical scientists found to have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties with revolutionary healing potential.
As with matcha and coconut oil, two other ingredients of the moment with the wellness set, we set out to understand why turmeric is the ingredient du jour, and whether it’s worth bolting right out to stock some of that orangey goodness in your pantry if you don’t typically have a hankering for Indian food.
A long-celebrated seasoning staple
Regardless of its potential health benefits, turmeric sure does its part in livening up a diet. According to an excerpt gleaned From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine, this rich, golden 4000+ year-old spice first grew popular as a culinary spice in India, where most of it is produced and consumed to this day.
While research on nutrition is key to our learnings about how to optimize our diet, you should never base your diet on any one study or one food.
But you don't have to go to India to experience it. We're in the midst of a huge revival, and you can roll right up to any hipster café and order yourself a turmeric ginger latte along with your vegan carob balls. Patricia Bannan, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat Right When Time is Tight, recommends that her clients replace salt with certain spicy herbs and spices like turmeric to help boost weight loss, fight inflammation and lower blood sugar and cholesterol.
“Turmeric makes home cooking more exciting,” she says. “It adds a warm, earthy aroma and flavor to poultry, seafood and vegetable dishes, including curries and chutneys.” She also uses it to liven up her sweet potato soup recipe, or sprinkle on her Vanilla Chia Frozen Affogatos.
The benefits are awfully promising
It seems Vedic practitioners may, indeed, have been onto something all those years ago when using turmeric medicinally. One comprehensive scientific report published in 2013 compiled the results of a collection of clinical trials of curcumin over the prior 50 years, claiming, to quote, “promising effects” for a long, long, laundry list of ailments, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, uveitis, ulcerative proctitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel disease, tropical pancreatitis, peptic ulcer, gastric ulcer, diabetes…and the list goes on and on. It also says, way back in 1937, curcumin was tested on otherwise healthy people with faulty gallbladders. According to the report, all but one person who took an oral remedy containing the herb for 3 weeks were cured after being observed for the next 3 years. That demonstrates a LOT of potential for a little bitty phytochemical.
Though there’s plenty of evidence on its benefits in the preclinical studies, they haven’t quite gotten to performing as many human studies as they need to understand full well how it works.
It could be a mighty medical multitasker
According to a detailed article compiled over years by experts at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, curcumin works in several ways, depending on what it interacts with. Barbara Delage, Ph.D., nutrition scientist with the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center and contributing author to the article, explained how a single phytochemical could possibly help with health conditions ranging from Alzheimer's disease, to cancer to rheumatoid arthritis.
“It has become increasingly clear that oxidative stress and inflammation contribute to the development and/or progression of most (if not all) chronic conditions. This explains why an anti-inflammatory drug that works to treat a specific disease might also help treat other inflammatory conditions,” Delage says.
So how does it work in the body? “Curcumin is versatile. Within cells, it can target specific molecules or pathways that are involved in the control of the cell cycle, inflammation, oxidative stress, etc., depending of the type of cells under scrutiny,” she says, who was also careful to add that, as far as using curcumin to treat these conditions, scientists still have plenty of work to do to wrap their minds around what it can and can’t do.
For example, though there’s plenty of evidence on its benefits in the preclinical studies, they haven’t quite gotten to performing as many human studies as they need to understand full well how it works. Delage also adds that most studies conducted to date on humans have been focused on investigating the efficacy of curcumin in disease management—not disease prevention.
How you reap all those benefits is harder to say
Though curcumin is regarded as safe by the Federal Drug Adminstration and is sold in various formulas far and wide, there are no guidelines established for its intake. When asked if people should consider integrating curcumin, or turmeric, into their daily wellness regimen, it doesn’t always absorb into the body easily and thus, Delage says the jury’s still out on whether it will actually do anything for you.
If you’re bound and determined to experiment with curcumin medicinally, she recommends consulting your doctor — especially if you are already on medication — because preclinical studies have indicated it might change how other medications you use are metabolized in your body. That’s because curcumin supplements also an ingredient called piperine, which boosts the effects of curcumin but also its potential toxicity because it slows down the elimination of the curcumin and prescription drugs used for seizures, high blood pressure, angina and bipolar disorder.
To back her point that more research on people is needed, just this year, one 30-year old woman suffered a fatal outcome after receiving a turmeric-infused IV-drip holistic treatment. San Diego-area news outlet KGTV reported the woman died immediately from a heart attack after having the drip to treat her eczema.
Don't put all your eggs in the turmeric basket
For dietitians like Bannan, who are always on the lookout for ways to optimize one’s diet, integrating a little turmeric here and there was a no-brainer due to its long history of established research. Yet, she doesn’t feel we should get too obsessed with any one herb or spice in hopes it will cure our ills.
“While research on nutrition is key to our learnings about how to optimize our diet, you should never base your diet on any one study or one food,” she says.
So when it comes to adding curcumin to your daily wellness regimen, Delage’s basic message is to do your homework and proceed with caution — even though all the data out there is mighty compelling. Hopefully, scientists will soon be able to corral all of curcumin’s promise into a revolutionarily helpful reality.
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