If I had to choose just one herb or supplement to take for the rest of my life, I’d choose turmeric. This bright yellow spice from the ginger family has wide-ranging effects on the human body, and shows remarkable potential to fight a number of diseases, including cancer, inflammation, Alzheimer’s Disease, arthritis, and more.
A common spice in Indian and Thai cuisine, turmeric is one of the world’s most widely researched botanicals; the online medical library, PubMed, shows more than 10,000 studies on turmeric and its compounds. I read the abstracts of more than 75 of these studies, concentrating mostly on reviews, a type of study that combines and analyzes the results of dozens — sometimes hundreds — of other studies. A great deal of the research I found focused on one of turmeric’s most powerful compounds — curcumin.
Across the board, the findings of human, animal, and in vitro studies were overwhelmingly, stunningly, positive. The following are just some of the diseases and conditions that turmeric and curcumin appear to prevent or help treat:
Cancer — Turmeric and curcumin work in multiple ways across a variety of pathways, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in their ability to fight cancer. In the last five months alone, researchers have found the following:
• Curcumin and other curcuminoids reduce tumors in all stages of development by blocking enzymes required for tumor growth.
• Curcumin causes leukemia cell death by altering a critical signaling pathway.
• Curcumin exerts its anti-breast cancer effect through a molecular signaling network involving estrogen receptor and HER2 pathways.
• Curcumin induces cancer cell death by regulating certain pathways and blocking the tumor cell cycle.
• Curcumin shows potential to fight and prevent cervical cancers, including those caused by human papilloma virus.
The herb shows promise in other areas as well.
Alzheimer’s Disease — Animal studies show that curcumin protects brain cells from inflammation and oxidative damage, and prevents the formation of beta-amyloid plaques — the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
Wound healing — Curcumin stimulates new growth, and fights microbes and inflammation.
Osteoarthritis — Patients taking curcumin had less pain, greater physical function, and improved quality of life. Curcumin protects cells called chondrocytes, which in turn protects cartilage.
Skin diseases — Turmeric and curcumin show promise in treating a variety of skin diseases and ailments when taken orally or applied topically.
Myalgia — People on statins who experience debilitating muscle pain had less pain and atrophy when taking curcumin.
Staph infections — Curcumin was effective, in vitro, against MRSA, the dangerous Staph bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.
These research findings might tempt you to swallow curcumin supplements by the handful. Though researchers consider curcumin quite safe, there are good arguments for sticking to whole turmeric.
First, turmeric may fight cancer better than curcumin alone. Researchers at the MD Anderson Center in Texas found that turmeric outperformed curcumin against breast, pancreatic, colon, and leukemia cells, suggesting that something else besides curcumin contributes to the anti-cancer activities.
Secondly, turmeric has a history of safe use; Indian and Southeast Asian cultures have been eating it for centuries, averaging about a quarter teaspoon a day in their diets. Turmeric, after all, is a signature spice in curry.
Lastly, while dietary amounts of turmeric were found to protect people’s blood DNA, an in vitro study found that large amounts of curcumin alone actually damaged DNA.
Oddly, curcumin is not well absorbed in the body. But add black pepper, and it’s a different story. Black pepper acts as a curcumin booster—just a pinch can significantly increase blood levels of curcumin. This is handy when you eat a recipe containing turmeric, pepper and other spices—it means more of the powerful curcumin will reach your bloodstream.
However, supplements containing large amounts of pure curcumin extract plus pepper could theoretically result in you getting too much. The problem is, no one knows how much is too much. Though we’ll probably see future uses of curcumin extract for specific conditions, for now, you can’t go wrong with whole turmeric.
WHERE CAN YOU BY TURMERIC?
Like its relative ginger, turmeric grows in root nodules called rhizomes, which can be grated fresh, or dried and used as a spice, tea, or in capsules.
Most stores carry the spice, and some sell the fresh root. New Moon Natural Foods carries turmeric in dozens of products — bulk turmeric powder, bulk curry powder, tea, tinctures, fresh root, and supplements of turmeric and curcumin (sometimes with pepper and other botanicals added).
Katlin Lowe, a manager at New Moon, says turmeric is one of the most popular supplements they sell. “We have a lot of athletes up here, and they’re attracted to turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties.”
Pets can benefit from turmeric, too. After consulting with a vet, local horse owner Kim Duff began giving turmeric and ground pepper to her horse. Now, five horse owners at the same stables give their animals turmeric. “We’ve all noticed a huge difference in our horses’ mobility after giving them turmeric,” she said. “I give it to my dog, too.”
For ease, I take a daily capsule (containing a quarter teaspoon) of turmeric at dinner, with a meal that contains pepper. I also add it to soup, stews, beans and rice, and roasted vegetables — especially cauliflower.
You can make an ultra-simple curry sauce by blending coconut milk and curry powder. Every curry blend is different, so try a few to find your favorite. Don’t worry that turmeric is not the only ingredient in curry powder — the other spices, like saffron, ginger, fenugreek, and red pepper pack their own nutritional punch.
So the next time you have a craving for Indian or Thai food, go ahead and indulge. It’s a delicious way to get your medicine.