Turmeric originates from the root of the curcuma longa plant, which is part of the ginger family. Used in India as a medicinal herb for thousands of years, turmeric health benefits are largely due to the presence of a compound in called curcumin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
We asked Aisling Moran, nutritional scientist at Thriva, and Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at Superfood UK, to talk us through turmeric health benefits, explain what to look for in a supplement, and offer tips on dosage, absorption and safety:
14 scientific health benefits of turmeric
While turmeric has been used for centuries in traditional medicine, its only recently that scientists have started to test-run the spices’ medicinal chemistry.
In an American Chemical Society review of the existing scientific literature, scientists concluded that curcumin is unstable under physiological conditions and therefore not readily absorbed by the body – which means sprinkling some into a curry every now and again probably won’t bring about any of the health benefits below.
However, the preliminary science is promising, especially where small-scale human studies have been conducted, so it may not be long before science figures out how to make the compounds that contribute to turmeric health benefits more bioavailable to humans. Here are 14 scientific health benefits of turmeric:
1. Turmeric contains bioactive compounds
There are several powerful medicinal compounds in turmeric that are linked to a range of health benefits – the most notable being curcumin, which is responsible for its vivid yellow colour, says Moran. Curcumin is a part of a family of active compounds called curcuminoids. ‘Other curcuminoids in turmeric include demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin, but curcumin is the most abundant – tending to make up about 77 per cent of curcuminoid content – and as a result, it’s also the most researched,’ she says.
2. It’s an antioxidant
Research shows that curcumin can reduce oxidative stress, since it acts as an antioxidant and stimulates antioxidant enzymes in your body, says Moran. ‘Oxidative stress is when there are too many free radicals in your body and not enough antioxidants to ‘scavenge’ them,’ she explains. ‘These free radicals can then damage proteins, DNA, and so on, and over time, this can lead to long-term, low-grade (chronic) inflammation.’
Inflammation is a natural process that is necessary for repair and healing, but when it becomes long-lasting or out of control it can cause health problems, says Wilkinson. ‘Many common health conditions involve inflammation, including heart disease, obesity, allergies, skin problems such as eczema, and even Alzheimer's disease,’ she explains. ‘In other words, many of the conditions that characterise 21st century living.’
In addition to scavenging free radicals through its antioxidant effects, curcumin can suppress molecules that play a big role in causing inflammation, says Moran. ‘So, in addition to lowering your risk of developing a chronic disease, it’s thought it might help ease exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness,’ she says.
4. May have anti-cancer properties
As well as showing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin has been shown to have anti-cancer properties in numerous test tube studies. One such study, conducted by the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Centre, found that not only does curcumin inhibit the growth of melanoma cells, but it also causes tumour cells to destroy themselves. Further investigation into the effects of curcumin in animal models and clinical trials is planned, the authors wrote.
5. Protects your joints
Given that curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory compound, it makes sense that it helps to protect your joints. Studies suggest that curcumin suppresses your body’s response to tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a chemical produced by the immune system that causes inflammation related to joints. ‘Joint pain and arthritis are among the most obvious signs of inflammation,’ says Wilkinson. ‘Anything that helps to balance inflammation may relieve symptoms, or even help prevent the problem occurring in the first place.’
6. May help treat arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term autoimmune condition that causes inflammation, pain, and stiffness in the joints. Some research shows that curcumin could be used to treat the condition, with similar effects to anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen – and without a lot of the side effects – but larger-scale studies are needed, says Moran.
7. Boosts brain health
Curcumin can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in your brain — a growth hormone important for brain health, says Moran. It's a key molecule involved in changes related to learning and memory, because it stimulates the growth of new neurons in your brain. Many common brain disorders have been linked to decreased levels of this hormone, and scientists believe it may help to delay or even reverse many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function.
Additionally, a bioactive compound found in turmeric called aromatic turmerone boosts the regeneration of brain stem cells, according to test tube research published in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy, which means it could be a future drug candidate for treating neurological disorders such as stroke.
8. May ward off dementia
Not only has curcumin been linked to improved brain health, but it might even help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. Inflammation and oxidative damage play a role in Alzheimer's disease, and curcumin has been shown to have beneficial effects on both. Daily curcumin consumption improved memory and mood in people with mild age-related memory loss, a study by the University of California found. Adding just one gram of turmeric to breakfast could help improve the memory of people who are in the very early stages of diabetes, which is linked to dementia, according to a Monash University study.
9. May help treat depression
Surprisingly, curcumin may be beneficial for people with depression. In a small study spanning 60 people diagnosed with depression, one group took an antidepressant, a second group took one gram of curcumin, and a third group took both the antidepressant and curcumin. Six weeks later, the curcumin supplement had led to improvements that were similar to the antidepressant. However, the group that took both fared best overall, which indicates that curcumin has potential as a therapeutic treatment alongside prescription medicine.
10. Supports digestion
Turmeric works as a cholagogue, which means it stimulates bile production in the liver and encourages the gallbladder to release bile into the digestive tract. Bile helps to break down and digest the fats in our foods. ‘We need fats in our body for a whole host of reasons, including keeping our brain, heart and eyes healthy, for making hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen, and for good skin health,’ says Wilkinson. ‘We also need good digestion of fats in order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, which is vital for our vision, skin and immunity.’
As well as reducing inflammation and oxidation as detailed above, turmeric has been shown to improve the function of the endothelium – the lining of your blood vessels – reducing the risk of endothelial dysfunction, which is a major contributor to heart disease. It may also reduce cholesterol, thin the blood to keep it flowing normally, and prevent abnormal blood clotting, says Wilkinson. ‘Studies have indicated that curcumin may help prevent damage to blood vessels that can lead to atherosclerosis, which is a build-up of plaque in the arteries,’ she adds.
12. May have antiviral properties
The curcumin in turmeric could help eliminate certain viruses. A test tube study conducted by the Microbiology Society found that curcumin can prevent transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGEV) – a type of coronavirus that infects pigs – from infecting cells. At higher doses, the compound was found to kill the actual virus particles. Other studies have previously shown that curcumin has been shown to inhibit the replication of some viruses, including dengue virus, hepatitis B and Zika virus.
13. Protects your liver
Curcumin seems to delay the liver damage that eventually causes cirrhosis, according to a rodent study published in the journal Gut. The research team analysed tissue and blood samples from mice with chronic liver inflammation before and after adding curcumin to their diet for a period of four and a period of eight weeks, and compared the results with a control group. The curcumin diet ‘significantly’curbed liver cell damage and scarring by interfering with chemical signalling pathways involved in the inflammatory process.
14. May assist with fat loss
Studies suggest that turmeric may be potentially beneficial for those looking to lose weight. In a rodent study, curcumin supplementation suppressed the growth of fat tissue and reduced weight gain. The mice also had lower blood cholesterol levels and fat in their livers than the control group, even though both groups ate the same food. It does this by inhibiting new blood vessel growth, called angiogenesis, which is necessary to build fat tissue.
Turmeric health benefits: dosage
It’s important to keep in mind that most studies demonstrating the benefits of turmeric and curcumin involve high-dose supplements, so it’s difficult to reach these levels from turmeric in food, says Moran. ‘There’s certainly no harm including fresh turmeric as a regular part of your diet,’ she continues. ‘It just means there’s just less evidence linking it to the benefits claimed above.’
Fresh turmeric can be hard to get your hands on, so you can also buy it in powdered form. Add it to curries, steep it in coconut milk, or try it with lemon and ginger tea. ‘Curcumin is generally very poorly absorbed, so, whether it’s fresh, powdered, or a supplement, make sure to have it with piperine,’ says Moran. ‘This will be added to most supplements, but it’s also found in black pepper, and increases the absorption of curcumin by 2,000 per cent. Curcumin is also fat-soluble, so having it around a meal can help increase absorption too.’
Are turmeric supplements safe?
While generally, turmeric or curcumin supplements are safe, trials that have used very high-dose supplements have reported side effects, including diarrhoea, headaches, rashes, and yellow stool, says Moran. The allowable daily intake (ADI) of curcumin is set at 0-3 mg per kilogram body weight.
‘If buying a supplement, make sure it’s pure turmeric,’ she continues. ‘Some powders have added things like flours and colourants. Also, some turmeric powders have been found to have high lead concentrations, so it’s really important to properly research any supplement before you buy it.’
Last updated: 19-08-2020
You Might Also Like