People around the world boost the flavor of their dishes with herbs and spices, including turmeric. Commonly used in Indian cuisine, this antioxidant-rich yellow substance has numerous scientifically proven benefits. For example, it’s been shown to improve joint pain, digestive issues, fatigue, cholesterol, headaches, colds, cancer, diabetes, depression, and more. People can use the powdered or natural root forms of turmeric to spice their food, and they can also take capsules or supplements.
Pregnant women may be tempted to ingest turmeric to relieve inflammation, sore muscles, and aching joints. But it turns out that curcumin— the active ingredient in turmeric that makes up about 3% of it by weight—may cause problems in large doses. We spoke with three experts to figure out whether turmeric is really safe while expecting.
The Benefits of Turmeric During Pregnancy
According to Lizzy Swick, MS, RDN, curcumin has been shown to ease swelling and inflammation in pregnant women, and it can also relieve joint pain and back pain. Dr. Swick says turmeric can improve a host of other pregnancy complaints as well. “It’s soothing and supportive for the digestive tract and can prevent constipation,” she says. “Turmeric also supports a healthy immune system, which might help fight colds or allergies during pregnancy.” What’s more, turmeric balances blood sugar and helps ward off depression—a common side effect of carrying a child.
The Drawbacks of Turmeric During Pregnancy
Curcumin (the main compound in turmeric) might mimic the hormone estrogen in the body, according to Ilene Cohen, RDN, owner of PranaSpirit Nutrition & Wellness and New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media spokesperson. As a result, curcumin can promote a menstrual period or stimulate uterine contractions, which could raise the risk of premature birth and miscarriage.
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High doses of turmeric — more than what’s found in most foods — may also interfere with some medications like blood thinners and acid blockers. Additionally, “it’s possible to be sensitive to turmeric just like you could be sensitive to strawberries, gluten, or any other food,” says Swick. “If you notice any symptoms from turmeric, such as a rash or headache, take that as a sign from your body that turmeric isn't the best fit for you right now.”
Turmeric and Pregnancy: Is It Safe?
No clinical trials exist regarding the safety of turmeric or curcumin for pregnant women. That’s because it’s unethical to conduct this type of research, according to Swick. Because of the lack of evidence—and because of the potential side effects of turmeric for pregnant women—it’s best to err on the side of caution.
“During pregnancy, turmeric is likely safe when consumed in amounts commonly found in food, so adding turmeric as a culinary herb in cooking and sprinkling it in food should be fine,” explains Cohen. That’s because the curcumin content of dried or powdered turmeric isn’t very high, so it’s not absorbed well through the bloodstream.
On the other hand, “turmeric is likely unsafe when taken by mouth in medicinal amounts during pregnancy, and medical professionals warrant caution against consuming turmeric in supplements,” says Cohen. Supplements and capsules contain larger amounts of curcumin, which raises the risk of pregnancy complications.
In summary: “Skip the turmeric and curcumin pills and concentrates, but go for organic and fresh turmeric root or dried turmeric powder,” says Cohen. But you might decide to exercise caution and avoid turmeric altogether. After all, “there's nothing you can get from the supplement that you can’t get from a healthy, balanced diet,” says Cohen.
How to Use Turmeric During Pregnancy
If you decide to ingest turmeric while pregnant, you can safely use it to add color and flavor to your food, says Rachelle LaCroix Mallik, MA, RD, LDN, and owner of The Food Therapist, LLC. She adds that you can cook with the fresh root in dried or powdered form, such as the products from Golde. For example, sprinkle some turmeric in curry, eggs, grains, and vegetables. “Pregnant women can also add turmeric to smoothies with fruits and an avocado— maybe a berry smoothie with turmeric powder or root and avocado as a fat source,” says Cohen.
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Another popular way to ingest turmeric is through a glass of “golden milk,” which can help you relax before bed and soothe digestive issues. “It's easy to make,” says Swick. “Heat some coconut milk (or milk of choice) on the stove and add a little ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, a pinch of turmeric powder, and a bit of black pepper. Sweeten as desired.” Make sure to consume golden milk in small amounts, though.
What Can I Eat During Pregnancy?
If you’re unsure whether to consume turmeric — or any other supplement or food—throughout pregnancy, you can always schedule an appointment with a dietician, says Mallik. Those without a dietician can ask their Ob-Gyn for advice. And remember: when in doubt, leave the food in question out of your diet. “It’s always better to eat a healthy diet than a bad diet enhanced with supplements,” says Mallik.