Many people assume that herbal supplements, such as turmeric, are safe to take without a doctor’s approval. After all, the vibrantly hued, exotic-tasting herb has cultivated quite the hype in the wellness world, with experts touting its turmeric's health benefits, including the ability to fight cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease with all of anti-inflammatory and wonder.
However, according to a shocking new report, turmeric isn’t always safe - and can be downright hazardous to your health. One elderly woman may have even suffered some serious damage to her liver as a result of taking turmeric in capsule form.
According to the findings, published in BMJ Case Reports on September 10, a 71-year-old woman was taking the supplement (as well as 20 other medicines and supplements) for her heart health and subsequently developed autoimmune hepatitis - liver inflammation as the result of your body’s immune system turning against liver cells. The condition can ultimately lead to cirrhosis of the liver and eventually liver failure.
The woman had been taking the supplements for eight months when a blood test revealed her liver enzyme level was elevated and she was diagnosed with the condition. According to the report, she hadn’t told her doctors she was taking turmeric supplements, and therefore, they had no idea what was causing her health issues.
After doing some online research, she discovered that turmeric can potentially cause liver problems and stopped taking them. The doctors continued to monitor her for the next three months, without ever knowing that she had been taking the supplements. Luckily, her liver enzymes went down. When she finally told them about the turmeric, it led them to believe that the supplements were responsible for her liver damage.
There were may have been physical indicators as well. “A substance that looked like turmeric was seen in areas of the liver injury, although we could not determine with certainty if it was turmeric,” coauthor of the report Janet Funk, MD, a professor at the University of Arizona, tells Prevention.
What exactly is turmeric?
Turmeric is a bright yellow-gold spice that has been used for hundreds of years in South Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. While it definitely adds an earthy and peppery taste to food, it has medicinal properties as well. It contains the compound curcumin, which not only gives it is color but also is responsible for the plentitude of health benefits it is famous for. According to studies it can help acne, Alzheimer’s Disease, arthritis, bloating, cancer, diabetes, Lyme disease, pain and PMS. But here’s the catch – just sprinkling turmeric on your food or adding a tablespoon or two probably isn’t going to do much when it comes to your health.
“Curcumin, one of the active ingredients in turmeric only makes up around 3 percent of turmeric spice by weight, so you would have to consume a lot of turmeric spice to get a large amount of curcumin,” Dr. Funk tells us.
This is obviously why many people opt to take turmeric as a supplement.
Should I take turmeric supplements?
Before you decide to throw away your supplements, you should consider a few things.
As part of their case study, the authors conducted a review of 35 previous studies related to turmeric supplements. They found that around 5 percent of the participants suffered liver problems that were linked to the supplements. However, Dr. Funk does remind us that this is the first report of autoimmune hepatitis associate with turmeric use.
They also note that there is a possibility that specific people - such as those who drink alcohol or are older in age - who take these supplements may be more prone to having problems as a result. Additionally, there is the fact that the product itself wasn’t tested (as the woman had thrown it away before she told her doctors she was taking it) and there could be a chance it was contaminated. Dr. Funk explains to us that they have demonstrated and others have reported that turmeric supplements can be comprised of encapsulated spice (root) or the spice itself can sometime be contaminated with high levels of lead. “This is unusual, but can happen,” she says. Alternatively, the turmeric could have been reacting with one of the many other drugs the woman was taking.
Tasneem Bhatia, MD, an integrative medicine specialist, isn’t quick to dismiss turmeric supplements, pointing out that it is a well-known anti-inflammatory and reiterating that this is the fist case study to be published. “It is important to note it has been reported by the patient and not in the medical chart that turmeric may have caused the autoimmune hepatitis,” Dr. Bhatia tells Prevention.
Tips for taking turmeric and other herbal supplements
Dr. Bhatia urges that people use this study as a reminder to people that supplements are like medication and should be monitored by a physician. “Patients are often left to figure this information out themselves,” she says. “Bringing supplements out of the shadow of medical care and into a well thought-out discussion where both physicians and patients are knowledgeable is the key to preventing isolated cases such as these.”
Dr. Funk agrees. “Always let you health care providers know what you are taking, including over the counter supplements,” she says. “Natural is not synonymous with safe. Many popular medications are derived from plants. Both can be associated with side effects.”
Any herbal supplement, not just turmeric, should be taken with caution – especially if they are being taken with other drugs at the same time, as many can alter the metabolism of drugs taken at the same time. “St John’s wart can speed up the metabolism of birth control pills, making them ineffective,” Dr. Funk explains. Additionally, many plant products can alter blood coagulations, so caution should be taken if someone is taking anti-coagulants, or if they are preparing for an elective surgery.
Also, keep in mind: because curcumin only makes up around 3% of turmeric, cooking with the spice should have no negative health implications. So no matter what, feel free to keep using it in all your favorite dishes, like the curry dishes below.
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