10 health benefits of turmeric
Turmeric is a spice native to southwest India, most commonly used in Indian cuisine. It has a gentle flavour, is pungent and slightly bitter, and is often used to colour food. Turmeric is great in a number of dishes, from simple lentil dahls to more complex curries, as its mild flavour makes it versatile and easy to add to dishes.
This article outlines the numerous positive effects turmeric has on health and wellbeing, as well as information on turmeric’s impressive nutritional breakdown and (lack of) health risks, giving you plenty of great reasons to incorporate it in your diet.
As a spice, turmeric is a very low calorie addition to your diet: 1 tablespoon (6.8 grams), contains just 24 calories. Turmeric also contains almost no fat (0.7g per tablespoon), sugar (0.2g), or salt (3mg).
It does however, contain 5% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of dietary fibre for the day, a significant amount for just 1 tablespoon of spice! Dietary fibre is an important addition to your diet because it improves digestive health, may lower cholesterol and makes you feel fuller for longer (important for those looking to lose weight).
In addition, turmeric benefits from being rich in certain vitamins and minerals that are essential to health: iron, vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese.
- 1 tablespoon of turmeric contains 15% of your RDA of iron. Iron is an essential part of a healthy diet, as it is involved in haemoglobin’s ability to interact with and carry oxygen. Haemoglobin is a protein found within red blood cells, and without it the blood is unable to deliver the oxygen required for our body to function effectively. Deficiencies in iron can lead to fatigue, dizziness, and eventually anaemia, so it’s important to have many good forms of iron in your diet.
- 1 tablespoon of turmeric contains 5% of your RDA of vitamin B6. B6 is a vital component in maintaining cognitive function: Vitamin B6 is involved in creating the neurotransmitters Acetylcholine, Melatonin, Norepinephrine, Serotonin and Dopamine, which act in neural pathways and help to control memory, regulate mood and control sleep, among other things. Interestingly, it is often held up by those in the ‘nootropics’ (drugs used to enhance brain power) community as a prime example of a supplement you should be taking. If you can up your B6 levels by simply changing your diet, however, then so much the better.
- 1 tablespoon of turmeric contains 4% of your RDA of potassium. Potassium is important because it is an electrolyte: a mineral present in fluids such as blood in your body that carries an electric charge. The balance of sodium (the major ion outside your cells) to potassium (the major ion inside your cells), creates electrical potential, allowing for cells to produce electrical discharge. This is important for neurotransmission, muscle contraction, and heart function. Because of potassium’s key role in a number of vital processes in the body, having a diet high in potassium can help to prevent problems like high blood pressure, kidney stones, and even strokes.
- 1 tablespoon of turmeric contains 0.53mg of manganese. Although the UK government doesn’t give a RDA value for manganese, the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that 2.5mg per day is a minimum requirement. Therefore, 1 tablespoon of turmeric contains 22.3% of the WHO’s RDA. Manganese is likely not on the UK’s list because it is rare for westerners to be deficient in this vital mineral. Nonetheless, manganese plays a role in bone production, skin integrity, and protecting against free radical damage (more on free radicals below), making this one more reason to eat turmeric.
The Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
While Turmeric’s nutritional benefits are certainly a valuable addition to your diet, realistically, turmeric is a spice, and not intended to be eaten in large quantities. It might be difficult to hit your RDA of potassium just eating Turmeric!
The real benefits of turmeric lie in what scientists believe to be its main active ingredient: curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful compound with a number of clinically proven benefits: it is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, in addition to being anti-microbial.
However, the amount of curcumin present in turmeric is fairly low (3% by weight), and in an effort to understand the mechanisms behind Turmeric’s numerous benefits, scientists have often isolated Curcumin for clinical trials, often in high doses. As such, this article tries to separate the two as much as possible.
While the possible benefits of turmeric are too numerous (and contentious) to simply list, here are our top 10 benefits of turmeric and curcumin:
- Protects Against Free Radicals
- Reduces Inflammation
- Prevents and Fights Cancer
- Inhibits the Growth of Harmful Microbes
- Protects the Liver
- Improves Digestive Health
- Protects the Cardiovascular System
- Maintains Eye Health
- Alleviates Arthritic Diseases
- Counteracts Mental Degeneration
1. Protects Against Free Radicals
The antioxidant properties of turmeric and curcumin are undoubtedly one of the most important for our overall health and well-being. In the subsequent sections, we will see repeatedly how important protection against free radical damage is, like maintaining the health of the eye, for example.
Curcumin is a particularly potent antioxidant. It is as powerful an antioxidant as vitamins C, E and Beta-Carotene(Akram et al., 2010, p.66), is debatably easier to include in your diet, and also has none of the risks associated with exceptionally high levels of Beta-Carotene.
But why are free radicals damaging? A free radical is an unstable molecule. In order to gain stability, it must take an electron from another molecule. If the molecule affected by the free radical is part of a protein for example, this could cause that protein to become unstable and its structure to deform, disrupting its function and leading to any number of health risks.
Antioxidants are molecules that prevent the oxidation of other molecules (oxidation being a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals), or prevent the action of free radicals. Oxidation reactions are necessary for life, but they can lead to free radicals, so our body must produce antioxidants to deal with these.
Insufficient levels of antioxidants can lead to damaged or destroyed cells, in addition to a host of other problems, leading to premature aging, cancer risk, and so on. Antioxidants are a must for any healthy person.
2. Reduces Inflammation
Like oxidation, inflammation is an essential mechanism of our bodies, being part of the immune response to a harmful stimulus, whether that be a torn ligament or an infection. However, too much inflammation can give rise to tissue damage. In addition, inflammation can cause any number of diseases, some of which, like arthritic diseases, are mentioned below.
Curcumin has significant anti-inflammatory properties. Clinical trials have found curcumin to be more effective than phenylbutazone (a non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for reducing post-surgical inflammation(Chaturvedy, 2009). Other studies found it to be as effective as cortisone, a steroid hormone used to reduce inflammation. Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties means it has potential health benefits for a number of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and atherosclerosis.
3. Prevents and Fights Cancer
Turmeric both prevents cancer and fights cancer. In fact, there are three main anti-cancer processes involved in turmeric’s benefit to your body: turmeric is (1) anti-mutagenic, (2) DNA protective, and (3) tumour inhibiting.
Firstly, turmeric has powerful anti-mutagenic effects. A mutagen is an agent that causes genetic mutations. As many mutations result in cancer, most mutagens are also carcinogens (they cause cancer). Turmeric has proven to be effective at countering mutagenic effects.
A study in rats given the pollutant benzo(a)pyrenefound showed that the amount of benzo(a)pyrene in urine was significantly reduced by turmeric, demonstrating that turmeric is effective at protecting from mutagenic substances (Krishnaswamy, 2008, p.266). Turmeric prevents cancer by preventing the actions of mutagens.
Secondly, turmeric has protective effects on DNA. Having DNA damage significantly increases your risk of cancer because DNA damage in cells can give rise to mutations that can be replicated and passed on. This alteration can change gene function or regulation of gene expression – eventually leading to cancer.
A study on rats treated with dietary turmeric and curcumin for one month demonstrated the positive results of turmeric: both the number of DNA adducts (a piece of DNA bonded to a (cancer-causing) chemical) and the micrograms of adducted DNA were affected (Ibid.). What this study shows is that turmeric prevents DNA bonding with cancer causing chemicals and being damaged. Turmeric prevents cancer by preventing DNA damage.
Finally, turmeric inhibits the growth of tumours. In fact, turmeric has been documented to inhibit the growth of tumours at three different stages: tumor promotion, angiogenesis, and tumor growth. Animal studies involving rats and mice and studies on human cells support this.
For example, a study done on the effect of turmeric on oral cancer used the cheeks of hamsters to study the genesis of tumours. Artificially induced tumours in the hamsters were studied with and without turmeric. The number of tumours per animal, the size of the tumours, and the toll those tumours took, was significantly reduced at 1% turmeric in the diet (Ibid.). The take-home message: turmeric fights cancer.
4. Inhibits the Growth of Harmful Microbes
Turmeric is strongly anti-microbial. It has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, and in addition, may result in increased immunity. Animal studies show that turmeric inhibits the growth of ‘a variety of bacteria, parasites, and pathogenic fungi’(Akram et al., 2010, p.68).
One study in which guinea pigs were infected with either a pathogenic fungus, pathogenic moulds, or yeast, found that turmeric oil applied to the area resulted in positive effects on either of the pathogens, but no effect on the (non-pathogenic) yeast. The paper also points out that mice given curcumin showed increased antibodies and more immune action, hinting at potential immunity benefits in humans.
Interestingly, in addition to its anti-microbial effects when applied to skin, turmeric is an astringent; it causes the contraction of skin cells(Chaturvedy, 2009), leading to tighter looking skin, so turmeric not only has anti-bacterial effects on your skin, it also might help make it look better!
5. Protects the Liver
Turmeric also has significant benefit when it comes to protecting the liver from a number of toxic compounds. Animal studies have demonstrated this protective effect on a number of dangerous substances (such as carbon tetrachloride, an extremely dangerous liver toxin formerly used in cleaning products) and more common household substances such as paracetamol. For example, in rats given carbon tetrachloride, curcumin significantly decreased the subsequent injuries to the liver (Akram et al., 2010, p.68).
Protecting your liver from toxic compounds is more important than you might think. In the United States, drug-induced liver injury is responsible for 5% of all hospital admissions. 50% of all liver failure is due to drugs, which may not seem all that relevant to the readers of a website on health and fitness, but 39% of all liver failure is due to the common painkiller paracetamol. In addition, those who drink alcohol are at a much higher risk of drug toxicity because alcohol induces liver injury.
Obviously, taking paracetamol or drinking a glass of wine isn’t going to result in acute liver failure! What this research shows is that turmeric has a number of positive effects on the health of your liver by preventing toxic compounds from harming you.
6. Improves Digestive Health
Turmeric also has positive effects on another important system: the digestive system. There are three main benefits to taking turmeric: first, it inhibits the formation of ulcers, second, it inhibits intestinal spasm (both symptoms are not only very common, but easily can result in a reduced quality of life) and third, it stimulates the production of bile, which among other things, improves absorption.
Ulcers are a common form of inflammatory bowel disease, once believed to have been caused by stress. While researchers no longer think that this is the root cause, many other commonplaces of modern life, like alcohol usage, contribute to the development of ulcers. One review paper (Singletary, 2010, p.218) states that
There is clinical evidence that oral curcumin may help alleviate common symptoms of irritable bowel disease as well as those of patients with ulcerative colitis.
In addition, a constituent of turmeric, sodium curcuminate, inhibited intestinal spasm (Akram et al., 2010, p.68). Spasms are a general symptom of an intestinal problem, so anything from irritable bowel disease to food poisoning could result in them. Turmeric mitigates the effects of a number of common conditions.
Finally, research has also confirmed the absorptive benefits of turmeric. It acts as a ‘cholagogue’; it stimulates bile production (Chaturvedy, 2009). Bile increases the bodies’ ability to digest fats. Also, because bile increases the absorption of fats, it also increases the absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K.
7. Protects the Cardiovascular System
Curcumin has a number of benefits to the cardiovascular system as well. The two main benefits are, firstly, that it can help prevent or lessen the effects of cardiac injuries, such as heart failures, possibly because of its potent anti-inflammatory properties, and secondly, it can protect against the development of atherosclerosis.
First, curcumin has been shown in clinical trials to protect against injury to the cardiovascular system. Singletary’s review points to the multiplicity of studies done on animals that show the protective effects of curcumin on the cardiovascular system.
Several studies on animals have shown that it protects the heart from damage following cardiac ischemia (decreased blood and oxygen flow to the heart). In addition, several studies on mice showed that curcumin did more than limit damage, but prevented induced conditions such as cardiac hypertrophy (thickening of the heart), inflammation, and heart failure (Singletary, 2010, p.219). Curcumin protects the heart against damage and limits damage if it comes.
Second, curcumin prevents the development of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries whereby plaques of fatty material build up on the inner wall, restricting blood flow. Atherosclerosis is dangerous because it can lead to a number of illnesses that relate to the arteries, most notably coronary heart disease, the most common cause of death in the UK and US.
The positive effect of curcumin is backed up by animal trials: a study of 18 atherosclerotic rabbits given low-dose turmeric extract demonstrated that it decreased the effects of the disease (Akram et al., 2010, p.68).
8. Maintains Eye Health
Curcumin’s antioxidant properties are further highlighted by some promising research looking into its positive benefits in maintaining the health of the eye. As we age, as with all parts of the body, free radical damage takes its toll on the eye.
Research has shown that curcumin could help with preventing the onset of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This is because AMD is the result of certain retinal cells, which are vulnerable to free radicals, functioning improperly. In this study, retinal cells subjected to oxidative conditions were treated with curcumin, which protected the cells by increasing the level of antioxidant enzyme (see Woo et al., 2003).
Further, it has been reported that in addition to AMD, curcumin may have potential benefits in treating the symptoms of dry eye disease, a condition that occurs when tear glands do not produce enough tears, (see Chen et al., 2010), and even diabetic retinopathy (see Mrudula et al., 2007), a complication of diabetes. Curcumin is certainly helpful in fending off age-related eye diseases.
9. Alleviates Arthritic Diseases
Curcumin’s fantastic anti-inflammatory properties may have even more benefits. Research into the improvement of arthritis symptoms seems promising. Singletary’s review paper concludes that curcumin has the potential to improve some arthritis symptoms (Singletary, 2010, p.220).
Using ‘experimental models’ of arthritis (rats that model the symptoms of arthritis), scientists have demonstrated alleviation of arthritic symptoms. Rats given curcumin have experienced reduced levels of tissue inflammation, in addition to decreased expression of the ‘mediators’ of inflammation (those things that act in order to effect the inflammatory response when the body is under attack), such as certain cytokines (substances secreted by the immune system).
This research is significant because it demonstrates that some of the negative effects of inflammation can be counteracted with curcumin. However, a lack of human clinical trials means it is certainly unadvisable to self-treat for arthritic conditions with turmeric or curcumin supplements (though as we’ll see below, it won’t do you harm). Turmeric’s great, but it’s not a panacea!
10. Counteracts Mental Degeneration
Neurodegenerative diseases can be very debilitating. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common kind of dementia, and while we are some way away from finding a cure, research has shown that curcumin may have a positive impact on those suffering from the disease.
Curcumin has been shown to improve memory in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (see Mishra and Palanivelu, 2008), in addition to cognitive function generally. While scientists are unsure of the mechanisms by which curcumin has this effect, we do know that it’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties play a key role.
Things to Be Aware Of
Turmeric is non-toxic. As one review paper points out, curcumin has not only gone through toxicology studies in several species of animal with no toxic effects, human clinical trials at doses of 1-8g per day for upward of 6 months have also shown no toxic effects (Krishnaswamy, 2008, p.267). Turmeric, to the best of our knowledge, is a completely safe substance for anyone not on medication or with a pre-existing medical condition.
However, for those on medication, there are two main kinds of medication to be wary of mixing with high levels of turmeric or curcumin: medications for diabetes and medications that slow blood clotting. Although by no means conclusive, turmeric might decrease blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, possibly causing blood sugar to drop below safe levels. Turmeric may also slow blood clotting, increasing the chance of bruising/ bleeding for those already on anticoagulants, for example.
For those with medical issues, supplementing with curcumin or adding vast quantities of dietary turmeric may not be a wise choice. For most people, however, turmeric has no negative effects.
While we hope that you have learnt something about the numerous benefits of turmeric, if you remain unconvinced, remember, this article may only scratch the surface of turmeric’s potential benefit.
An article in the Indian Journal of Dentistry (Chaturvedy, 2009) described the benefits of turmeric as:
analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-allergic, antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, appetizer, astringent, cardiovascular, carminative, cholagogue, digestive, and diuretic.
Ensuing clinical trials will help to determine the significance of all these, but for those curious, there is a mountain of research to explore.
For the rest of us, why not just give turmeric a try? It really might make a difference to your long-term health!