Curcuma longa (turmeric) is a natural spice that belongs to the Zingiberaceae family of flowering plants, similar to ginger. Turmeric has not only been used in the preparation of cuisine in the context of Indian culture, but also has roots in Ayurvedic (traditional) medicine dating back thousands of years. In recent times, turmeric has been linked to lofty claims such as being a “cure-all” for cancer and chronic inflammation, amongst other medical conditions.
As with many “functional foods,” or foods that may have additional benefits beyond their composition of basic nutrients, claims are often exaggerated and supporting evidence inconclusive. Such may be the case with turmeric, depending upon the source in which you find these claims. Much discord can be found in results of scholarly research on turmeric and its effectiveness for treating, or assisting in the treatment of various health conditions. Some of this deviation is due to the population that was studied. Some studies use cell models that are extracted from humans, while others may use rats or mice. Typically, these types of studies are able to produce more significant findings than stringent clinical trials using actual people.
So what’s the hype with turmeric? Studies using rats, mice, and human cells have shown curcumin, the primary phytochemical (functional molecule) has the ability to reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and even tumor formation. Therefore, from a theoretical standpoint, turmeric has promise for having similar effects in humans. Unfortunately, human clinical trials have been less conclusive in yielding the same results as the aforementioned models, calling into question the significance of curcumin’s effects. Some of the reasons human based studies have had inconsistent results are as follows:
Variance in dosage used from < 0.5 gram to upwards of 8 grams/day
Duration of clinical trial
Methods of studies
Laboratory values evaluated
Medical conditions of the population studied
The bottom line is that, despite inconsistencies, several clinical trials have found similar results as studies using less complex subjects. This means that when consumed turmeric presents antioxidant effects helping regulate damage caused by oxidative stress (a byproduct of human metabolism) as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-neoplastic (tumor forming) properties. All of these are desirable metabolic effects that combat the development of chronic disease.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) currently places turmeric on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. This indicates that the substance has low toxicity when used in reasonable quantities with safe administration. One important side effect of turmeric consumption to note is that it thins the blood. This is likely not an issue for healthy individuals, but may pose a health risk for those already taking a blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin. Beyond that, turmeric may reduce sperm motility in men, which should be a consideration for those trying to conceive a child. Other negative effects are mostly limited to minor gastrointestinal discomfort or upset.
In itself, turmeric has low “bioavailability,” or ability to be absorbed and utilized by the human body. Bioavailability may be improved by consuming the substance with fat, as curcumin specifically is fat-soluble. Other tactics include pairing with black pepper as it contains a phytochemical named “piperine,” which has the potential of increasing absorption by as much as 154%.
While expectations should be kept realistic regarding the ability of turmeric or its phytochemical curcumin to generate positive health outcomes, adding the spice to your daily routine may in fact assist you in maintaining a healthy body. Enjoy turmeric in stir-fries using curry, or supercharge your smoothie by tossing in a small root with some black pepper. Or, try this soothing golden milk recipe.
Turmeric has a potent flavor and may not be for everyone, but perhaps the traditional medicine gurus of India have been onto something in using turmeric for various ailments in Ayurvedic practice over the past thousands of years. Don’t hesitate to begin acquiring a taste for this ancient spice as a part of a healthful, balanced dietary lifestyle.