Top 11 health benefits of turmeric
More than just an ingredient to add to a curry, this bright orange spice boasts several health-promoting properties. Jo Williams explains why turmeric is potentially good for us, while Kerry Torrens tackles the practical issues associated with benefiting from turmeric through our diet
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What is turmeric?
Responsible for giving curry its characteristic yellow colour, turmeric (curcuma longa) influences the taste, colour and nature of the food it's combined with. Long-famed for its health benefits, especially its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is a tropical spice that receives a lot of press coverage. It’s a member of the ginger family and the root of a flowering plant.
Turmeric health benefits may include:
1. It contains protective compounds, including curcumin.
2. Has anti-oxidant properties that may help the body combat inflammation.
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3. May potentially ease arthritis.
4. Contains turmerone, which may be useful for those with Alzheimer’s.
5. May protect against heart disease.
6. May help us fight off infection and possibly protect against allergies.
7. May help limit the growth of cancerous cells.
8. May lift mood and trigger the release of feel-good brain chemicals.
9. May play an important role in boosting memory.
10. May protect cells from damage, and reduce the signs of ageing.
11. May help treat indigestion.
Nutritional profile of turmeric
One tablespoon of ground turmeric powder contains approximately:
• 29 kcals/123 KJ
• 0.9g protein
• 4g carbohydrates
• 2.1g fibre
• 0.3g fat
• 196mg potassium
• 5.17mg iron
What are the top health benefits of turmeric?
1. Contains protective compounds
Colourful plants are good for our health, thanks to the colour pigments that are responsible for their bright hues, and turmeric is no exception. The key compounds in turmeric are called curcuminoids with much of the publicity around the spice being down to curcumin itself, which is the main active component and makes up about 3% of the root by weight. Although an impressive constituent, curcumin is just one of hundreds of bioactive compounds found in this spice.
2. Has antioxidant properties
The value of plant compounds, like curcumin, is that they help the body combat the damaging effects of a process called oxidation. Over time, this process may cause chronic inflammation and, as a result, lead to age-related conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Including antioxidant foods in our diet makes our bodies better placed to cope with ageing and the inflammation associated with it. It may also help with exercise-induced inflammation and potentially provide some relief from muscle soreness.
3. May help ease arthritis
Studies comparing the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric with those of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) have shown great promise. Animal studies exploring curcumin’s therapeutic potential as a treatment for arthritis have also been encouraging.
In fact, the most compelling evidence for curcumin lies in its ability to alleviate joint pain. Nevertheless, we still need more well-designed clinical trials to determine the efficacy of curcumin for arthritis patients, particularly those who rely on NSAIDS to manage their condition.
4. May support those with Alzheimer’s or dementia
Another active ingredient in turmeric is turmerone. Although less is known about turmerone, studies suggest it may be useful for treating conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease since it helps trigger cell repair and may potentially support the recovery of brain function.
However, these studies typically involve animal and cell models only, and because the active constituents of turmeric are often poorly absorbed in humans, more research is needed before we can establish how beneficial turmerone may be.
5. May lower the risk of cardiovascular disease
Studies suggest the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin may protect against some of the factors involved in heart disease, these include helping balance cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
6. May support the immune system
Curcumin may act as an immune modulator, by influencing important immune cells including T cells, B cells and 'natural killer' cells. In addition, curcumin appears to down-regulate pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines, its these that over time lead to the damage associated with inflammation. When consumed at low doses, curcumin may enhance our antibody responses, helping us fight off infection.
There are also some animal studies that suggest a possible role in controlling allergic conditions, including hay fever.
7. May help prevent cancer
Curcumin appears to play a role in helping us fight cancer. Active at different stages of cancer development, studies suggest curcumin may help limit the growth of new blood vessels in tumours, reduce the spread of cancer and contribute to the death of cancer cells.
However, it’s important to note that the research in this area is still very much in an exploratory stage and more evidence is needed before curcumin can be recommended for cancer patients.
8. May boost mood
Once again, it is curcumin that may be responsible for helping the spice lift our mood and alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. One study examining its antidepressive effects found that curcumin was as effective as the drug, Prozac.
There’s also a suggestion that curcumin may boost feel-good brain chemicals, including the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
9. May help with memory
Animal studies suggest that curcumin increases the levels of a brain hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps promote the life of nerve cells and plays an important role in memory and learning.
More human studies are needed to fully investigate these benefits, but initial findings look promising.
10. May reduce the signs of aging
Curcumin may help slow the ageing process by activating certain proteins and protecting cells from damage. In this way, it may delay the progression of age-related conditions and alleviate the associated symptoms.
11. Could help treat indigestion
A recent study looked at the effectiveness of curcumin compared to omeprazole, a drug used to reduce excess stomach acid and treat indigestion. The small trial found that patients had similar improvements in their digestive symptoms, whether they were taking tablets containing curcumin or omeprazole – or a combination of both. Further studies are needed to confirm these results and assess longer-term data.
Can I get these benefits from adding turmeric to my food?
When we add turmeric to our food its often to dishes that we intend to cook such as curry, heating the spice does slightly lower its antioxidant potential, although boiling or roasting appear to be better options than frying. Ideally, keep cooking times short and as well as including in a curry why not enjoy in a golden latte, soup, marinade or sauce?
It’s worth remembering that many of the studies assessing the health benefits of turmeric have mostly looked at curcumin only, and at relatively high doses. This means that despite downing turmeric shots and adding extra spice to our meals we’re unlikely to achieve a therapeutic dose. One of the reasons for this is that curcumin is very difficult to absorb and what we do absorb we metabolise and clear from the body very quickly. This is partly because curcumin has low solubility in water so combining it with an oil or fat-rich food, like full fat dairy or coconut milk, may help boost your uptake.
Another popular strategy is to combine turmeric with black pepper – this is because a compound in black pepper, called piperine, makes it easier for curcumin to pass through the gut wall and into your bloodstream and it helps slow down the speed you break curcumin down.
At adequate doses (20mg piperine/2g curcumin), this combined effect appears to increase the amount of curcumin available to us by as much as 2000%. The issue, however, is that to achieve this you’d need more black pepper than you’d use to season your food.
Is turmeric safe for everyone?
For most of us, turmeric is a safe option, however, there are some circumstances where caution is needed.
• If you’re pregnant, you should avoid taking medicinal quantities of turmeric. Recent studies on animals suggest curcumin may alter levels of the hormone oestrogen. However, enjoying the spice in small amounts, for example in a meal or drink, may be beneficial during pregnancy.
• If you have iron deficiency anaemia, avoid turmeric in high quantities. Compounds in the spice appear to bind to iron in the gut, making it unavailable for absorption and worsening symptoms.
• If you suffer from gallstones, bile duct obstruction or liver disease, you should be aware that turmeric increases bile secretion. Including large amounts in your diet may aggravate your symptoms.
• If you’re taking medication, you should refer to your GP or pharmacist for guidance. Those taking blood thinning medication, diabetes medication or PPIs such as omeprazole for acid reflux should take particular care with turmeric.
There’s still much to learn about the effects and interactions of turmeric. To date, much of the evidence has been drawn from animal and test tube studies with more research needed to evaluate its effects on human health.
Overall, is turmeric good for you?
This golden spice is believed to protect our cells from inflammation and damage, potentially slow down the ageing process, ease symptoms of arthritis and may even reduce the spread of cancerous cells.
However, while these benefits appear possible, they are limited by curcumin’s poor absorbability, and more research is needed to determine how this might be improved. Nevertheless, regularly including the spice in your cooking may offer some benefits – aim to combine turmeric with freshly ground black pepper as well as some fat or oil for optimal effect.
If you’re considering any major dietary changes or are thinking about taking supplements, please consult your GP or registered dietitian to ensure you do so without risk to your health.
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This page was reviewed on 14 September 2023 by Registered Nutritionist, Kerry Torrens.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.