Before, it sat on your spice rack – a splash of orange amid an unnecessarily full shelf of seasonings. The seal would still be on the unused bottle, which just gathered dust and took up space. But then people heard the health hype and started blending it into morning smoothies or sprinkling it into lattes and herbal teas. What spice are we talking about? Why, turmeric, of course. The spice has quickly become the trendiest ingredient in town.
Don’t believe us? Well, in 2018 turmeric goods brought in close to $330 million across America. That’s a rise of more than 600 percent since 2008, as reported by Nutrition Business Journal in 2019. And with Google searches of “turmeric” rising by three-quarters since 2012, word of the vibrant spice has spread like wildfire. Turmeric now fills the Instagram feeds of foodies and health fanatics and colors – or stains – the counters in many of our households.
Yes, the gingery spice is far from the modest base to a chicken curry that it once was. Turmeric has even migrated into recipes of nearly all food groups. Tuck into almost any meal at the moment – be it a juice, a soup or a salad – and turmeric could be in there warming its flavor and color palate. The spice is commonplace in health food stores, too.
But why has turmeric become so popular? Well, part of the reason is that scientists have published more and more research into its effects on human health. And, as it turns out, turmeric could well spice up more than just your Saturday-night curry. That’s because there are strange and unexpected health benefits hiding behind the spice’s lurid hue.
You see, there’s a chemical compound inside turmeric called curcumin. And scientists think this could be responsible for far more than just the spice’s garish color. In fact, curcumin proved to be useful in protecting against a range of chronic conditions. So the more we understand the spice itself, the better we comprehend how turmeric can help people battle these common diseases.
In its less-familiar fresh root form, turmeric’s stem – or rhizome – looks like its close relative ginger. A rough surface protects the root’s bitter, orange flesh that, like ginger, is sure to pack a punch when it comes to flavor. But you’re probably more accustomed to the spice as the dried, burnt-orange powder that chefs commonly dust into sauces and rub onto meats.
Historically, though, Europeans have been tucking into turmeric since travelers returned from Asia with it during the 1300s. And in India – the spice’s largest producer – turmeric has been giving Buddhist robes their burnt-saffron tinge for centuries. Traces of turmeric from 2500 B.C. have even been found close to the nation’s capital, New Delhi. So the naturally occurring garment dye has been coloring our clothes as much as our curries.
On its native Indian subcontinent, though, people use this significant spice for far more than its color or taste. For Hindus, then, turmeric brightens not only your clothes, but also your future. You see, Hindus consider the spice divine. That’s why they use a turmeric blend to color the string that hangs around a bride’s neck. Called a mangala sutra, the object signifies marriage, much like the ring in Western traditions. And in some parts of India, wearing the root is thought to ward off malevolent forces.
Yet turmeric is not only used in cultural traditions and superstitions. The spice has also found its place in medicinal treatments. For some 2,500 years, the spice has been a key ingredient in Ayurveda – an ancient Indian approach to healing still practiced today. Adherents believe that breathing in the vapors of burning turmeric can relieve congestion, for example. Plus, a pulverized form of the spice will apparently heal bruises and blemishes left over from skin disorders such as shingles and smallpox.
It seems that Western consumers are starting to catch on to turmeric’s medicinal potential, too. You see, taking a closer look at the curcumin contained within the spice, scientists have suggested that turmeric can provide more than just flavor. And it’s because of this exciting compound that turmeric took off in the wellness community. The Daily Mail even claimed the popular health trend as “nature’s wonder drug.”
Spilling out from kitchen cupboards into pharmaceutical boxes, the ground spice – also sold as a capsule – has been promoted as everything from a staple curry seasoning to a superfood giant. Restaurateurs even turned to turmeric-infused menus to give their foods a health boost. In 2018 The Independent also dubbed it the “latte flavor of the moment” – and perhaps you treated yourself to the infamous turmeric-spiced latte that Starbucks brought out in 2017.
But, whatever the form, the copper-colored compound continues to sell for the way it can help many conditions. So it wasn’t just 2017 that was “the year of turmeric,” as the website Refinery29 suggested. What’s all the fuss about, you ask? Well, just an ounce of the ground spice can give you 16 percent of your daily iron requirement – and more than a quarter of the manganese you need. And that’s not all. The bronzed spice also boasts a whole host of other health benefits that you may not have heard about.
For one, it’s a potent anti-inflammatory. In a 2018 interview, expert dietician Nichola Ludlam-Raine told The Independent that “turmeric contains curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.” Ludlam-Raine said this compound reduces the number of our white blood cells’ inflammatory proteins that often cause pain. And the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health suggests some studies show that the spice can suppress knee pain just as well as ibuprofen.
Turmeric might not just beat ibuprofen when it comes to those occasional aches and pains, either. After looking into hundreds of studies, leading ethnobotanist – that’s an expert on the practical applications of plants, if you didn’t know – Dr. James Duke found that the spice outclassed many pharmaceutical alternatives when it came to fighting off numerous medical conditions. And his conclusions attributed this primarily to the compound’s anti-inflammatory capacities.
“Evidence is accumulating that this brightly colored relative of ginger is a promising disease-preventative agent,” the 2007 edition of Alternative & Complementary Therapies – which published Dr. Duke’s study – reported. This was “probably due largely to its anti-inflammatory action.” That’s because chronic inflammation is crucial to the development of some common conditions, from heart disease to diabetes. Plus, curcumin can protect the body from insulin resistance and help blood sugar to return to a healthy level.
Curcumin may also be able to stifle the evolution of cancerous tumors. Researchers at the American Cancer Society have said that curcumin “interferes with several important molecular pathways involved in cancer development, growth and spread,” according to the Power of Positivity website. As it contains this compound, then, turmeric could potentially shrink or stop the expansion of cancerous growths.
In fact, turmeric’s performance in the treatment of many different types of cancer – including prostate, mammary, colon and oral – in animals compared favorably to its pharmaceutical alternatives. And it seems it’s not just tumors that turmeric can take on. The spice might protect your ticker, too.
You see, by improving blood flow and circulation, curcumin can act as an antiplatelet agent and can lower the build-up of plaque or LDL cholesterol – that’s the bad stuff – inside your arteries. The spice could even help diminish the risk of heart disease and defend against future cardiac arrests. So this super-spice fights diseases as well as tasteless food. But that’s not all.
Curcumin can provide a solution to troublesome skin. In fact, turmeric’s antiseptic and antibacterial properties target redness and reduce the proliferation of bacteria. It could well reduce your chances of waking up with a terrifying whitehead, too – or at least stop existing ones from getting any worse. So, we’ve seen that consuming turmeric can benefit your health. But who says you have to eat it?
Looking at its intense orange tinge, you might not immediately have thought about lathering your whole face in turmeric. But the spice’s properties could well make it an effective anti-acne cleanser. For best results – and to avoid staining your skin any more orange than your foundation already does – combine with apple cider vinegar and let the curcumin get to work on closing those pores. And at less than $2 a jar, turmeric would make a pretty cheap toner.
Turmeric can also tend to those dark circles around your eyes while it’s there. Los Angeles-based skincare specialist Courtney Chiusano told Eve in October 2018 that turmeric “stimulates circulation, which can help reduce puffiness and under-eye darkness caused by poor circulation.” Add spice to your skin and self-care routines, then, and you might just see big improvements to your complexion.
And better yet, the spice could well soothe the painful symptoms of the period that is likely behind many of these skin problems. You see, researchers found that turmeric could tame the mental and physical effects of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In a study that appeared in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, a sample of 70 premenopausal females took two daily pills of curcumin for the week preceding, and the three days following, their periods.
Researchers then compared these women to participants who received only a placebo drug. And after just three cycles, the mental and physical effects of PMS were significantly less in the participants consuming curcumin. As a result, researchers concluded that around 200 milligrams of the compound could work wonders for women approaching their periods. So, it looks like you can continue gorging on those curries when it’s your time of the month after all.
But turmeric isn’t just for health-conscious youths who spend their days in hippy eateries and street-side juice bars. No, curcumin can also apparently tackle many age-associated disorders – from glaucoma to dementia. According to some, in fact, many old-age conditions may well require age-old remedies – and timeless turmeric could be just the trick.
Arthritis is yet another disease that’s caused by chronic inflammation – though this time at the joints. But turmeric’s anti-inflammatory capacity could make it a powerful treatment. A 2017 study took 40 participants experiencing mild-to-moderate osteoarthritis symptoms and gave some of them 500mg of curcumoid and the others a placebo drug. Compared to the placebo group, the participants taking a supplement of curcumin every day for six weeks notably improved in terms of physical functioning and pain levels.
And while there may have been no effect on the stiffness of the arthritis sufferers in the study, curcumin could at least alleviate their pain. Yes, after reviewing a collection of similar studies, researchers Sunmin Park, James W. Daily and Mini Yang recommended the spice in the treatment of arthritis. They stated that their 2016 meta-analysis “provided scientific evidence that 8–12 weeks of standardized turmeric extracts… treatment can reduce arthritis symptoms (mainly pain and inflammation-related symptoms) and result in similar improvements in the symptoms as ibuprofen.”
The research paper continued, “Therefore, turmeric extracts and curcumin can be recommended for alleviating the symptoms of arthritis, especially osteoarthritis.” So if you know of any anyone with some tender joints that might need soothing, encouraging them to incorporate turmeric into their health regime might just ease the pain. And, as this study seems to show, it might even be as effective as the everyday ibuprofen that they’re depending on anyway.
This burnt-orange spice is a possible remedy for back pain, breast tumors, blood issues and even upset bowels, too. Perhaps most intriguingly, though, it may also improve the human brain’s functioning. You see, scientists are trying to ascertain if you can use turmeric to treat neurological disorders that develop through inflammation – although this time in the brain instead of the joints.
Take Alzheimer’s, for example. Dementia’s most frequent root, this is a disease closely associated with chronic inflammation. So it could make sense that curcumin, a natural anti-inflammatory, may combat the development of the disorder. Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert told The Independent that “studies where turmeric was consumed have found that curcumin can improve memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Studies have shown that curcumin can obstruct the growth of the brain plaques – known as beta-amyloid proteins – associated with Alzheimer’s. By damaging the synapses that allow our nerves to pass along signals, beta-amyloids are thought to be behind the decreased brain functioning and memory decline that the disease is well-known for.
However, there’s still a lack of evidence proving that turmeric can prevent Alzheimer’s. But scientists are nonetheless looking into the possibility of using the spice in both the treatment and the diagnosis of the disease. You see, where curcumin binds to beta-amyloid proteins, researchers think in certain circumstances curcumin could well illuminate the presence of these Alzheimer’s-associated proteins.
This exciting compound could also one day be used to help professionals identify diseases that are as tricky to diagnose – and fast to develop – as Alzheimer’s. For example, scientists are looking at the possibility of incorporating turmeric into the treatment of mental-health disorders thought to develop through chronic inflammation of the brain, such as depression and anxiety.
Depression is particularly difficult to diagnose. It is, after all, a condition featuring many invisible symptoms that can stop those suffering from the disorder from seeking medical attention. It’s important, then, that the treatment available is as effective as possible. So, where it can curb chronic inflammation in the brain, curcumin – like other antioxidants – could well calm the symptoms of depression.
Some studies state that turmeric can reduce depressive symptoms when administered as a stand-alone treatment – particularly when combined with fellow spice saffron. Yet others suggest that curcumin therapy is more successful when combined with well-established antidepressants. Either way, though, researchers are beginning to trial vibrant turmeric for its ability to brighten our moods as much as our foods.
And given that since 2013 cases of major depression in the U.S. have increased by one-third, this research is reassuring. So, as a potentially powerful protector of not only our physical but also our mental health, it’s clear why turmeric is being worked into well-being regimes and dietary routines everywhere. Remember, though, that most of the impressive health benefits detailed here come from the curcumin found inside turmeric.
And the exciting curcumin compound constitutes around only 3 percent of the spice itself. So it’s estimated that a daily dose of more than 20 500mg tablets of curcumin would be required to reap rewards. Imperial College London’s Dr. Francessca Cordeiro told CNN in 2018 that actually “in a curry, there’s only 700 milligrams of turmeric, [so] you’d need to eat 200 curries a day to get that therapeutic level.” Now, that’s a lot of curries.
On top of this, the human body finds it difficult to process curcumin. So, even if you were to gorge on hundreds of curries, you wouldn’t be taking in all that much of the good stuff anyway. You’ll probably face a much higher chance of harvesting those health benefits by starting your day with a curcumin capsule rather than a turmeric-infused latte, too.
And while these sorts of supplements can, as we’ve seen, prove just as effective as your everyday painkiller, they don’t come without their small print of side effects. If an effective curcumin dosage involves taking as many as 24 500mg tablets daily, then, your chances of suffering from some of their gastrointestinal side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea will likely be quite high.
Nevertheless, as the spice continues to prove that its aromas can alleviate more than just bland flavors, more and more research into the medicinal properties of the plant is appearing. “It would be very difficult to reach these levels just using the turmeric spice in cooking, although it is definitely a welcome addition to anyone’s diet,” Lambert said.
However you choose to consume it, then, this little spice packs a punch when it comes to both our mental and physical health. Relieving the pain and reducing the symptoms of a range of debilitating conditions, turmeric might well be a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a healthy lifestyle.