Turmeric (botanical name Curcuma longa) is a member of the ginger family and with its distinctive bright orange colour, has been used as a medicinal plant for nearly 6,000 years. The part of the plant that is used is called the rhizome, which is an underground stem.
Turmeric is one of the most researched plants in existence. There have been thousands of studies on the medicinal benefits of this wonderful herb/spice. Turmeric has many different chemical compounds, but without a doubt the most researched compound in turmeric is curcumin.
Research has shown that there are over 600 potential preventative and therapeutic applications for turmeric, and 175 different physiological effects. With such a wide range of applications and benefits of amazing plant, this article will discuss just a few of its health benefits.
There have been many studies showing that turmeric has powerful anti inflammatory effects, without the potential side effects of non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, kidney damage, stomach ulcers, stomach bleeding. According to the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), each year the side effects of NSAIDs hospitalise over 100,000 people and kill 16,500 in the U.S., mostly due to bleeding stomach ulcers. More than half of all bleeding ulcers are caused by NSAID’s.
In a postoperative study comparing curcumin with phenylbutazone, a non steroidal anti inflammatory drug, curcumin was found to have a similar activity to phenylbutazone in terms of improvement of postoperative symptoms.
In another clinical trial, 107 patients with knee Osteoarthritis were randomised to receive 800mg of ibuprofen, a non steroidal anti inflammatory drug, or 2g of turmeric extract for 6 weeks. The results showed that the turmeric extract was just as effective at pain relief as the ibuprofen.
Aspirin is commonly taken for its antiplatelet activity, to thin the blood to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. There are side effects of taking aspirin that include gastrointestinal bleeding, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), tinnitus (ringing in the ear) and hearing loss. Although aspirin does have antiplatelet activity, it also decreases an enzyme called prostacyclin, which dilates blood vessels to improve circulation and inhibit platelet activation.
Studies have shown that curcumin has strong antiplatelet activity, without the effect of decreasing prostacyclin and without the potential side effects of aspirin. Research has revealed that there is a low incidence of cardiovascular disease in regions where turmeric is regularly consumed.
Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that do extensive damage to our cells throughout our body. In order to reduce these free radicals, we need antioxidants to destroy them. The antioxidant activity of turmeric has been studied for over 30 years. Unlike other antioxidants such as Beta-carotene, Vitamin A, C and E, turmeric also stimulates the body to produce its own powerful antioxidant glutathione, so turmeric increases antioxidant levels exponentially.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is a powerful antioxidant that is used as a food preservative to help stop fats oxidising and going rancid. Oxidation of lipids (fats) in the body is a major contributor to many serious health conditions. Curcumin has been found as effective as BHA in inhibiting oxidation of lipids – meaning that taken internally, it is one of the most powerful destroyers of free radicals produced by oxidation of lipids.
In a 1995 study involving 18 healthy men, turmeric taken for 45 days dramatically decreased blood lipid peroxide levels (levels of oxidation of lipids).
Liver and kidney protective
One of the main detoxification pathways of the body is via the liver. Every day we inhale and ingest toxic substances that the liver must metabolise and excrete from the body. It does this via 3 distinctive phases of detoxification. The process of detoxifying the body puts a lot of pressure on this vital organ. Turmeric has been shown, through its anti inflammatory and antioxidant effects, to protect the liver and to increase the phase 2 detoxification pathway. If this pathway is not functioning correctly, toxic substances are not excreted and are absorbed back into the blood stream where they can do damage.
The kidneys are also important detoxification organs. Curcumin has been shown to significantly improve renal dysfunction, reduce renal oxidative stress and has demonstrated a protective effect on the kidneys.
An animal study published in 2013 found that curcumin reversed damage in liver and kidney function caused by Type 2 Diabetes. Another study in 2012 published in the Nutrition Journal found that a low dose of curcumin over a 4 week period reduced levels of ALT liver enzyme activity, a marker for liver damage.
Turmeric can increase levels of Nitric Oxide, a molecule that helps to dilate the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure and helping to protect the heart. Another method of heart protection is via its ability to lower triglyceride levels, helping reduce plaque build up in the arteries, thus reducing the pressure on the heart.
The anti inflammatory properties of turmeric also help to protect the heart. Any damage done to the heart causes inflammation and reducing this inflammation is essential to allow the heart to repair.
Lowering triglyceride levels
High triglyceride levels are a major contributing factor to atherosclerosis, the build up of plaque in the arteries. A 2012 study published in the Nutrition Journal reported a lowering of triglyceride levels following a low dose supplementation of curcumin over a period of 4 weeks.
In a 2012 study, 120 overweight people with high triglyceride levels were divided into 2 groups. The first group were given 1.4grams per day of turmeric per day and the second group were given a placebo. After 3 months the first group showed a significant reduction in triglyceride levels, whereas the placebo group did not show a reduction.
There have been many studies on turmeric with regards to its anti cancer properties. In one such study, turmeric was given to 16 chronic smokers for 1 month, and their levels of urinary excretion of mutagens (carcinogenic compounds) significantly decreased. Those in the control group had no reduction of mutagens.
A 2013 study in China states that curcumin “… has been shown to induce cell death in a variety of cancer cells.”
Another study published in 2013 in the International Journal of Oncology investigated the impact of curcumin on killing cancer cells (apotposis) in bone cancer (osteosarcoma) and concluded that curcumin is “…effective in enhancing apoptosis in human osteosarcoma cells.” Because of turmeric’s low bioavailability, the researchers used water soluble nanoparticles of curcumin.
In a report published in Oncology Reports, researchers from the Dept. of Natural Science at Middlesex University have shown that curcumin and chokeberry induce cancer cell death and stop the spread of malignant cancer cells in brain tumours.
Another study involving people at high risk of oral cancer due to smoking demonstrated that 1 gram of turmeric for 9 months had a significant impact on the regression of precancerous lesions.
These studies are just some of many proving that curcumin has anti cancer properties.
Recent research has shown that inflammation and increased oxidative stress are both a driving factor behind depression. Although most of the studies so far regarding the antidepressant activity of turmeric have been animal studies, this is a very promising area of research.
Recent research has shown that high dose curcumin (560mg/kg) was found to be more effective than the antidepressant fluoxetine in animals. Smaller doses (140mg/kg) of curcumin in the same study inhibited monoamine oxidase, which is an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters.
Doses of 10mg/kg per day have been shown to produce a marked increase in serotonin and dopamine levels.
Alzheimer’s and dementia
One of the most exciting areas of research on turmeric has been on its effect on Alzheimer’s. A 2006 study has shown that turmeric can reduce the amount of beta-amyloid plaque in Alzheimer patients by 30%. Beta-amyloid plaque is believed to contribute to the underlying disease process of Alzheimer’s. Clinical trials of curcumin supplementation in people with early Alzheimer’s disease are currently underway.
India, where turmeric consumption is widespread, has one of the lowest prevalence rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world.
Strokes can lead to a lack of oxygen to the brain, causing brain cells to die and leading to vascular dementia. Recent research has also discovered that one of the chemical compounds in turmeric, tumerones, has the ability to regenerate nerve cells in the brain.
It needs to be noted that of the thousands of research papers on Turmeric, some of the trials use therapeutic doses of turmeric or curcumin and some use amounts that would equate to using Turmeric in cooking. It is difficult therefore in this article to differentiate between therapeutic doses and dietary doses with regards to Turmeric’s many health benefits. In saying this, there has been a lot of research that has shown that there are many health benefits that can be achieved from including this wonderful herb/spice in your daily diet, although the effects will obviously be more significant if taking therapeutic doses in either liquid or tablet form. It is always important to follow the advice of a registered Herbal Medicine Practitioner when taking any herbs in therapeutic doses and not to self prescribe.
For a great way to introduce turmeric into your diet, try my turmeric tea.
By Andrea Southern Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705