Using food as medicine is as old as time, but such so-called folk remedies often get a bad rap from the medical establishment. Turmeric, the yellow root commonly used as a spice in curry dishes, has one of the most extensive histories of all food medicines, and modern science is beginning to recognize its worth.
It’s most commonly used as a colorant, a spice and a preservative, but turmeric could have much more profound applications. It’s considered a rhizome, like ginger, and also like ginger, has international culinary and folk healing appeal.
Turmeric has been used to treat everything from pain to parasites, and researchers are finding even more potential uses. And with it readily found in spice aisles and produce departments alike, turmeric is an easy addition to your daily diet. Here’s what you may not know about this ancient spice and remedy.
1. It’s old— very old
It may be trendy now, but turmeric is far from new. It’s been used in food and as medicine for at least 4,000 years, first in India and other parts of Asia, and later in Africa and the Caribbean.
Researchers in India recently identified mineral remnants of turmeric and ginger on the cooking pots and teeth of ancient Indus River remains, suggesting a curry-like dish may have been eaten in one of the first urban civilizations.
Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, is credited with its numerous health benefits but was not identified until 1910. As science has begun to uncover the many potential benefits, this already common root has only become more popular.
2. It has science on its side
“Turmeric is one of the greatest, beneficial medicinal plants in the entire world,” said ethnobotonist, author and “Medicine Hunter” Chris Kilham. “It’s also one of the most researched medicinal plants in history.”
As of January 2015, there are nearly 5,000 studies and articles on curcumin or turmeric listed in the National Institutes of Health PubMed database, which is considered one of the top directories for medical research. Of course, not all of these studies prove definitive health benefits of curcumin in humans, but many offer compelling evidence that the root offers far more than just the beautiful yellow hue so commonly found in curry dishes and mustard.
3. It has many potential benefits
Researchers are testing the effects of turmeric on everything from achy joints to blood sugar management and finding various promising results. Among its benefits, it has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-parasitic, wound-healing and anti-malarial properties.
In human studies, the most promising results have been found in curcumin’s application in inflammatory disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, eye and skin conditions, neurological disorders, certain types of cancer, diabetic neuropathy and pain.
One recent study, published in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy, linked turmeric extract to the growth of stem cells in the brains of live rats, potentially paving the way for new treatments of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
4. It has positive side effects
While extremely high doses of turmeric or curcumin supplements have led to occasional diarrhea and temporary nausea, and daily doses of 300 milligrams of curcumin could impact the effectiveness of talinolol, a blood pressure medication, the side effects of taking turmeric and curcumin at normal doses and rates remain nearly all positive. This is in sharp contrast to many pharmaceuticals.
“Let’s say you take ibuprofen for pain,” said Kilham, who takes a curcumin supplement for pain when injured in the field. “There is a cascade— a downward cascade of negative consequences.”
For ibuprofen, that cascade may include kidney failure, or increased risk for heart attack and stroke if you take too much. For other drugs, the risks and side effects differ. These things “aren’t what you asked for,” Kilham pointed out. You sought pain relief, but these possible side effects are along for the ride.
“When you take turmeric for pain, however, you get this upward cascade of benefits you didn’t necessarily ask for,” such as anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidants, he said.
5. Getting more is easy
Adding turmeric and its potential benefits to your life is pretty simple: Include it in your cooking. The flavor is mild, and it goes well in many dishes, so don’t be afraid to add a lot. The few tablespoons found in most curries doesn’t really deliver much curcumin, which accounts for only 2 to 5 percent of the plant.
You can find it in more health food stores, and it can be chopped and easily added to vegetable dishes or smoothies. However, one shortcoming of curcumin is its poor bioavailability, meaning your body doesn’t easily absorb it. Research indicates adding a little fat (like olive or coconut oil) and black pepper could slow down how fast you metabolize it and enhance absorption.
Another option: purchasing a curcumin supplement. More of these supplements are on the market, but do your research to ensure you’re getting a high-quality product.
With a history that reaches back across the ages and a growing body of research suggesting its many health benefits, turmeric likely deserves a place at your table.