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  • Monika Getty

Herbal Spotlight: Turmeric

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a flowering plant in the ginger family native to India and Asia, whose rhizomes are used in cooking. You may have seen these knobbly things in grocery stores and mistaken it for ginger as it looks similar; however, upon cutting it open the bright orangey-yellow colour is a dead giveaway that it's turmeric. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry it's yellow colour and is sometimes used as a dye plant as well. It has been used for thousands of years in India as both a spice and as a medicinal herb.

The main active component in turmeric is called curcumin, which is also what gives it its colour. Curcumin has some major biological properties and is the compound responsible for most of turmerics's potential health benefits. Some of these benefits include:

  • Anti-inflammatory and Pain Relieving: While some inflammation is normal for repairing damage in your body, chronic inflammation is a concern and can play a role in some health issues, including heart disease, cancer, degenerative conditions like arthritis, etc. Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory, working by blocking inflammatory cytokines and enzymes, including arachidonate 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX) and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). in 2016, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that curcumin reduced osteoarthritis pain and inflammation as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like diclofenac and ibuprofen. Another study suggests that curcumin may even help prevent bone breakdown in people with rheumatoid arthritis. As inflammation generally causes pain, the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric can help to reduce it. One study showed that turmeric relieved pain in those suffering from arthritis in the knees as well as ibuprofen; another study showed that in the right dose, curcumin may be a more effective anti-inflammatory and pain relieving treatment than common medications such as ibuprofen and aspirin.

  • Antioxidant: Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals because of it's chemical structure. Free radicals cause oxidative damage and can negatively affect the fats, proteins, and DNA in your body, which may lead to a number of diseases and health conditions including cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Because of this, turmeric may play a role in protection from free radical damage. Curcumin in particular is able to scavenge different types of free radicals, control enzymes that neutralize free radicals, and prevent certain enzymes from creating some free radical types.

  • Lowers risk of heart disease: Curcumin can improve the function of the endothelium (the lining of your blood vessels), which plays a key role in regulating blood pressure. A decrease in endothelial function is associated with an increased risk of heart disease; therefore curcumin may help to reduce your likelihood of developing heart disease. In one study, researchers studying post menopausal women found that supplementing with curcumin was as effective as exercise at improving endothelial function. Another study involving those undergoing coronary bypass surgery found that those given curcumin for a few days before and after surgery had a 65% decreased risk of experiencing a heart attack.

  • Reduces cancer risk: Curcumin has been shown to affect cancer growth and devolpment. Some studies have shown that it can contribute to the death of cancer cells, reduce angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels in tumors), and reduce the spread of cancer (metastasis). Research in mice suggests that it may slow the spread of tumor cells and even prevent tumor formation. Curcumin may do this in several ways, including disrupting the formation of cancerous cells at various stages in the cell cycle, interfering with cell signaling pathways, and even causing those cancerous cells to die.

  • May help Alzheimer's disease: Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. Turmeric may protect your brain against it by increasing levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein found in the brain and spinal cord which plays a key role in keeping nerve cells healthy, as well as regulating communication between nerve cells which are critical for learning and memory. Alzheimer's is associated with lower levels of BDNF, so turmeric (curcumin in particular) may help delay or reverse brain degeneration. A main feature in Alzheimer's is a buildup of amyloid plaques, and studies show that curcumin can help clear these plaques.

  • May help depression: As in Alzheimer's, depression is associated with lower levels of BDNF, and because of curcumin's ability to raise levels of BDNF, it shows promise as an antidepressant. In one study, people with depression were divided into 3 groups: one who took Prozac, one who took curcumin and one who took a combination of the two. After 6 weeks, those that took curcumin had improvements similar to those that took Prozac; the group that took both fared the best. There's also some evidence that curcumin can boost the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

As with all things, always talk to a qualified health professional before supplementing with turmeric to make sure it is safe for you, especially if you're pregnant, breast feeding or are taking any medications. Side effects of turmeric can include an upset stomach, digestive disturbances, as well as a decrease in blood clotting (so avoid large doses if taking blood thinners or have a bleeding disorder). Because it can increase bile secretion, turmeric and curcumin should not be taken if you have an obstruction of the bile duct, cholangitis, liver disease, gallstones or any other biliary disease.

Turmeric has a wide variety of health benefits. You can easily add turmeric to your diet by including it in foods you eat; however, the curcumin in turmeric is not easily absobed by the body. You can increase the absorption rate of curcumin by combining turmeric with freshly ground black pepper (the piperine in black pepper greatly increases the bioavailability of curcumin), mixing it with healthy fats (turmeric has low solubility in water and curcuminoids attach to fat) and by heating it a bit (heat enhances the overall antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin and increases it's solubility). A popular way to incorporate turmeric in your diet is by making golden milk, which combines warm milk, turmeric and spices. It's easy to make, just follow this recipe:

  • 1 cup of unsweetened milk of your choice

  • 1 tsp of turmeric powder

  • 1/2 tsp of ginger powder

  • 1/2 tsp of cinnamon powder

  • 1 good pinch of freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 tsp of honey or maple syrup (optional, to taste)

Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a low simmer. Reduce heat and continue simmering for about 10 minutes (do not boil). Top with a sprinkle of cinnamon if desired. This can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for a few days; just reheat before drinking.

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