It’s the spice that everyone’s talking about – barely a week goes by without us hearing about another purported health benefit of turmeric.
The kitchen cupboard staple, widely recognisable by its spectacular golden colour, fast becoming one of the most researched plants in the world.
And with so many possible scientific and medical uses, it’s not difficult to see why.
Last month, the Daily Mail reported how a woman dying from cancer credited turmeric with keeping her alive.
Dieneke Ferguson, a 67-year-old from North London, was told there was ‘no hope’ for her after three rounds of chemotherapy and four stem cell treatments failed to halt the progression of her blood cancer.
She credits curcumin, a key component of turmeric, with keeping her alive, after she started taking 8g a day of it in tablet form.
And just last night, the benefits of turmeric were discussed last night in the Channel 4 programme Superfoods: The Real Story.
In the show, presenter Kate Quilton explained how she had fallen down the stairs last year and fractured two vertebrae in her back.
She’d had physio but had also tried to include turmeric in her diet in ‘as many weird and wonderful ways as possible’, after learning of its anti-inflammatory and healing properties
Now back on her feet, she was on a mission to try and ascertain whether the turmeric played any part in her recovery.
Scientists Kate met assured her it had – and advised viewers to eat 1.5 teaspoons of the spice a day.
So why is turmeric such a superfood? And how can you reap the most benefits from taking it?
WHAT IS TURMERIC?
Turmeric is the common name for the ginger-like, underground stems of an Asian plant, called Curcuma longa.
It’s best known as the yellow-orange spice used to enhance Moroccan and Indian dishes, where it adds a mild, aromatic, slightly bitter flavour and a vibrant, saffron colour.
Turmeric and curcumin are among the most popular herbal medicines as they offer many health benefits with few side effects.
WHERE DO THE HEALTH BENEFITS COME FROM?
The health benefits are due to its high concentration of antioxidant polyphenols called curcuminoids. Of these, three-quarters are in the form of curcumin, but medicinal turmeric extracts are concentrated to provide at least 95 per cent pure curcumin.
Turmeric is used to reduce inflammation, treat skin problems, boost general immunity liver function as well as to support weight loss – and these uses have a firm scientific basis (see below).
One of the main medicinal uses of turmeric is to reduce inflammation and pain.
While inflammation is beneficial in the short-term, to let you know when something is wrong, in the long-term it causes persistent symptoms in conditions such as osteoarthritis, psoriasis and ulcerative colitis.
Turmeric suppresses the production of various inflammatory chemicals to relieve conditions such as joint pain and psoriasis.
One particularly crucial fact is that turmeric/curcumin can suppress an inflammatory chemical called TNF-alpha.
This is astonishing, as this same molecule is the target of new drugs – known as TNF antibody drugs – used to treat osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and ankylosing spondylitis.
As well as being expensive, these drugs must be given by injection. Curcumin is a natural alternative.
HOW CURCUMIN IS AS EFFECTIVE AS IBUPROFEN
Several studies suggest that curcumin is as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen for alleviating knee pain in osteoarthritis.
Both NSAIDs and curcumin work by reducing the production of inflammatory chemicals.
NSAIDs do this by inhibiting the action of two particular enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2.
Curcumin works via a number of cell signalling pathways, including COX-2 – each of which separately reduces the production and activation of different inflammation triggers.
This wider-ranging activity has the potential to reduce pain and inflammation with less potential for side effects.
What does the research show?
In a study involving 367 people with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis, half were given ibuprofen (1,200 mg per day) and the other half were told to take turmeric extracts (1,500 mg per day) in divided doses for 4 weeks.
Researchers found that symptoms significantly improved in both groups at 2 weeks and 4 weeks, and there were no significant differences in pain, stiffness or function scores between those taking ibuprofen and those taking curcumin.
However, the number of people experiencing abdominal pain or discomfort was significantly higher in the ibuprofen group than that in those taking curcumin.
The researchers concluded that turmeric extracts are as effective as ibuprofen for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis but with fewer gastrointestinal (affecting the liver, stomach, etc) side effects.
If you prefer taking a natural medicine, have experienced side effects with NSAIDs, or are concerned about their adverse effects on the stomach, kidney, liver and cardiovascular system, curcumin could be a good alternative.
Curcumin can also be taken together with painkillers to help boost their effectiveness so lower doses are required – or combined with glucosamine and chondroitin to produce a faster onset of action and improved results.
FROM HEAD TO TOE, HOW TURMERIC MAY BOOST YOUR HEALTH
Curcumin is a strong anti-inflammatory agent and chronic inflammation is the precursor of the vast majority of cancers.
Turmeric helps cells regulate their growth and survival, including the recycling of worn out cells, and the self-destruction of abnormal cells which have the potential to form tumours.
Turmeric is traditionally used to support weight loss. Curcumin boosts the metabolic rate of ‘good’ brown fat cells so they burn more fat as a fuel – this is one reason why you may find yourself sweating after eating a spicy curry.
The latest news is that curcumin also helps to regulate the production of hormones linked with obesity, such as resistin (which links obesity with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes), leptin (the satiety hormone) and adiponectin (a hormone involved in fat breakdown).
Curcumin has beneficial effects against skin inflammation by quenching free radicals, reducing inflammation.
In psoriasis, this helps to slow the over-production of cells that lead to plaque formation.
IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME
Eating spicy foods may worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, especially in women. However, turmeric is a traditional medicine used to relieve colic due to gallbladder spasm, and intestinal pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A study involving 207 people with IBS assessed the effectiveness of taking turmeric extracts (72 mg or 144 mg) daily for 8 weeks. IBS symptoms decreased significantly in both groups by 53 per cent and 60 per cent after treatment.
Their score for abdominal pain/discomfort score reduced by 22 and 25 per cent respectively.
THE GREAT CURCUMIN CONUNDRUM – HOW THE BODY BEST ABSORBS IT
Aside from looking at the health benefits of turmeric, last night’s Channel 4 show discussed another key issue – how best to take it.
The key problem is that when turmeric is consumed, as little as 1 per cent of the curcumin present in either food or supplements is absorbed whole into the circulation, or blood stream. This is because it is not water soluble.
The rest is absorbed through the intestinal wall and much of this – as much as 75 per cent – is excreted (you may notice an interesting discoloration on your toilet paper).
This is what I call the curcumin absorption paradox.
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF TURMERIC
1. ADD PEPPER TO YOUR CURRY
One of the easiest ways to improve the absorption of curcumin is to combine it with something that stops it from being metabolised in the intestinal wall.
What we want is to get as much curcumin into the circulation as possible,
In the kitchen, for example, you simply need to combine turmeric with a pinch of black pepper.
White, black and long peppercorns contain a unique alkaloid, called piperine, which blocks the absorption of curcumin through the intestinal wall. This can boost its absorption into the circulation by 2,000 per cent (a 40-fold increase).
I love black pepper and add lots to my curries, so it’s good to know I’m getting more than just the flavor benefits.
As it is fat soluble, adding oil will also boost turmeric’s absorption.
Try mixing together 1 tablespoon freshly ground turmeric, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and add to soups, stews, casseroles, curries or other dishes.
Fresh turmeric roots are available online from Amazon, if you want to use them fresh in cooking or prepare your own paste or powder.
2. USING TURMERIC POWDER
If using turmeric powder, ensure it is as fresh as possible to obtain the most benefits.
Ditch any old turmeric in your spice cupboard which has faded in colour or scent, and buy your spices in small quantities, little and often.
Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
3. SMART SUPPLEMENTS
In order to get the most from your supplement, it’s crucial you look at how it is formulated.
As mentioned above, it’s extremely difficult for many ‘bog-standard’ supplements to get absorbed into the blood stream, as curcumin is not water-soluble.
A good way to boost curcumin absorption is to mimic advanced drug delivery systems in which turmeric is suspended in liquid capsules to produce tiny nanomicelles.
These protect the turmeric from breaking down within the intestinal wall so it is absorbed 185 times better than powdered extracts – even those standardised to provide a high level of curcuminoids.
The research involving the nanomicelles was published in the scientific journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research and relates to Healthspan Opti-Turmeric: 60 capsules, £16.95. This formulation is also seven-times faster-acting than standard powdered turmeric.
This makes sense as many supplements rely on a specific delivery in order for their nutrients to be thoroughly absorbed.
For example, fat soluble and water-soluble vitamins require utterly different methods of consumption.
Fat soluble supplements, like vitamin A, produce better benefits when ingested with food.
If you’ve ever ignored that packet that says ‘don’t take on an empty stomach’, it’s time to re-think. Your body will thank you later.
The form of turmeric supplement you need will, to some extent, depend on whether you are seeking an intestinal effect (for example to treat irritable bowel spasm), or want to improve its medicinal effects on other parts of the body such painful inflamed joints, or inflammatory skin patches associated with psoriasis.
4. HERBAL TEAS
In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is often prescribed at a dose of two level teaspoons of powder, stirred into coconut milk, to drink twice a day.
There are also many herbal teabags combine turmeric with other herbal ingredients that have a complementary or helpful metabolic action.