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Healing Properties of Turmeric

Health Properties of Turmeric
By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
Lots of people in “wellness” like to tout the healing properties of Turmeric, but how many of those claims are researched? Well, I did some digging to figure that out.

Turmeric, a relative of ginger, has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal spice and to add flavor to cooking. The majority of the plant is grown in India, where it is used as one of the chief ingredients in curry dishes. Most of the studies on turmeric’s medicinal properties have been conducted in test tubes or on lab animals, so keep that in mind when judging its medicinal abilities. That said, there are few risks associated with turmeric, which I will briefly mention below. The great news about turmeric is that it’s a relatively inexpensive spice, so it can’t hurt to add it to your list of ingredients. You can buy Turmeric as a supplement, but nine times out of ten, it’s better to get it from your diet.Turmeric’s healing properties are mainly attributed to its component, curcumin. Curcumin is a natural phenol that gives turmeric its bright orange-yellowish color, and, like all phenols, is shown to have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants inhibit oxidative stress by inhibiting oxidation reactions. When an oxidation reaction occurs in our bodies, it produces free radicals as byproducts. Free radicals start chain reactions and when these reactions occur inside our cells, they can create a lot of damage or even cell death.  Antioxidants act as reducing agents (meaning they get oxidized), thus inhibiting or minimizing oxidative cellular damage. This is an important concept, because oxidative stress has been linked to DNA mutations that result in cancers and other diseases. The role of antioxidants in heart disease, a number-one killer, is well known. When the cholesterol LDL is oxidized in our bodies, it triggers atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which decreases oxygen supply to the heart and results in heart disease. The reason so many people refer to LDL as the “bad” cholesterol is based on its ability to be readily oxidized.

When it comes to cancer, the healing properties of curcumin are broad. It seems to affect numerous transcription factors, enzymes, angiogenesis ( the birth of blood vessels that feed tumors), and molecular targets.  A very detailed summary of all of its cellular targets is presented here, in an article published by the National Institute of Health.

Curcumin also displays anti-inflammatory healing properties.  “Anti-inflammatory” can mean anything from disrupting signaling pathways to blocking an enzyme.The inflammation process is one big cascade with a gazillion and one players and reactions, which means it’s really difficult to identify all of a substance’s anti-inflammatory properties.  The key thing thing to remember is that although inflammation is a necessary process that helps our bodies recover from infections and injuries, it also is at the root of EVERY disease process known to man, as well as the aging process. The suffix “itis” means inflammation. Just think of all the diseases that end in “itis” to highlight inflammation’s important role in the disease process. This means an anti-inflammatory substance can potentially have numerous protective effects all over our bodies.The absorption ratio of turmeric is important since that determines how much gets into your blood stream to have a potential, medicinal effect compared to how much stays dormant in your gut. It was discovered that Piperine, an alkaloid (  chemical compound that demonstrates more basic than acidic properties), helps with turmeric’s absorption.  As a result, some health experts recommend taking turmeric in capsule form, since the manufacturers mix in piperine, thereby increasing turmeric’s ability to be absorbed.  If you don’t want to drop money on supplements, you can just as easily add pepper with turmeric when cooking, since piperine is in pepper, and the chief ingredient that gives pepper its spicy hotness.

 What are some other healing properties of Turmeric worth knowing? 

A randomized controlled trial showed that Curcumin taken at 180 mg/ day for 8 weeks signficantly improves osteoarthritis.  There are other studies showing that curcumin is significantly beneficial for osteoarthritis, a nagging pathology that affects a lot of older people and former athletes. Some studies show it works better than prescription medication.

Turmeric may help alleviate stomach problems, GI ulcers and has been shown to be effective against H-Pylori, the bacteria that causes a lot of ulcers. In animal studies, it’s been shown to protect the stomach against irritants.

Turmeric’s effect on quiescent Ulcerative Colitis, a type of chronic inflammation in the bowel, has also been studied.  In a randomized controlled trial, people who took turmeric for their ulcerative colitis had much lower relapse rates at 6 months than those who took a placebo.

Several studies have demonstrated turmeric’s antibacterial effects in test tubes, which may or may not translate over to the human body.  There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that using turmeric on burns helps them heal faster. Sometimes I mix it with 1 tsp aloe and put it on a sunburn for an added effect. Again, the healing properties of turmeric in regard to burns is not well established.

Research exists that suggest turmeric helps prevent the oxidation of LDL, thus lowering the risk of atherosclerosis ( clogged arteries) and decreasing our chances of developing heart disease. Turmeric also appears to stop platelets from clumping together, thus decreasing our chances of clot formation.  Keep in mind that its anti-platelet effect may prolong bleeding, something one needs to remember if  he/she gets hurt or cuts him/herself.

A small  study showed that turmeric was as effective as steroids, potent anti-inflammatory drugs, at controlling uveitis in the eye.  There are also numerous studies to suggest that turmeric’s healing properties play a preventive role in cancer prevention, particularly prostate, breast, skin and colon, although more research needs to be conducted to say that definitively.  I wouldn’t recommend ditching your prescribed medication for turmeric, but adding it to your diet isn’t a bad thing.

There is research suggesting that turmeric helps prevent Alzheimers disease, as it seems to directly combat the amyloid plaques that build up in brains of those suffering from Alzhemiers disease. A small study out of UCLA suggested turmeric and fish oil had a synergistic effect that improved cognition. Of course, this study was conducted in mice, not humans, and mice have less “glucouronidation” than humans.  That means that when humans digest turmeric, more of it is combined with an acid that makes it less likely to cross the blood-brain barrier and affect the brain at all.  ( Glucourondiation is the addition of an acid group, but this particular metabolic process is why it is hard to translate mouse studies into human studies, especially studies about the brain.)

Another study suggested turmeric induced neurogenesis in the hippocampus.  Research has shown that depressed people have depleted neurons in this area of the brain, so could it be possible that turmeric helps prevent depression? Maybe. It’s a hypothesis worth a study.

As a word of caution, there are noted turmeric-drug interactions, which is why you should always ask your doctor if it is okay to supplement with turmeric.  Especially check in with your doctor if you are on one of the medications turmeric interacts with. Turmeric can interact with clotting medication and blood-thinning medications ( Coumadin, Plavix, Aspirin) and increase the risk of bleeding.  It has also been shown to have a hypoglycemic effect, so it may increase the effectiveness of diabetes medication, and therefore increase the risk of a hypoglycemic episode. But for the most part, it’s a very safe herb.

Recently there were rumors that turmeric somehow made COVID-19 worse. There is no evidence for this. There’s no evidence for it helping against COVID-19 specifically, either.

I sometimes make turmeric tea, with fresh root. I don’t do the supplements. I peel the root, boil it in hot water and drink it. If you want to try this, add honey for added taste. It’s a good, healthy after-dinner drink.

Thanks for reading this guys! If you have any questions, please post them below or comment on one of my Instagram posts, since I see them first.  Also, check out my podcast, Causes or Cures, as there are some fantastic guests featured!  If you have a question specifically for me, send me a message. – Erin

 

Other posts to check out:

 

A supplement for Bulimia and OCD? 

This is the Best Honey for Your Wounds

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