Rediscovering turmeric for health and wellness

Dr. Manoj Sharma-

Dr. Sharma is a Professor and Chair of the Social and Behavioral Health Department and an Adjunct Professor in Internal Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). He is a global expert in health promotion.

Most of us are familiar with the deep, golden-orange spice, turmeric, used for adding color, flavor, and nutrition to foods. The use of turmeric (Curcuma longa) can be traced back thousands of years and is still a key ingredient in foods particularly Indian and other Asian cuisines. Ayurveda has attributed numerous therapeutic applications to turmeric for treating a wide variety of diseases such as those of the skin, pulmonary system, gastrointestinal system, depression, hepatic disorders, aches, pains, wounds, and sprains which modern science is rediscovering.

It has been more recently that its active component, curcumin (diferuloylmethane), and its two secondary metabolites, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin (curcuminoids) have been isolated and their health benefits studied. Turmeric, as a nutraceutical, has been attributed to having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anticancer properties. In simple terms, the compounds found in turmeric neutralize free radicals generated from pollution, sunlight, etc., and protect human cells from damage.

Recent research shows that turmeric has anti-inflammatory activity that is mediated through an up-regulation of adiponectin (a factor responsible for maintaining glucose and fat levels) and reduction of leptin (a hormone responsible for appetite and other things that may be deleterious for the body if it is in excess). Consumption of turmeric has been shown to prevent some autoimmune disorders caused by inflammation, such as ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and esophagitis.

A recent 6-month randomized controlled trial was conducted to evaluate the antiatherosclerotic (reduction of plaque responsible for hardening of the arteries) effect of turmeric in diabetes patients. The results showed that turmeric intervention had beneficial effects on the high-risk population of diabetics.

Turmeric has been found to also possess anti-cancer activities through its effect on several biological pathways involved in cancer and its spread. Limited research studies found that turmeric was safe and somewhat beneficial in Phase I and Phase II clinical trials.

However, turmeric supplements are perhaps not a good idea. In essence, the use of turmeric pills, capsules, tinctures, or gummies is a waste of money and may even be harmful. While turmeric as a food additive has nutritional benefits, more curcumin is not essentially better, and excessive amounts can be risky. It can increase the chances of kidney stones, especially among those who have a family history. Turmeric supplements can also interact with several drugs such as blood thinners, chemotherapy agents, and immunosuppressive drugs.

The absorption of natural turmeric from food can be increased by adding black pepper while cooking. A substance in black pepper called piperine, when combined with curcumin, has been demonstrated to increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%.  This is a common practice in Indian cooking and is very beneficial.

So, we see that turmeric as a spice is beneficial for health and wellness, but it should not be consumed as a supplement. The use of turmeric holds promise for future research and practice in medicine.  More understanding of the mechanisms and therapeutic potentials of turmeric for health needs to be explored through more scientific studies. More research is needed, especially in the form of randomized controlled trials.




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