Turmeric (Curcuma longa), the main spice in the Indian dish curry, is argued by many to be the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Turmeric benefits are incredibly vast and very thoroughly researched; currently, there are over 10,000 peer-reviewed articles published proving turmeric benefits, especially one of its renowned healing compounds, curcumin.
This puts turmeric on top of the list as one of the most frequently mentioned medicinal herbs in all of science. The next most popular studied herbs include garlic, cinnamon, ginseng, ginger and milk thistle.
Turmeric comes from the Curcuma longa plant, which grows in India and other Southeast Asian countries. The dried root of the Curcuma longa plant is ground into the distinctive yellow turmeric powder.
There are several chemical compounds found in turmeric, known as curcuminoids. The active substance in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin is what makes turmeric a “functional food,” defined by the Mayo Clinic as “foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.”
The best part about turmeric? Not only is it well-researched, incredibly potent and historically significant, it’s also safe. Turmeric has very few known side effects, and the ones that exist are incredibly rare and generally mild. (1, 2, 3) Imagine saying that about most medications!
For many people, the formation of blood clots is a major concern. How do you develop a clot (also called a thrombus)? Blood clots form through a process called “platelet aggregation,” where blood platelets concentrate in one area and eventually clot.
Curcumin modifies an internal process known as eicosanoid biosynthesis. Eiconsanoids consist of four different molecules within the body that are involved in the natural inflammation process. It has been suggested that one reason that curcumin has anti-clotting properties is the way it affects the biosynthesis of thromboxanes, one of the four eicosanoids. (7) This same mechanism is one reason turmeric is an anti-inflammatory substance.
One combination lab and animal study conducted in 1986 even suggests curcumin may be a preferable treatment method for people “prone to vascular thrombosis and requiring antiarthritic therapy.” (8) However, this result still needs to be replicated in human trials.
Although few studies have been conducted on humans, dozens of research trials have proven that turmeric benefits include being especially effective in reducing depression symptoms in laboratory animals. (9, 10, 11, 12) These results seem to be connected to the way curcumin impacts neurotransmitter function through the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). (13)
To address this issue, the journal Phytotherapy Research published the results of an amazing, innovative study in 2014. The study took 60 volunteers diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) and split the group to determine how patients treated by curcumin fared against fluoxetine(PROZAC®) and a combination of the two. (14)
Not only was it discovered that all patients tolerated curcumin well, but they discovered curcumin was equally effective as fluoxetine in managing depression by the six-week mark. Combining fluoxetine with curcumin resulted in a slightly higher improvement, but it was not considered statistically significant.
According to the authors, “This study provides first clinical evidence [emphasis added] that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe therapy for treatment in patients with mild depression.”
Since that breakthrough trial, at least two other studies have observed the impact of turmeric’s major compound, curcumin, in patients with depression. The first involved 56 individuals (male and female), and the second involved 108 male participants. Both used a placebo but did not compare curcumin to any antidepressant, and both studies found that curcumin effectively reduced depression symptoms more than placebo. (15, 16)
Arguably, the most powerful aspect of curcumin is its ability to control inflammation.
The journal Oncogene published the results of a study that evaluated several anti-inflammatory compounds and found that aspirin and ibuprofen, two of the most common NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) areleast effective, while curcumin is among the most effective anti-inflammatory compounds in the world. (18)
This news should have reached every household in the world after the study was conducted, because inflammation is at the root of most diseases.
Increasingly common diseases today — such as cancer, ulcerative colitis,arthritis, high cholesterol and chronic pain — are all associated with inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin have also been studied as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, evidence for turmeric’s effects on Alzheimer’s patients is inconclusive; it’s not certain that turmeric can prevent or treat the disease. (19)
Several animal trials have been completed investigating the relationship of curcumin and Alzheimer’s. In rats, it seems that curcumin “reverses existing amyloid pathology and associated neurotoxicity,” a key feature of the progression of this neurological disease related to chronic inflammation. (20, 21, 22)
Some human trials have also been conducted. A six-month study in Hong Kong found that curcumin was very tolerable, but both the placebo and curcumin group experienced no statistically significant loss of cognitive function, so the two groups couldn’t be compared. (23) Similar results have been discovered in other studies, and researchers cite the small subject sample, limited study time and poor bioavailability of curcumin in the tested samples as possible reasons no effect was recorded reflective of animal study results. (24, 25, 26)
Today, scientists are still searching for a formulation of curcumin that is effectively bioavailable (meaning that the human body absorbs and metabolizes it) and that crosses the blood-brain barrier. (27) While it may be some time before human trials nail down the specifics, these findings are still incredibly promising for turmeric to improve cognitive health and overall inflammation.
Turmeric benefits include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that have proven effective in treating multiple skin conditions. Turmeric benefits for skin include increasing “glow and luster” of the skin, speeding up wound healing, calming the pores to decrease acne and acne scarring and controlling psoriasis flares. (28, 29, 30, 31)
Try my Turmeric Face Mask for Glowing Skin. Just keep in mind that turmeric can stain the skin and it may cause an allergic reaction. Do a patch test by applying a dime-size amount to your forearm. Then, wait 24–48 hours to check for any reaction before applying turmeric to your face.
Because curcumin is known for its powerful anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing characteristics, a study was conducted on 45 rheumatoid arthritis patients to compare the benefits of curcumin in turmeric to the arthritis drug diclofenac sodium (an NSAID), which put people at risk of developing leaky gut and heart disease.
The study split these volunteers into three groups: curcumin treatment alone, diclofenac sodium alone, and a combination of the two. The results of the trial were eye-opening:
The curcumin group showed the highest percentage of improvement in overall [Disease Activity Score] scores and these scores were significantly better than the patients in the diclofenac sodium group. More importantly, curcumin treatment was found to be safe and did not relate with any adverse events. Our study provides the first evidence for the safety and superiority of curcumin treatment in patients with active RA, and highlights the need for future large-scale trials to validate these findings in patients with RA and other arthritic conditions.
Published by Phytotherapy Research in 2012, the results of this study have encouraged more human research to evaluate the amazing effects curcumin-rich plants like turmeric have on people suffering from various different types of arthritis. (33)
A review of available randomized, controlled trials confirmed that, of the eight studies available fitting the criteria, “these RCTs provide scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric extract (about 1000 mg/day of curcumin) in the treatment of arthritis.” The trials also had a very low risk of bias, which means that it’s unlikely the results were skewed by the researchers. (34)
While arthritis cannot be cured, it seems that a high dose of curcumin can be just as (or more) effective than at least the most common medication prescribed for the condition.
Of all the various topics scientists have tackled in regards to curcumin and disease reversal, cancer (of various types) is one of the most thoroughly researched topics. In the words of global authorities like Cancer Research UK: (35)
A number of laboratory studies on cancer cells have shown that curcumin does have anticancer effects. It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing. It has the best effects on breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and skin cancer cells.
A July 2017 animal study by researchers at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute found that curcumin may even be able to break through chemo-resistance in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. (36)
Doctors commonly face the challenge of patients initially responding to chemotherapeutic drugs and then later developing resistance. Curcumin appears to re-sensitize these patients’ cancer cells to the drugs, although the exact mechanisms of curcumin’s chemo-sensitization remain ambiguous. Study author, Ajay Goel, PhD, director of gastrointestinal research and translational genomics and oncology at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, stated: (37)
Food-based botanicals have the potential to restore a healthier gene expression in patients but without the toxicity of certain drugs.
The bottom line? Turmeric benefits include helping the body naturally treat cancer such as breast cancer, colon cancer and skin cancer. It may also help with chemotherapy resistance in patients with PDAC.
In 2009, Biochemistry and Biophysical Research Communications published a lab study out of Auburn University that explored the potential of curcuminoids to lower glucose levels. The study discovered that curcumin in turmeric is literally 400 times more potent than metformin (a common diabetes drug) in activating the enzyme AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase). One compound produced by fermentation of curcumin, tetrahydrocurcumin, activated AMPK up to 100,000 times more than metformin in certain cells! (38)
AMPK activation is considered by researchers to be a “therapeutic target” for type 2 diabetes, meaning that figuring out how to activate this enzyme has major potential for developing more effective treatments for reducing insulin resistance and reversing diabetes. (39)
Other mechanisms by which turmeric may effectively reduce or reverse diabetes symptoms is related to its anti-inflammatory action. Multiple meta-analyses have confirmed that curcumin from turmeric significantly lower inflammatory markers including TNF-α and IL-6, both of which are associated with diabetes. (40, 41)
One of the most common complications of diabetes is damage to nerves known as diabetic neuropathy, which takes several forms and can cause serious symptoms throughout the body from muscle weakness to blindness. A study in rats found that supplementing with curcumin significantly reduced diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain (typically localized to feet, legs, arms and hands). (42)
Diabetic neuropathy can also lead to kidney failure. A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials confirmed that, in animals, curcumin protects the kidneys of diabetic subjects from the damage of diabetic nephropathy. (43)
A study published in the journal Biofactors showed that curcumin may help reduce proliferation (growth) of fat cells, based on lab results. The researchers found that the anti-inflammatory properties in curcumin were effective at suppressing the inflammatory processes of obesity, therefore helping to reduce obesity and its “adverse health effects.” (44)
An in-depth analysis of all the studies evaluating curcumin’s ability to manage ulcerative colitis (UC) found that one very well-designed trial tested curcumin plus mesalazine (the typical NSAID prescribed for this condition) against placebo plus mesalazine. Patients taking only placebo and mesalazine were over four times more likely to experience a relapse or flare-up of ulcerative colitis during the six months of the study, suggesting that turmeric benefits may include helping to maintain remission of this chronic disease. (45)
One small pilot study investigated the benefit of curcumin supplementation for patients with UC and patients with Crohn’s disease. Although the sample size was very small, all of the UC patients and four out of five Crohn’s patients had marked improvements over two months, suggesting the need for additional research. (46)
For many patients with inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs) reduce pain symptoms but damage the intestinal lining over time, actually making the condition worse. That’s why these medications can’t be used long-term and are only meant to initiate remission. (47)
However, supplementing with curcumin did not have these side effects in either above study and, because of its anti-inflammatory properties, likely helped heal the gut and support the growth of good bacteria (probiotics).
One of the reasons heart disease is such a problem in the U.S. is that people are developing pre-diabetes (high blood sugar) at an alarming rate.
In turn, diabetics and non-diabetics alike are suffering from oxidative stress, which damages the inside of blood vessels. Because of this damage to the arteries, cholesterol begins to build up plaque to patch up the damaged areas, which leads to high levels of LDL cholesterol. (48)
Traditionally, statin drugs used to manage cholesterol (like atorvastatin, brand name Lipitor) are widely known to harm the kidneys and liver and cause a number of deadly side effects. They do bring cholesterol down, but they never address the actual cause, which is oxidative stress caused by high blood sugar levels and inflammation.
Thankfully, medical doctors are becoming more and more aware of the dangerous side effects of statin drugs and prescribing natural alternatives like curcumin and fish oil instead.
A study done by Drugs in R & D found that curcumin was comparable to atorvastatin at reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the treatment of high cholesterol in humans. (49) This was a follow-up on prior animal research finding similar results. (50)
However, a 2014 meta-analysis concluded that curcumin had no effect overall on blood cholesterol (together or split into LDL vs. HDL) or on triglycerides. The study author noted that these results may be due to short study durations and poor bioavailability of the studied curcumin formulations. (51)
One of the more widely accepted properties of curcumin in scientific communities is its ability to manage pain.
In early 2014, the European Journal of Pharmacology published research that discovered curcumin naturally activates the opioid system in diabetic rats. Typically manipulated by drugs, this natural process serves as the body’s inherent pain-relieving response. (42)
It’s not just diabetic pain that curcumin from turmeric benefits, though. Other breakthrough studies and reviews (some in animals, others in humans) have found that curcumin may be beneficial for:
Interestingly, the brain-balancing impact of curcumin may even help reduce pain-induced depression. A 2011 study in animals found that a high dose of curcumin relieved the subjects of depressive behavioral issues related to pain. (59)
These results suggest that turmeric is definitely on a short list of potent natural painkillers.
An important benefit of turmeric is its ability to detoxify the body. Every day, you are likely exposed to environmental and dietary toxins known as xenobiotics. These chemical substances and not generally present in the human body and are often associated with increased amounts of inflammation and higher risk of cancer.
Most detoxification of xenobiotics takes place within the liver in two phases: Phase I and Phase II. However, many people, particularly in the Western world, are so overexposed to these toxins that the liver is strained to the point of functioning at less-than-optimum levels. Several plant foods seem to aid the body in maintaining its natural detoxification rhythms and help the liver to operate correctly, and turmeric is one of the major players. Other common detoxifying plant foods include cruciferous vegetables (broccoli sprouts, kale, and many more), garlic, onions and citrus peel. (60)
It seems that consumption of turmeric and its active compound, curcumin, can help the liver efficiently detoxify the body and alleviate some of the effects of dangerous carcinogens. (61) This process operates in tandem with the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions of turmeric. (62)
Why do I believe turmeric is arguably the most powerful medicinal compound in the world? Yes, it’s backed by over 10,000 peer-reviewed studies, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that turmeric has been used in ancient medicine practices much further back than modern science records. The timeless principles of natural medicine practices in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda are much of what has led modern scientists to document the mechanisms of valuable spices and herbs like turmeric.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine, practitioners refer to turmeric as a “warming spice,” but it first acts by “cooling” and “drying” the body in the short-term.
Depending on which Ayurvedic dosha you are classified as, a practitioner may prescribe it for long periods of time or short, because it may be “slightly increasing” or “slightly reducing” for different doshas. (63)
Often, turmeric will be prescribed to patients experiencing stagnation of the blood and Qi. Conditions caused by these issues include things like menstrual pain, traumatic injury, enlargement of the liver or spleen, liver cirrhosis and bleeding disorders. Some Chinese medicine doctors will suggest turmeric for conditions such as seizures, derangement, epilepsy or mania.
Eastern medicine focuses a lot on the combinations of different elements. Many modern scoffers will claim that curcumin and turmeric claims are extreme and unhelpful because of how little turmeric is absorbed into the body after eating. (65, 66) However, those of us who take the time to learn find that turmeric absorption varies greatly due to what you consume it with.
For example, in both TCM and Ayurveda, turmeric is supposed to be consumed with beneficial fats (like coconut oil) and black pepper. Does that sound arbitrary to you? It’s not! Actually, scientists have confirmed that taking turmeric along with both healthy fats and black pepper (tested individually) greatly increases the absorption of turmeric (and subsequently, curcumin) in the body. Both of these processes make sense, as turmeric is fat-soluble and the piperine in black pepper stimulates digestive enzymes and reduces inflammation associated with the quick breakdown of turmeric in the body. (67, 68)
Turmeric herb is one of the top nutrients in the world. There’s a reason it’s been used throughout history by some of the most effective healthcare providers in the world.
Twelve of the best turmeric benefits include:
Practitioners in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have been prescribing turmeric for centuries, knowing the power of turmeric benefits. Over 10,000 peer-reviewed studies exist examining its effectiveness for a huge number of issues thanks to all the wonderful turmeric benefits.
I highly recommend using turmeric in recipes and perhaps even purchasing it in supplement form to take advantage of turmeric benefits. Make sure to add only organic turmeric to your food, and finding a high-quality turmeric supplement made from organic turmeric, coupled with black pepper and preferably prepared by fermentation. This way you can ensure you’re getting the best turmeric benefits possible.
Turmeric side effects are rare and mostly limited. Pregnant women should not take turmeric, as it may induce uterine contractions, but most others should be able to safely take recommended doses. Pay attention to any possible side effects and discuss them with your naturopath or integrative practitioner.
This article is from DrAxe and written by Dr. Josh Axe.
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