Natural Medicine Cabinet: Health Benefits of Turmeric

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Known for its bright yellow color and warm, bitter taste commonly used to flavor curry, turmeric has long been used in ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines to cure a number of ailments ranging from arthritis to liver problems. Although this perennial shrub (native to Southeast Asia and a relative of ginger) can grow up to five feet high, turmeric's medicinal and culinary benefits are derived from its roots or rhizomes. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is responsible for this herb's healing powers. This powerful antioxidant has been shown to have a number of health benefits.

turmeric powder
Turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian curry, contains curcumin, which has a number of health benefits. Photo By Carlos Lorenzo/Courtesy Flickr. 

Arthritis: In addition to being an antioxidant, curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties, making turmeric useful for treating inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. An Indian study at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India found that curcumin can ease some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Patients participating in the study reported an improvement in morning stiffness, joint swelling and pain.

Liver cleanse: In addition to its antioxidant properties, curcumin also enhances the body’s ability to detoxify by increasing the liver’s ability to remove toxins. Studies have also found that curcumin can decrease liver cholesterol and increase the secretion of bile, which aids in digestion and the flow of toxins out of the body.

Cuts and Wounds: Because turmeric has antibacterial properties, when applied topically, this herb can prevent cuts and wounds from infection and therefore speed up the healing process.

Cancer: Like other antioxidants, curcumin’s ability to fight free radicals can help prevent certain types of cancer. In addition to helping the liver remove toxins from the body, curcumin can also interfere with the development, growth and spread of cancer. Human studies of turmeric’s ability to waylay cancer are only in the early stages, but past research shows that curcumin might be helpful in preventing breast, colon and prostate cancers. Although additional research is still needed, turmeric appears to have some positive effects on cancer.

turmeric root 
The rhizomes of turmeric produce a distinctive yellow-orange color commonly seen in curries. Photo By Howard Walfish/Courtesy Flickr. 

Brain health: By reducing a buildup of plaque in the brain, turmeric can enhance cognitive function and improve brain health, including preventing Alzheimer’s disease and even offering some antidepressant effects.

Digestion problems: Turmeric supports the digestive system in several ways. By increasing the flow of bile, turmeric helps to keep digestion on track. This herb also contains essential oils that can prevent gas. Turmeric can also help with more serious problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, causes the digestive tract to be inflamed, leading to symptoms of abdominal cramps, fever and weight loss. Because turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, this herb can reduce the weight loss and internal inflammation caused by IBD.

Because the body does not easily absorb curcumin, turmeric must be consumed in large quantities to experience curcumin’s health benefits. However, taking too much turmeric can upset the digestive system. Play on the safe side and follow these recommended doses for daily intake of turmeric, courtesy of the University of Maryland Medical Center.

For adults:

• Cut root: 1.5 to 3 grams per day

• Dried, powdered root: 1 to 3 grams per day

• Standardized powder (curcumin): 400 to 600 mg, 3 times per day

• Fluid extract: 30 to 90 drops a day

• Tincture: 15 to 30 drops, 4 times per day

For more on the health benefits of turmeric, read the article "Ancient Medicine."