This ancient panacea shines under the lens of modern research. Studies have confirmed its ability to ward off brain disease, cancer, digestive disorders and much more.
Lance Roehrig couldn’t do without turmeric.
When an accident left his partner with a large leg abrasion, the conventional antimicrobial ointment a doctor prescribed didn’t heal the wound. Roehrig, a Denver clinical Ayurvedic specialist and instructor for the California College of Ayurveda, substituted a homemade paste composed of powdered turmeric, an herbal formula called triphala, rosewater and a little honey. The wound healed so much faster that, at the next appointment, the doctor advised he continue applying the herbs.
Roehrig counts turmeric as the most important herb in his medicine chest. Why? “It’s safe and considered a panacea, one that’s helpful for most any condition and for all constitutions,” he says. Indeed, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine (an ancient Indian healing system) have long recommended turmeric for a variety of ailments, including infectious illnesses, cancer, arthritis, musculoskeletal pain, liver disease and indigestion. Roehrig adds that yogis have long consumed turmeric to help them bend into poses and repair injuries.
Like ginger, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the Zingiberaceae family. This perennial grows in India, Southeast Asia and other tropical regions. Its rhizomes, or fleshy underground stems, are used as a spice (a key ingredient in curry) and medicine. Turmeric’s biologically active chemicals include curcuminoids, which produce the yellow pigment, as well as volatile oils, which create the characteristic aroma.
Traditionally, whole turmeric rhizome, dried or fresh, is taken internally or applied topically as powders, pastes and turmeric-infused oils for skin ailments (wounds, inflammation, infection). Most research focuses on extracts concentrated for curcuminoids, particularly curcumin.
“Curcumin has many beneficial pharmacological effects which include, but are not limited to, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, anti-cancer, and protection against nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,” says Debasish Bandyopadhyay, an assistant professor of research in the chemistry department at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, and the author of a 2014 review paper on curcumin. Here’s a snapshot of the research-backed benefits of curcumin.
Osteoarthritis (OA), which results from wear and tear on joints, commonly accompanies advancing age. At least three studies show curcumin products (specially formulated to enhance bioavailability) taken for two to three months reduce pain, improve function and minimize reliance on pain medications. In two studies of knee OA, curcumin worked on par with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), the overuse of which can cause stomach upset and intestinal damage. Combining turmeric with other anti-inflammatory herbs, such as boswellia and ginger, also helps improve symptoms.
Curcumin also appears to ameliorate rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder. One study compared curcumin with the drug diclofenac (Voltaren) and found curcumin to be more effective.
In lab studies, curcumin lowers blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats); discourages oxidation of LDL cholesterol (a chemical reaction that renders this cholesterol more harmful to the arteries); and inhibits platelets, thereby reducing the risk of clots forming within blood vessels. One study found that taking 4 grams of curcuminoids a day for several days before and after coronary artery bypass surgery reduced the risk of in-hospital heart attack.
Curcuminoids aren’t well absorbed from the intestinal tract, making them potentially useful against bowel inflammation and colon cancer. IBD includes ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory condition of the large intestine) and Crohn’s disease (which primarily affects the end of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine). When people with ulcerative colitis added curcumin to conventional medication, they extended their time to relapse. When a small group of children and teens 11 to 18 years old with IBD added curcumin to conventional medication, they all tolerated the combo well, and half of them improved significantly.
Turmeric reduced indigestion after meals and improved symptoms of IBS, a condition characterized by abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Turmeric gels and mouthwashes have been recommended to maintain oral health and combat conditions such as gingivitis (gum inflammation). A mouthwash containing turmeric was as effective as a conventional mouthwash (chlorhexidine) at improving gingivitis and reducing bacterial levels in the mouth.
Curcumin acts in several ways to reduce blood glucose (sugar) levels. In one study, taking curcumin for three months reduced blood glucose in overweight and obese people with type 2 diabetes. In addition, curcumin supplements taken for nine months reduced the risk that people at high risk for type 2 diabetes actually developed the disease.
Turmeric is traditionally used to fight skin infections and dress wounds. Lab research shows a range of antimicrobial effects. In lab studies, curcumin inhibits a number of bacteria (including Staphylococcus aureus, S. epidermidis, E. coli and Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera); viruses (influenza, parainfluenza, herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, respiratory syncytial virus, human papilloma virus, hepatitis B and C viruses); and fungi (Cryptococcus neoformans, Candida albicans and dermatophytes, a group of fungi that can infect the skin). Test-tube studies show that curcumin has activity against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and acts synergistically with several antibiotics. It may, however, interfere with the ability of ciprofloxacin (Cipro) to fight Salmonella infections.
Mastitis, or inflammation of the breast, plagues one-third of breastfeeding women. A topical curcumin cream applied every eight hours for three days significantly eased breast pain and redness in a group of Iranian women with moderately severe mastitis.
In a study of 21 people with moderate-to-severe psoriasis (a condition that causes patches of thickened, red skin with silvery scales), oral turmeric extract augmented visible light phototherapy. In another study, a 1 percent curcumin gel resolved the plaques of psoriasis faster than a conventional drug (calcipotriol).
Compared with the U.S., the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is relatively low in India (specifically, 4 percent of people 80 years and older in a region of India versus almost 16 percent in northwestern Pennsylvania), where turmeric is a ubiquitous spice. In lab studies, curcumin inhibits the formation of beta-amyloid (a misshapen protein that gums up the spaces between brain cells in AD). Experiments also suggest that curcumin may help protect against Parkinson’s disease and inhibit the growth of brain tumors.
Human brain studies are scarce. In one of the few conducted, a group of people older than 60 with prediabetes ingested turmeric with breakfast and saw enhanced working memory. (Diabetes and prediabetes increase the risk of cognitive impairment, including reduced memory, problem-solving skills and ability to concentrate.) However, when 30 people with AD consumed 2 or 4 grams a day of curcumin for a year, they didn’t get better.
This area is a hotbed of curcumin research. “Curcumin possesses immense anti-cancer effects,” Bandyopadhyay says. “In a number of lab studies on various types of cancer, it prevents tumor formation, growth, invasion and metastasis [spread through blood and lymph].” It also inhibits the creation of new blood vessels that feed the tumor and stimulates cancer cells to die.
Plus, chemicals in turmeric (curcuminoids and turmerones) enhance immune system function. One of the immune system’s jobs, in addition to combating infectious organisms, is to destroy cancer cells.
Lab experiments show combining curcumin with some chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment improves outcomes. In addition, curcumin may counteract the resistance cancer cells often develop to chemotherapy. Tempering these exciting research findings is the fact that most of the research involves cultures of cancer cells and animals with cancer.
A July 2015 study noted that 12 clinical trials were in progress, mainly in people with colon and pancreatic cancer. Here are highlights from already-published human trials.
• A study of people at high risk for various cancers found that they tolerated up to 8 grams a day (at which point they started balking at swallowing more capsules). In a number of cases, precancerous lesions improved.
• Supplemental curcumin enhanced quality of life and reduced inflammation in people with a variety of cancers.
• In 160 people with several types of cancer, a relatively low dose of a product with improved bioavailability (Meriva) reduced side effects due to standard chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
• Curcumin supplements may help stabilize disease in people with colon cancer.
• In smokers (a group at risk for cancer of the colon and other sites), 4 grams a day of curcumin significantly reduced precancerous lesions in the colon and rectum.
• A preliminary study in women with advanced breast cancer found up to 6 grams a day of curcumin tolerable in combination with the chemotherapeutic drug docetaxel. Furthermore, the combo produced encouraging results.
In addition to the relative lack of human research, a few other cautions bear discussion. Lynne Howells, a researcher in the Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom, has published a dozen papers on curcumin and cancer. She sums up the research by saying, “Most of the laboratory-based evidence for curcumin does appear favorable, but we do have to be aware that there are limited reports of potential for adverse effects.” For instance, in one mouse study, curcumin promoted lung cancer. However, most other studies have shown the opposite. Howells adds, “As cancer is such a diverse and multifaceted disease, there are potentially some people who may benefit from interventions, and some who may not.” In addition, the ideal dosage isn’t known.
For inflamed skin, apply the juice from the fresh rhizome (grate it, then bundle in cheesecloth and squeeze onto skin) or use powdered, dried turmeric to make pastes and oils by mixing it with aloe vera gel or a skin oil such as olive or jojoba oil. You can make a face mask by blending 2 tablespoons plain yogurt with 1⁄4 teaspoon turmeric powder. If you’re dark-skinned, topical turmeric creates an appealing glow. If you’re fair, turmeric might temporarily make you look sallow. You might want to try a test patch before using it.
Fresh and dried turmeric are key ingredients in many Indian and Asian recipes. Dried, powdered turmeric has a mild taste and can be blended into many foods (even smoothies and—I tried this today—whole-grain pancakes).
For health challenges, Roehrig recommends encapsulated turmeric. Blend 10 parts turmeric powder with 1 part black pepper and pour into size 00 capsules. Start with 1 to 2 capsules a day (1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon). Build to 2 capsules at every meal.
Most commercial products concentrate curcumin. Take as directed. Because this compound is poorly absorbed from the intestinal tract and rapidly broken down, some manufacturers have devised methods to improve bioavailability. Formulations include combining curcumin with piperine (from black pepper) or a phospholipid (a compound composed of a fatty substance and phosphorus) or even making it tiny (curcumin nanoparticles). Another experimental product allows curcumin to be delivered into the lungs with an inhaler.
Used as a culinary spice, turmeric is safe. People in India and Asia have consumed it for hundreds of years. Because lab research shows that turmeric can stimulate uterine contractions, pregnant women are advised not to take medicinal doses (e.g., encapsulated turmeric and products that concentrate curcumin). Otherwise, studies lasting up to eight months in length indicate that supplemental turmeric and curcumin are safe. Doses up to 8 grams a day of curcumin cause only mild side effects, primarily stomach upset, nausea and diarrhea.
Check with your doctor before combining concentrated extracts with medications. Because curcumin can counteract high blood sugar, medicinal doses shouldn’t be combined with diabetes medications without medical supervision. Because curcumin inhibits platelets (cell fragments circulating in the blood that form clots), supplements are not recommended in combination with antiplatelet drugs (aspirin, Plavix and others) or anticoagulants (heparin, Coumadin). However, one study found that 2 to 4 grams a day did not alter bleeding times. Curcumin supplements may also affect the activity of liver enzymes that break down drugs, altering levels in the blood. Howells advises people with cancer to be particularly careful and to check with their doctor before combining curcumin extracts with chemotherapy.
Researchers suspect that turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties are the key to its ability to protect against so many diseases. Anti-inflammatory agents reduce the inflammation that occurs as the immune system does its job. Antioxidants counter oxidation, a chemical reaction that generates tissue-damaging molecules called free radicals.
Oxidation promotes inflammation and vice versa. Both accelerate aging and underlie most chronic human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Linda B. White, M.D., is a freelance writer and the coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore and 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them. The second edition of her college text, Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health, will be published in January 2016.
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