You’ve probably heard of turmeric: It’s a popular spice that’s often touted as one of the most anti-inflammatory foods you can eat. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its yellow color. It’s been used in traditional Indian medicine for thousands of years, and recent studies have confirmed that turmeric delivers a multitude of health benefits.
The health benefits of turmeric come from a compound called curcumin. Curcumin is a polyphenol, a type of compound found in plant-based foods. Polyphenols give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors and are packed with potential health benefits.
However, the curcumin content in turmeric is fairly low, only around three percent. Most studies of turmeric are conducted with turmeric extracts that contain higher levels of curcumin.
It would be difficult to achieve the necessary dosage of curcumin by just using turmeric in your diet. To experience the full effects of curcumin, you would need to take a supplement with a higher dose. Curcumin is also poorly absorbed by the body, but you can enhance its absorption into the bloodstream by consuming it with black pepper. So, if you’re eating curry, make sure to top it off with pepper!
Curcumin is also fat-soluble, so it helps to eat it with a source of dietary fat, such as olive oil, coconut, or fatty fish.
Evidence-based health benefits of turmeric
Curcumin is well known as an anti-inflammatory, which is reason enough to include it in your diet. But its health benefits go even further. Curcumin can help prevent disease, ward off cognitive decline, and may even slow the aging process. Take a look at some of these science-based health benefits of turmeric and curcumin.
1. Powerful anti-inflammatory
We hear a lot about the importance of an anti-inflammatory diet. Although short-term inflammation can be necessary to help your body fight off an infection, inflammation becomes a problem when it lasts for too long.
This long-term inflammation, also known as chronic inflammation, can disrupt normal processes throughout the body and lead to illness. In fact, low-level chronic inflammation has been associated with almost every major chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Anything that can help ward off inflammation can reduce your risk of these major diseases.
Studies have shown that curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Curcumin works by blocking a molecule that turns on genes related to inflammation. Its effectiveness is equal to some anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side effects.
2. Potent antioxidant capabilities
Oxidative stress is believed to be another culprit behind the disease and symptoms of aging. Oxidative damage is caused by free radicals, which are molecules that react with other molecules and cause chain reactions in the body.
Antioxidants stabilize free radicals so they are less reactive. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes these damaging free radicals. As an added bonus, curcumin also increases levels of other antioxidants that are naturally produced by the body, so you get even more of an antioxidant boost!
3. May improve brain function
Many common brain disorders, including depression, have been linked to low levels of a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF plays an important role in the survival and growth of neurons in the brain. This neuroplasticity—the ability of neurons to multiply and form new connections—is essential for memory and learning.
4. May help prevent Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common neurodegenerative disease and a leading cause of dementia, has no cure. So it’s important to keep your brain healthy as you age and try to prevent cognitive decline.
Inflammation and oxidation are both linked to Alzheimer’s disease, as are [low levels of BDNF.
Another key characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of proteins between neurons in the brain, known as amyloid plaques. These plaques first appear in areas of the brain associated with memory and other cognitive functions.
Research suggests that these plaques release free radicals that attack and kill neurons, leading to cognitive decline, but curcumin may help clear away the plaques.
Given the many health benefits of turmeric, it’s worth adding more to your diet to help keep your brain healthy as you age. Try a delicious turmeric latte on a chilly fall day! If you don’t eat dairy, you can use coconut milk, which is a great source of healthy fat.
5. Reduces the risk of heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Heart disease is a very complicated process with a lot of factors. Cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, diabetes, inflammation, and other risk factors all play a role in heart disease.
One of these factors is endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is the lining of the blood vessels. It helps regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, and other factors.
Curcumin may help counteract some of these risk factors. In particular, curcumin has been shown to improve function of the endothelium. A study of postmenopausal women found that participants who ingested curcumin for eight weeks experienced improvements in endothelial function, as did women who engaged in aerobic exercise.
In addition, curcumin’s ability to reduce inflammation and combat free radicals as noted above can also help improve cardiovascular health. A study of 121 patients who underwent coronary artery bypass surgery found that those who took 4 grams of curcumin, starting a few days before surgery, had a 65 percent lower risk of experiencing a heart attack.
You can further reduce your risk of heart disease by eating a diet high in nutrient-rich foods and cutting back on sugar and processed foods, which are inflammatory.
6. Helps prevent cancer
Studies show that curcumin can help protect against and possibly even treat cancer. Curcumin affects cancer cell growth in numerous ways: it can promote death of cancer cells, reduce the growth of new blood vessels in tumors, and slow down the spread of cancer. It may also prevent tumors from forming in the first place.
In a study of 44 smokers with abnormal glands in the colon that can lead to cancer, those who took 4 grams of curcumin daily for 30 days saw a 40 percent reduction in their abnormal glands.
While curcumin is not yet being used to treat cancer, the research looks promising and further studies are being conducted.
7. Improves arthritis symptoms
Arthritis is a common condition characterized by joint inflammation that causes pain and stiffness. Given that curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, it makes sense that it would help ease joint inflammation.
Several studies confirm this: In one study of 45 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, those who took curcumin showed more improvement than patients who took an anti-inflammatory drug. Even more importantly, the use of curcumin was not associated with any negative side effects.
Another study found that a complex containing curcumin led to improvements in mobility and lower levels of inflammatory markers in patients with osteoarthritis.
8. May delay symptoms of aging
Given that curcumin can help prevent heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, it has become popular as an anti-aging supplement.
Because many of the symptoms associated with aging are linked to chronic inflammation, it’s believed that reducing inflammation can slow down the aging process.
Worth adding to your diet
While taking a curcumin supplement is arguably the best way to obtain beneficial levels of curcumin, adding turmeric to your diet can help as well.
Make yourself a delicious homemade curry powder to take advantage of the health benefits of turmeric, along with other spices such as coriander, cloves, and ginger. It’s a great way to boost the nutritional value of some of your favorite recipes, especially during cold winter months.