Turmeric Is A Spice With Great Health Benefits Because Of Curcumin

Turmeric rhizomes, some cut in half to show their orange colour on a white background.
Turmeric. Photo: SOMMAI. Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • One of the vibrant colours of Indian cooking is partly due to the addition of turmeric, an ochre coloured spice obtained from its rhizomes.
  • Turmeric is rapidly acquiring a reputation as a very healthy ingredient and should be regularly ingested as part of your diet.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) or kacchi haldi as its known in India has long been regarded as a spice to help heal wounds, fight off colds and coughs and generally keep you healthy. Read on to find out more about this fascinating root.

The plant is a member of the Ginger or Zingiberaceae family. The spice is extracted from its rhizomes which form the roots of the plant. The plant itself is an erect perennial herb which grows in warm temperate and sub-tropic regions.

Cultural Uses For Turmeric (Kacchi Haldi)

The root has long been used in Indian and south-east Asian cooking for centuries not only for adding colour but for its health and therapeutic properties too. Indian mothers have long extolled the virtues of consuming the spice to their children for millenia and clinical research is backing up such claims. I am sure many Indian children have drunk a rather unpleasant concoction called haldi-doodh whenever they suffered bruises and abrasions on the knees or went down with a horrid cold. Never mind the taste (which is really awful), feel the benefit!

The History Behind The Use Of Turmeric

It was recognised in medieval times throughout Europe as an important colouring, long before its health properties were appreciated. Known as ‘Indian Saffron’, the spice produced not only a colour like ochre to food, but also lent its warming, slightly bitter pepper notes to meat which disguised it when it went rotten.

Ayurvedic, Unani, Siddha and Chinese medicines both use turmeric as a household remedy to treat a mix of infectious diseases, to alleviate the suffering of joint pain, to dress wounds and bruises and to reduce irritation from insect bites. A paste is made of this spice and applied to ease scab formation from various pox diseases. Turmeric itself has actives against parasitic nematodes and so also serves as an anti-helminthic drug. Extensive research underpinning a variety of treatments is reviewed by various authors, Chattopadhyay et al., 2004., Strimpakos & Sharma, 2008, Aggarwal & Harikumar, 2009; Epstein et al., 2010.

Turmeric Latte, or golden milk or Haldi doodh and Indian health drink.
Haldi-Doodh, Golden milk or a turmeric latte. Photo by dipalipix, c/o www.123rf.com

How To Use Turmeric

Turmeric is usually dried and powdered so that it is used a variety of recipes. The best way to use this ingredient is when raw although this might not suit everyone. We tend to have it as a powder but the rhizome is now available in shops and it is possible to grow it too.

To prepare fresh turmeric, slice the skin off with vegetable peeler. The peel should come away as it would be ginger. The ochre yellow root is then available for further handling. It can be thinly sliced or grated. The colour will easily stain hands and any surface other than stainless steel or marble.

Turmeric Tea

Turmeric tea is naturally caffeine-free. Simply add freshly grated turmeric with a teaspoon of lemon juice and a small pinch of black pepper to hot water. The colour of the tea is a golden yellow and extremely vibrant with a slightly savoury flavour. The black pepper provides piperine which is an aid in absorption of curcumin. Adding ginger just peps up the flavour. Best drunk warm.

Turmeric Pickle

One of the easiest and most tasty ways to get turmeric into the diet is to pickle it. Slice freshly peeled turmeric into slightly blunt or chunky matchsticks. Add 1 tsp of salt and some lemon juice. Place in a jar and leave in the fridge for 4 or 5 days. Shake occasionally. Add some green and red chilies or spices to create a tangy, spicy pickle. Fermentation is also possible but care needs to be exercised in creating this type of dish.

Turmeric Omelettes

 Eggs are great vehicles for turmeric. Simply grate turmeric into scrambled eggs or an omelette. It can also be added to a Hollandaise style sauce to really get that vibrant golden colour going. Some have used it in egg washes for pastry – makes for an incredible yellow glow.

Turmeric In Salads

Why not ? Just thinly slice turmeric root into your favourite salad. It really lifts a leafy green or potato salad and lends extra colour to one containing shredded carrot, lettuce and cabbage.

Turmeric Dressings For Salads

An alternative way to get colour onto a green salad is to take an inch of turmeric and blend with 50ml of extra virgin olive oil, a clove of garlic, a tsp of honey and 50ml of yogurt. If you mix it with some water you get a nice consistency. Drizzle over roasted vegetables and simply enjoy with your favourite roast dinner.

Infamous Haldi-Doodh Or Golden Milk

Just peel and grate an inch of turmeric into a small saucepan. Add milk and heat until warm. Strain the milk and honey to taste. This is the great cough and cold remedy. We already know it has great health benefits too.

If you have it grated in cold drinks such as milk, it makes for an interesting smoothie too. One way to max on its benefits is to whizz it up with carrot, and orange, a tomato and water or milk to produce another version of what is an extremely healthy drink.

Clinical Research With Turmeric

Nearly 5,000 research papers have been published exploring the health and functional benefits of this extremely valuable spice. It also has other benefits too – as an antioxidant, antimicrobial, antifungal, insecticidal with anti-inflammatory properties (Apisariyakul et al., 1995; Khattak et al., 2005). 

Curcumin is a mix of three compounds. The composition is  diferuloylmethane (77%),  demethoxycurcumin (17%) and bisdemethoxycurcumin (6%). These are a group of compounds in the curcuminoid family which are the main constituents of turmeric but only form about 3% w/w of the total content of turmeric. Curcumin appears to have highly potent properties in the treatment of a number of conditions including cancer. It is this component mix which has given turmeric its powerful healing benefits. We will explore this component further. Another component found in turmeric to think about is santonine which possesses the anti-nematode properties.

Anti-Cancer Properties Of Turmeric And Its Active Component Curcumin

The current situation is that curcumin or turmeric cannot prevent or treat cancer although there are grounds for some optimistic developments.

For nearly thirty years now, a systematic study has set out to fully understand how efficacious turmeric can be and this was started at the Amala Cancer Research Centre in Kerela, India (Kuttan et al., 1985). Animal cell studies showed curcumin was toxic towards ascetic cell forms of lymphoma cells.

In the area of prostate health where patients were being treated by radiation therapy, curcumin supplementation using BCM-95® from DolCas Biotech, significantly reduced therapy-related urinary symptoms (Hejazi et al., 2013). The study revealed in 40 prostate cancer patients who were receiving external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) that 3 g/day of curcumin compared to the placebo produced statistically significant reductions in most symptoms. There was a 50% reduction in daytime urinary incidence and a 40% reduction in the incidence of daily activity limitation.

A review from researchers at the UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Centre in the USA has uncovered curcumin as a suppressor or inhibitor of the cell signalling pathway which promotes some head and neck cancers (Wilken et al., 2011).  Based on this association, curcumin is available from Venture Sciences Corp. and branded as Longvida®. The web-site provides extremely useful white papers on the benefits in cognitive research too.

Curcumin appears to interfere with those signalling systems which lead to proliferation of cancer cells. One good example considers the genetic manipulation of messengers such as P53 and phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase in gastric cancer cells (Fu et al., 2017). Generally speaking, curcumin from turmeric seems to have a number of activities overall from reducing the expression of many different enzymes, transcription factors, cytokines associated with inflammation, growth factors and and number of cell-signalling elements that promote cancer and tumour development.

A Washington State University research team claims they have a drug delivery system up and running which can even inhibit bone cancer cells growing but allow healthy bone cells to thrive. They still accept there is plenty of research to be done in this area but there is increasing evidence of efficacy where treating cancer i concerned. 

Treatment For General Pain And Chronic Inflammation

There is developing evidence that turmeric is an effective treatment for a range of chronic forms of inflammation including rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Those taking it as a supplement often use it in conjunction with glucosamine too. There is an exceptional review of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory in a range of potential treatments for conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, arthritis, and chronic anterior uveitis.

One recent study compared a number of mainstream anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen with curcumin, resveratrol and other agents for relief (Takada et al., 2004). The surprising finding was how effective both curcumin and resveratrol were against a number of standard drug treatments and raises hope for further studies.

The Japanese have examined turmeric for treating rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. There is an interaction with the inflammatory cytokine, interleukin (IL)-6 where curcumin appears to reduce these types of inflammation markers. The idea of developing curcumin’s properties in the area as a non-steroidal inflammatory are starting to form.

Turmeric And Joint Health

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative and progressive disease of the joints, especially the key moving ones or articular joints. The disease affects cartilage and often involves abrasion between bones. Pain and severe disability are a nagging consequence of this condition. Unfortunately for a rapidly aging population, there is no known cure for the condition. Analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs provide relief for the symptoms but do not cure, prevent or modify the condition.

Historically, curcumin was traditionally used to reduce pain from all sorts of forms of inflammation and the Indian and Chinese medicines were primarily designed for this. Naturally, much more recent clinical studies using human intervention ad building on cell studies has sought to turn curcumin into a panacea for the curing joint pain. At the moment this is not forthcoming

Curcumin may provide some relief for this condition although rigorous analysis of a number of studies involving the bioactive have not proved any cause and effect relationship with resolving osteoarthritis (Zhanghe et al., 2016). EFSA have so far rejected claims that curcumin can prevent osteoarthritis which is understandable given the nature of the request and the lack of high quality clinical research directly tackling the relationship.

Much of the evidence is coming from in vitro studies. Curcumin has been shown in cell studies to alleviate inflammation for example by reducing the production of various mediators involved. Mediators include interleukin (IL-1β, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α, IL-6, IL-8, prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) (Goel et al., 2001; Mathy-Hartet et al., 2009; Henrotin et al., 2010). Curcumin can stop chondrocyte death (apoptosis) (Shakibaei et al., 2011; Csaki et al., 2009) and the breakdown of the extracellular matrix when induced by IL-1β interleukin (Clutterbuck et al., 2009).

Post-Surgical Benefits

For many, surgery often produces pain with tenderness at the site of operation. Curcumin is claimed to help alleviate the issue. In one study, patients receiving 400 milligrams of curcumin three times a day for six days, as part of their post-operative treatments, experienced an 84.2 percent decrease in pain intensity around the sites of their operations.

Halting The Onset Of Diabetes With Turmeric (Curcumin)

Recent investigations in animal studies indicate turmeric could protect against the onset of diabetes and against type-1 diabetes in particular (Ahmad et al., 2014).

Turmeric Could Protect Us From Developing Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a large umbrella of conditions which includes diabetes. It is characterised by high blood sugar levels, excessive weight and obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels etc. The condition is usually a precuror to developing heart disease and diabetes. 

Liver Protection

A few studies indicate curcumin might protect hepatocytes which are liver cells (Ahmad et al., 2014). One area of its protection is that it ameliorates or even inhibits heavy metal damage of liver cells (García-Niño & Pedraza-Chaverrí, 2014).

Depression and Mental Illnesses

Curcumin may alleviate depression. A study at the Government Medical College in Bhavnagar in the state of Gujerat, India demonstrated a positive outcome for curcumin (Sanmukhani et al., 2014) . They assessed 60 subjects with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) by treating them with curcumin or the established drug fluoxetine. Curcumin performed extremely well in summary compared to the drug. One notable feature was the absence of the distressing aspects associated with commercial drugs.

One other study considers that curcumin can interfere with biological and biochemical pathways  associated with the generation of depression. It probably affects monoaminergic activity, immune-inflammatory and various forms of oxidative and nitrosative stress (Lopresti et al., 2014).  It seems to prevent amyloid protein formation which also suggests benefit against the generation of Alzheimer’s (Venigalla et al., 2015). One study using Longvida which is a solid lipd curcumin formulation found that it improved sustained attention and memory based tasks in a healthy elderly population (Cox et al., 2015).

The role of turmeric generally in mental health is now prompting calls for long-term clinical trials (incidentally resveratrol is included in this request too) (Mazzanti & Di Giacomo, 2016).

Reversing Memory Loss

The journal American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry published research in the autumn of 2017  which suggested that a daily consumption of curcumin improved memory and mood with mild, age-related memory loss. Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) assessed a readily absorbed supplement containing curcumin on memory performance.

Their subjects were 40 people coping with dementia, aged between 50 and 90, who had mild memory issues. The researchers also assessed the potential impact of curcumin on the formation of microscopic tangles and plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Tau deposits occur in regions of the brain where cognitive impairment starts. Amyloid is a starch-like protein that is deposited in the liver, kidneys, spleen, or other tissues in certain diseases. These deposits are analysed using positron emission tomography (PET scans).

The study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled type where the participants were randomly assigned either a 90mg amount of curcumin or a placebo. These participants took their doses twice a day for 18 months. The levels of curcumin in their blood was monitored at the beginning and end of the study. Similarly, standard cognitive assessment was conducted on each subject at the beginning of the study and at six-month intervals. Thirty of them underwent the PET scans to determine the levels of amyloid and tau in their brains at the start of the study and after 18 months.

Supplementation with curcumin appears to have a profound effect on improving the participants memory and concentration based on the tests they took. The memory tests revealed that people taking curcumin improved by 28 per cent over the one and half years of study. Supplementation also produced significant but mild improvements in mood too. Likewise, the PET scans showed significantly less amyloid and tau signals in the amygdala and hypothalamus than those who received the placebo.

Curcumin is suggested to also help those suffering with depression. The research group at UCLA are to conduct a similar style of study as a follow-up and with a much greater number of people. That study will assess whether curcumin’s ability to improve memory also has a genetic factor, is related to age and whether the benefits are different for those who have varying risks to Alzheimer’s and issues with cognition.

Aging

Perhaps one of the most exciting areas for curcumin is the control of aging. Given that it can reduce the effects of oxidative stress, cell death (apoptosis) and inflammation, it is no surprise it should generally reduce the effects of overall aging (Flores, 2017).

Safety Of Turmeric And Curcumin

Clinical trials show that curcumin is safe at high doses (12g/day) but has poor bioavailability. The reasons for its low plasma and tissue levels is due to weak absorption by tissues, rapid metabolism and removal by the body. Techniques explored to improve take up include encapsulation in nanoparticles or liposomes, co-digestion with piperine and use of protective agents.

Curcumin is soluble in oil which is one of the benefits for its use in foodstuffs such as curry.

Anti-Microbial And Anti-Fungal Benefits Of Turmeric

The essential oil of turmeric also has anti-microbial and anti-aflatoxigenic effects (Ferreira et al., 2013). Its fungicidal activity is especially potent against phytopathogenic types which have been examined in greenhouses (Kim et al., 2003). Turmeric is reasonably effective for controlling the mycelial growth of Fusarium oxysporum (Singh et al., 2002), Aspergillus flavus, A. parasiticum, Fusarium moniliforme and Penicillium digitatum (Jayaprakasha et al., 2005), and against isolates of Alternaria dianthi and Curvularia trifolii (Babu et al., 2007).

One of the most interesting activities is its activity in vivo, against the mould Aspergillus flavus which produces cancer-causing aflatoxins (Hu et al., 2017). The antifungal effects are related to the disruption of the fungal cell’s endomembrane system including both the plasma membrane and mitochondria. It is thought to specifically disrupt metabolic activities including ergosterol synthesis, mitochondrial ATPase, malate dehydrogenase, and succinate dehydrogenase activities. The oil could also down-regulate aflatoxin production because of the suppressive effect it has on protein synthesis.

Industrially, addition of the essential oil can significantly suppress mould growth in grains and maize (Dhingra et al., 2007; Hu et al., 2017) which would help prevent large losses of stored crops.

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Revised to incorporate new research on memory improvement – 12th January 2018. Revised to include uses for turmeric in foods – 20th February 2020.

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