In 2010, scientists examining ancient pottery from the site of an ancient civilisation near Delhi found traces of eggplant with ginger and turmeric in clay pots. They dubbed it the world’s first curry. So, Ayurvedic medical practitioners have used the vibrant yellow spice, currently starring in teas, smoothies and dinner dishes in café and homes near you, for four thousand years or more. So what did the ancient food doctors in India know about turmeric that we’re only just learning? And can this flavour and colour boost also come with health benefits?
Botanist Dr James A. Duke, writing in Alternative & Complementary Therapies, has reviewed around 700 studies examining the benefits of turmeric (curcuma longa). He found that in some studies, turmeric has been show to be even more effective than a number of pharmaceutical where it comes to anti-inflammatory action – and with virtually no adverse effects.
Here’s where ancient wisdom and modern knowledge combine and just a few fast facts about this surprisingly beneficial spice …
Turmeric contains over 20 active medicinal compounds called curcumunoids; the most important of these is curcumin and this may have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antioxidant properties according to Harvard University[i].
- The plant compound in pepper (which gives pepper its bite) is called piperine and this boosts your body’s ability to absorb turmeric by 2000 times[ii].
- Because curcumin is fat-soluble, it needs fat to dissolve in before it can be absorbed. Could be one reason why many curries begin with the frying of onions and garlic in oil? Try using olive oil – it contains a unique range of beneficial phenolic compounds that aren’t found in any other food.
- Turmeric may have a role to play in the prevention of dementia. It does this by reducing the formation of a substance called beta-amyloid (responsible for the formation of plaques that obstruct brain) in Alzheimer’s disease.
- Curcumin fights oxidative damage and inflammation which both contribute to dementia. This may be especially important since curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier – i.e. it can pass from the blood into the brain helping to keep blood vessels clear and in this way, allow for oxygen and nutrients in blood to nourish the brain.
- Turmeric contains six different COX-2-inhibitors. COX-2 enzymes promote pain, swelling and inflammation but COX-2-inhibitors selectively block this enzyme. Because of this, it may be able to play a role in keeping blood vessels clear. In one study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, curcumin was even more effective than an anti-inflammatory drug[iii].
- Powdered turmeric root contains around three per cent curcumin[iv]. Many of the newer studies examine the effect of 1gram of curcumin extract so you may want to consider a supplement as well as upping your intake from dishes that contain turmeric.
- Turmeric may have a role in fighting depression, again due to its potent anti-inflammatory action. In one small study of 60 people, one group took a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI), called Prozac (fluoxetine), another took a 1g dose of curcumin daily while a third group took both the SSRI and 1g curcumin. After six weeks, the results showed that the group that took both curcumin and fluoxetine displayed the best results where it came to mood and depression[v]. The severity of depression was assessed using a common test for depression called the Hamilton Rating Scale (HAM-D). This evaluates mood, guilt, suicidal ideation, sleep problems, agitation anxiety, and more. Results showed that overall, the average change in the HAM-D scores was similar for curcumin and fluoxetine i.e. curcumin worked as well as fluoxetine in terms of improvements in the severity of depression. One of the ways in which curcumin may exert its effect is by boosting the feel-good brain transmitters serotonin and dopamine[vi].
- Raw turmeric may have greater anti-inflammatory effects than cooked turmeric.
- Cooked turmeric may have greater antioxidant effects than raw.
Ready to give it a go? The University of Maryland recommends a dose of 1.5 to 3 g cut root per day, 1-3 g dried turmeric or 400 to 600 mg standardised powder (curcumin) three times per day[vii].
Buy fresh turmeric from groceries and dried ginger from grocers and supermarkets.
Five ways to enjoy turmeric:
- Yellow curry https://lillysethicaledibles.com/2016/05/15/zucchini-and-cashew-red-curry/
- On vegetables such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts (which contain the powerful anti-cancer compound sulphurophane) https://lillysethicaledibles.com/2015/05/28/zesty-kale-and-quinoa-with-tasty-turmeric-cauliflower/
- In soups and dahl https://lillysethicaledibles.com/2014/06/23/coconut-and-ginger-dahl/
[i] Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. Can everyday spice make you healthier? http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/can-everyday-spices-make-you-healthier
[iii] A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Phytother Res. 2012 Nov;26(11):1719-25. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4639. Epub 2012 Mar 9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22407780
[v]Efficacy and Safety of Curcumin in Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Phytotherapy Research. Volume 28, Issue 4, pages 579–585, April 2014
[vi] Psychopharmacology December 2008, 201:435. Antidepressant activity of curcumin: involvement of serotonin and dopamine system. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-008-1300-y
[vii] University of Maryland Medical Center. Turmerichttp://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/turmeric