Turmeric, an orange-colored spice imported from India, is part the ginger family and has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years.

In addition, ayurvedic and Chinese medicines utilize turmeric to clear infections and inflammations on the inside and outside of the body. But beyond the holistic health community, Western medical practitioners have only recently come on board in recognizing the benefits of turmeric.

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Here are some of the ways turmeric may benefit your body.

Blocking cancer

Doctors at UCLA found that curcumin, the main component in turmeric, appeared to block an enzyme that promotes the growth of head and neck cancer.

In that study, 21 subjects with head and neck cancers chewed two tablets containing 1,000 milligrams of curcumin. An independent lab in Maryland evaluated the results and found that the cancer-promoting enzymes in the patients’ mouths were inhibited by the curcumin and thus prevented from advancing the spread of the malignant cells.

Powerful antioxidant

The University of Maryland’s Medical Center also states that turmeric’s powerful antioxidant properties fight cancer-causing free radicals, reducing or preventing some of the damage they can cause.

While more research is necessary, early studies have indicated that curcumin may help prevent or treat several types of cancer including prostate, skin and colon.

Potent anti-inflammatory

Dr. Randy J. Horwitz, the medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, wrote a paper for the American Academy of Pain Management in which he discussed the health benefits of turmeric.

“Turmeric is one of the most potent natural anti-inflammatories available,” Horwitz states in the paper.

He went on to cite a 2006 University of Arizona study that examined the effect of turmeric on rats with injected rheumatoid arthritis. According to Horwitz, pretreatment with turmeric completely inhibited the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the rats. In addition, the study found that using turmeric for pre-existing rheumatoid arthritis resulted in a significant reduction of symptoms.

Some research shows that curcumin might ease symptoms of uveitis — long-term inflammation in the middle layer of the eye. Other research shows that taking turmeric daily for several months may improve kidney function for people with kidney inflammation.

Turmeric's leaves(Curcuma longa)Turmeric comes from the curcuma longa plant. (Photo: Skyprayer2005/Shutterstock)
Osteoarthritis pain relief

Turmeric may also be helpful with another type of arthritis. Some research has shown that taking turmeric extract can ease the pain of osteoarthritis. In one study, reports WebMD, turmeric worked about as well as ibuprofen for relieving osteoarthritis pain.

Indigestion and heartburn aid

Curcumin works with the gallbladder, stimulating it to make bile, which may help with digestion. In Germany, turmeric can be prescribed for digestive problems. Some research shows that turmeric may help upset stomach, bloating and gas. Turmeric may also help reduce the occurrence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in people who are otherwise healthy.

Heart disease

Studies have suggested curcumin may help prevent the buildup of plaque that can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Impact on diabetes

Early studies suggest that taking turmeric daily can cut down the number of people with prediabetes who develop diabetes.

“Raw is best”

Natalie Kling, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist, says she first learned about the benefits of turmeric while getting her degree from the Natural Healing Institute of Neuropathy. “As an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiseptic, it’s a very powerful plant,” she says.

Kling recommends it to clients for joint pain and says that when taken as a supplement, it helps quickly. She advises adding turmeric to food whenever possible and offers these easy tips. “Raw is best,” she said. “Sprinkling it on vegetables or mixing it into dressings is quick and effective.”

If you do cook it, make sure to use a small amount of healthy fat like healthy coconut oil to maximize flavor. Kling also recommends rubbing turmeric on meat and putting it into curries and soups.

“It’s inexpensive, mild in taste, and benefits every system in the body,” Kling says. "Adding this powerful plant to your diet is one of the best things you can do for long term health.”

This story first appeared on MNN in January 2012. It has been updated to reflect more current information.