Turmeric, an orange-colored spice imported from India, is part of 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 health benefits of turmeric.
Here are some of the ways turmeric may benefit your body.
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.
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.
Lower risk of Alzheimer's disease
A study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry revealed that curcumin may improve memory and mood swings in people who suffer from mild cases of memory loss.
Researchers had a group of 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 take either a curcumin or placebo pill for 18 months. At the end, the memory and attention of participants who took the curcumin pill improved by 28%.
While the exact reason why turmeric can improve memory isn't known, doctors believe it's because the spice has anti-inflammatory properties. "It may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer's disease and major depression," Gary Small from UCLA told NDTV.
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 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.
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.
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.”
Safety can be an issue with turmeric, recent research finds. Turmeric is sometimes laced with pigments to enhance its brightness. In some cases those pigments can include lead, which contributes to cognitive issues and other serious issues. Lead is a neurotoxin that has long been banned from food for safety reasons.
Consumer Reports recently tested 13 turmeric products along with 16 echinacea products because these are the two most popular botanical supplements after horehound. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, sales of turmeric grew 30.5%. Of the 13 turmeric products tested, one had lead levels that exceeded Consumer Reports' threshold standards and one had aerobic bacteria levels that exceeded the group's set standards.
"Higher aerobic bacteria levels don’t necessarily make a supplement unsafe to take, but they can indicate that products were manufactured or processed in unsanitary conditions," according to the report.
None of the products had lead levels that exceeded standards set by the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), but one had lead levels that exceeded Consumer Reports' stricter threshold. According to James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, "No amount of lead is acceptable."
Earlier this year, a Stanford University study found that the pigments added to turmeric in Bangladesh may contain lead chromate.
In the study, published in Environmental Research, researchers discovered that turmeric was likely the cause of blood lead contamination in Bangladeshis. They didn't find evidence of contaminated turmeric outside of Bangladesh, and say that food safety checks are incentives for spice processors to limit the lead added to turmeric that will be exported.
However, the researchers caution, "the current system of periodic food safety checks may catch only a fraction of the adulterated turmeric being traded worldwide." Since 2011, they point out, more than 15 brands of turmeric — distributed to countries including the U.S. — have been recalled due to excessive levels of lead. The research authors suggested that an "immediate intervention" was needed, bringing together producers and wholesalers to find solutions.
How to shop smart
Supplements like turmeric are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food, not drugs. So they aren't put through the same safety tests as medications. Therefore, it's up to consumers to be vigilant about what they buy. Here are a couple of tips from Consumer Reports about how to be safe when buying them:
Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Don't rely on a pharmacist or health store employee for advice. Consumer Reports sent "secret shoppers" to 34 stores in seven states and in most cases the pharmacists were unaware of potential risks of supplements or reactions with prescription medications. Instead, ask your primary health care provider for advice.
Look on the label, but don't rely on it. Many products have certifications that verify a supplement contains what is on the label. You can read about some of the verification labels here. But just because a product doesn't contain heavy metals, pesticides or other contaminants, doesn't mean the supplement is safe for you to take. It depends on your medical conditions and medications.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in January 2012.