Turmeric: Health Benefits and Side Effects

Many studies confirm that turmeric is useful for strengthening the immune system, brain function and skin condition. Let’s consider the valuable properties and features of turmeric together with an expert.

Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family whose rhizomes and stems contain a yellow dye called curcumin. In India, turmeric has been used to make curry seasoning powder since the 600s BC. The spice is loved for its rich bitter taste, the color it gives to dishes, and its healing properties. The latter are the result of the active compounds curcuminoids—their volume is 3% of the total weight of the root or stems.

tumeric flower
This is what blooming turmeric looks like © PIXABAY

Health benefits of turmeric

Turmeric is used to relieve pain and inflammation, such as osteoarthritis. But we should bear in mind that curcumin is poorly absorbed into the blood, and it is better to eat it with fatty foods. The effect is enhanced with the right combination of spices. For example, the substance piperine contained in black pepper significantly improves the absorption of curcumin—by an average of 2000%.

The spice is recommended for hay fever, liver disease and itching. Some use turmeric for heartburn and to improve memory, but there is no strong scientific evidence to support the effectiveness turmeric in these cases. Turmeric contains essential oils and many useful substances: vitamins C, K and B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, dolin, iodine and calcium. The spice contains 2-7% of food minerals, 3-7% of essential oils, 6-8% of protein, 60-70% of carbohydrates and 3-7% of fat.

Reducing inflammation

Scientists believe that chronic inflammation is the main cause of many common diseases. This includes heart disease, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, and various degenerative conditions. Curcumin has a strong anti-inflammatory effect.

turmeric roots
Turmeric roots, which are used to make powder © ANDY HYD/UNSPLASH

It is compared with some pharmaceutical drugs, but, unlike them, the substance has no serious side effects. Curcumin blocks the NF-kB molecule that penetrates the cell nuclei and initiates inflammation.

Antioxidant properties

The oxidation of the body is considered to be one of the mechanisms that accelerate aging and lead to disease. It involves free radicals that react with organic substances-proteins, fatty acids, and DNA. Antioxidants such as turmeric protect the body from free radicals. In addition, they increase the activity of their own antioxidant enzymes.

Improving brain function

Scientists used to think that neurons lose their ability to divide and multiply over time. However, it is now known that they are able to form new bonds and increase in number. One of the main causes of this process is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of growth hormone. Many well-known diseases, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease, are associated with decreased levels of this hormone. Curcumin can be added to food for prevention purposes. It increases the level of the brain hormone BDNF, which increases the growth of new neurons and fights various degenerative processes.

Reducing the risk of heart disease

Heart disease occurs for many reasons, from genetic predisposition to lifestyle. But scientists are confident that curcumin can prevent health problems. It improves the function of the endothelium lining the walls of blood vessels. Their destruction provokes the development of heart diseases, pressure problems and deterioration of blood clotting.

turmeric for heart and brain
Turmeric is good for the heart, blood vessels and brain © TAYLOR KISER/UNSPLASH

Studies confirm that curcumin works as an atorvastatin drug—it reduces cholesterol levels. Another experiment was conducted with 121 patients: each of them underwent coronary bypass surgery. People were divided in two groups: the first was given a placebo, the second—4 grams of curcumin a day a few days before and after the operation. In the control group, according to scientists, the risk of heart attack decreased by 65%.

Reducing the risk of cancer

Turmeric can prevent cancer. Scientists have shown that the spice affects the growth, development and spread of the tumor at the molecular level. It reduces ontogenesis—metastasis and the appearance of new blood vessels in tumors. The effect of high doses on cancer treatment has not yet been studied, but doctors say that turmeric’s antioxidants can be used as a preventive therapy to prevent cancer.

Prevention of Alzheimer’s disease

The most common neurodegenerative disease in the world is the leading cause of dementia. There is no cure for AD, and doctors advise focusing on its prevention. Inflammatory and oxidative processes play a role in the development of the disease, and curcumin reduces both of these processes. In addition, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of protein tangles called amyloid plaques. Studies have shown that curcumin helps clear these plaques.

Relief from arthritis

Curcumin supplements are recommended for patients with joint inflammation. A study involved patients with rheumatoid arthritis. They noted that turmeric in many cases was no less effective for relieving pain compared to a chemical anti-inflammatory drug.

Good for depression

Studies have confirmed that curcumin has its benefits against depression. Scientists divided 60 people with this diagnosis into three groups. Some patients took prozac, others took 1 gram of curcumin daily, and others took both.

curcumin turmeric fights depression

Six weeks later, doctors noted that the substance from the spice led to the same improvements as the antidepressant. The best results were recorded in the third group of patients. Depression is associated with decreased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and a shrinking hippocampus—an area of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory. Curcumin increases BDNF levels, potentially reversing these processes.

Slowing down aging

Turmeric helps fight age-related changes and chronic diseases. It is often used as an additive in vitamin complexes to maintain youth and beauty. Curcumin acts as an antioxidant, improves blood circulation and, consequently, skin regeneration processes. The spice enhances the synthesis of collagen, helps to heal small wounds and get rid of acne due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Thanks to powerful antioxidants, turmeric evens out the complexion.

Contraindications in the use of turmeric

Like any natural product, turmeric can cause allergies. If the body reacts to known spices, then you should use this spice with extreme caution. Before using it continuously, you need to do a test on your hand: apply a pinch of turmeric with water or milk and look at the skin reaction for two days. Pregnant women should not often eat turmeric because of its blood-thinning effect. In addition, there is an assumption that eating hot spices in the last trimester can provoke contractions.

Turmeric should be excluded from the diet of people taking blood thinners (aspirin, warfarin) and anti-diabetic medications; the spice lowers blood sugar levels. Adding a small amount of turmeric to food as a seasoning does not cause health problems.

Day-to-day use of turmeric

Seasoning emphasizes the taste of meat (especially chicken), omelets and mashed soups, combined with rice, lentils and other cereals. Confectioners add it to baked goods instead of artificial colors to get a beautiful yellow-orange color. Be sure to pay attention to the expiration date. Despite the fact that spices can be stored for years, stale turmeric loses most of its useful properties and becomes bitter due to rancid essential oils in the composition. The spice is used in drinks: a teaspoon of turmeric can be added to milk with honey, fruit smoothies, tea or coffee. Turmeric is mixed with other spices, put in dressings, marinades and vegetable salads.

daily use of turmeric

Spice shops sell fresh turmeric which is similar to small ginger. The roots can be grated and added to food. They give a richer taste and aroma compared to the powder. This option is the most useful, because you can make sure that turmeric is fresh and without impurities.

Turmeric is actively used in cosmetology. To make a homemade mask, you can mix the spice with milk and honey. It is believed that turmeric can whiten your teeth. But there are no reliable sources confirming this information. Moreover, the effect can be exactly the opposite, since curcumin is a strong natural dye. Equally mythical are suggestions that the spice helps increase breast size and get rid of cellulite. When taken orally, turmeric really reduces inflammation and improves the intestinal microflora, but it is unlikely that this will significantly affect the appearance.

add turmeric to food and drinks
You can add turmeric to food and drinks © TINA WITHERSPOON/UNSPLASH

Expert commentary

Herbaceous perennial plant turmeric from the ginger family, indeed, potentially has a pleiotropic effect, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect due to the curcuminoids contained in it (one of them, in fact, curcumin). There are scientific works demonstrating the ability of curcuminoids to normalize the protective/macrophage system of our body, in particular to influence the activity of neutrophils (white blood cells, white blood cells), lymphocytes and natural killers (a type of lymphocytes involved in the functioning of innate immunity. — HighFlyer.pro).

Currently, the possibility of increasing the level of serum immunoglobulins is shown only on an animal cell. It is worth noting that this phenomenon has a positive effect on the immunity of animals. However, its effect has not yet been proven in humans. The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory ability of curcuminoids has been known for quite a long time—there is a lot of supporting data.

Today, we have the results of a systematic study to support remission in patients with inflammatory bowel disease—ulcerative colitis, where immune system dysfunction plays an important role. This data makes it possible for us to conclude that adding turmeric to basic therapy helps to prolong this condition and generally reduce the activity of inflammation. In addition, the possibility of using curcumin as a fungicide that suppresses the growth of fungi, and its general ability to modulate the intestinal microflora, is being studied.

The effect of curcumin on the body in the context of treatment of liver diseases is also of great interest. For example, in the inflammation process, there is a hepatoprotective effect that promotes recovery by suppressing anti-inflammatory cytokines, free radical oxidation products, and normalizing the function of stellate liver cells.

It is worth noting that most of this data was obtained in the course of experimental studies on animals, and it is impossible to extrapolate the results to the human body with absolute certainty. The opinion that turmeric cannot be used for hepatitis due to its potential negative effects and can provoke autoimmune hepatitis is most likely due to the fact that:

  • turmeric, due to its low natural bioavailability, is often combined with various additives that can cause harm;
  • turmeric is a dietary SUPPLEMENT, the degree of purification of which is not controlled as strictly as medicines, and can be quite low;
  • turmeric may interact with other dietary supplements. Often, it is the simultaneous use of various substances that contributes to the occurrence of complications.

At the moment, studies do not provide a clear answer to the question of the relationship of turmeric with hepatitis. There are only a few scientific publications demonstrating the ability of curcumin to inhibit (significantly reduce) the activity of an important detoxifying liver enzyme, and therefore potentially show a toxic effect, but more research is needed to prove this. We can assume that the toxic effect depends on the dosage of the substance or its combination with others.

In the United States, curcumin is considered safe both as a dietary supplement and as a drug. The recommended dosage of the active ingredient—curcumin (not turmeric powder)—starts from 3 mg/kg of body weight; maximum—up to 10 g per day. This is the data of preclinical and clinical studies, but the follow-up period for all of them is very short—up to 16 weeks. When taking large doses of turmeric, there may be negative reactions from the gastrointestinal tract, diarrhea and nausea, allergic manifestations and increased bleeding when taken together with some antiplatelet agents and anticoagulants.

There is no data on the release of active turmeric curcuminoids from breast milk, as well as data on safety for infants. There is no evidence to date that turmeric can affect lactation. In India, for example, traditionally this plant is used to increase it. There is no need to exclude the spice during breastfeeding, as it is known that it is safe in food doses, but it is not necessary to use it in larger quantities.

In 2019, more than 700 patients participated in a meta-analysis on the effect of curcumin on blood pressure. The study showed that only long-term use (more than 12 weeks) showed a decrease in systolic pressure. It means that there is a positive effect, but the data is not sufficient to recommend using turmeric as a monotherapy for pressure correction.

The use of turmeric in large quantities for several days to “cleanse the body” together with fermented milk products can cause an allergic reaction, diarrhea, nausea, exacerbation of gastrointestinal pathology, such as acute gastritis, and even provoke bile colic. Experiments can have a negative impact on the body. We recommend consulting a specialist.

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