Turmeric is a prominent spice in many eastern cultures, often used to add colour to dishes as well as a deep flavour and aroma. The powdered spice that we use in every-day cooking is made by boiling then grinding the underground stalk of the turmeric plant. This plant is related to ginger, another root with promising health benefits!
While turmeric discovery dates back around two hundred years ago, its biological effects were not studied until the mid-twentieth century. Since then, thousands of studies have been conducted on the health effects of turmeric – you need only put the word into PubMed to see this for yourself. The component of turmeric that is often used in medical research is known as ‘curcumin’.
Turmeric, Inflammation and Pain
Pain can be a result of swollen tissue, damaged nerves or damaged tissue. In all of these cases, pain is signalled in the body through a host of mediators, many of which are targeted by turmeric. Studies have shown that turmeric can reduce the production of inflammatory mediators in the body, thereby potentially reducing injury related to surgery, improving postoperative pain and interestingly postoperative fatigue.[1,2]
Small animal studies have also found that turmeric treatment can reduce inflammation and pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis more effectively than one of the anti-inflammatory drugs on the market, indomethacin.
Turmeric and Heart Disease
One of the significant markers of heart disease is elevated cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol. Turmeric has been found to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol AND triglycerides, as well as increase the amount of the good HDL cholesterol in the blood. There is also evidence it may reduce blood pressure significantly in people with high blood pressure.
Turmeric and Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic immune disorder that involves having a hyper-sensitive and overactive immune reaction in your intestines. People with IBD often experience severe stomach pain, diarrhoea, cramping, rectal bleeding, nausea and even fever. Case studies have found that supplementing with turmeric can reduce symptoms of IBD after two months, even to the point where other medicines are not necessary. A double-blind placebo controlled study of 89 patients with a form of IBD known as ulcerative colitis found that people supplemented with turmeric showed significant improvement of symptoms after six months, as well as lower relapse rates.
Turmeric and Memory
Like many plants, turmeric has antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are important plant chemicals that help prevent damage to the body, including that caused by free radicals and oxidative stress. There is some evidence that oxidative stress contributes to many chronic diseases, including the leading form of dementia: Alzheimer’s dementia.
One of the striking features of Alzheimer’s dementia, compared to other forms of dementia, is the presence of protein plaques in the brain called amyloid plaques. There is data to suggest turmeric binds to these plaques, reduces them and may potentially improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.[6-8]
Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that turmeric can reverse the cognition and memory problems associated with chronic stress.
Turmeric and Cancer
Lastly, turmeric and cancer. While it is still early days, there is some evidence to suggest that turmeric may have anti-cancer properties. It has become a target for new drug formulations, and is being trialled as an adjunct to current chemotherapy regimens.
With all these proposed health benefits, there's no doubt you're itching to try your hand at including more turmeric in your diet. One of the easiest ways to do this is to enjoy more curries, as turmeric is a big component of many curry powders. Alternatively, start incorporating turmeric into your life by adding a little of the powdered spice into your next stew, just at the beginning when you are giving everything a little pan-fry.
Almost everything is available these days as a tablet and/or capsule, including turmeric. The whole food approach is always best but if you don’t like curries or the taste of turmeric, you can try a supplement. If you can, avoid brands that contain compounds that have been extracted from turmeric, and instead go for tablets or capsules that are contain turmeric powder in all its constituents.
A Word of Caution
Often people are very ready to believe that a herb has power to heal, but are not so ready to believe they can do harm. There's good potential for large doses of turmeric to cause side effects and/or interact with medicines. Therefore, if you are planning on taking significant amounts of turmeric (more than the little bit you’d get in a regular curry), speak to your healthcare provider.
Additionally, a lot of the research concerning turmeric to date has been in animal subjects. There are no treatment protocols in conventional medicine for turmeric and it is uncertain if the results of animal testing will carry forward onto humans. This means that you’ll need to see your doctor about any medical conditions or concerns, and discuss all of your options with him/her so that you can make the best informed decision.
 Liu K et al. The preventative role of curcumin on the lung inflammatory response induced by cardiopulmonary bypass in rats. Journal of Surgical Research. Vol 174 2012
 Agarwal KA et al. Efficacy of turmeric (curcumin) in pain and postoperative fatigue after laparoscopic cholecystectomy: A double-blind, randomised placebo-controlled study. Surgical Endoscopy and Other Interventional Techniques. Vol 25 2011
 Ramadan G et al. Anti-inflammatory and Anti-oxidant Properties of Curcuma longa (Turmeric) versus Zingiber officinale (Ginger) Rhizomes in Rat Adjuvant-Induced Arthritis. Inflammation, Vol 34 2011
 Mayo Clinic, Turmeric (Curcumin)
 Harvard, Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype
 Yanagisawa D. Curcuminoid binds to amyloid-B1-42 Oligomer and Fibril. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Vol 24 2011
 Yang F. Et al. Curcumin Inhibits Formation of Amyloid B Oligomers and Fibrils, Binds Plaques, and Reduces Amyloid in Vivo. The Journal of Biological Chemistry. December 2004
 Ahmed T et al. Curcuminoids enhance memory in an amyloid-infused rat model of Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroscience. Vol 169 2010
 Bar-Sela G et al. Curcumin as an anti-cancer agent: Review of the gap between basic and clinical applications. Current Medicinal Chemistry. Vol 17 2010
 Taylor RA. Curcumin for Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A review of Human Studies. Alternative Medicine Review. Vol 16 2011
 Ling J et al. Anti-hyperlipidaemic and antioxidant effects of turmeric oil in hyperlipidaemic rats. Food Chemistry, Vol 130 2012.