Benefits of Turmeric
Turmeric and its ability to improve digestion have been talked about a lot lately, but what is turmeric, where does it come from, and how does it help? The answers to these questions are exactly what we plan to tackle in this article.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a herb taken from Curcuma longa, a plant of the ginger family.1 It is extracted from rhizomes–underground stems–through a process that involves boiling and purification with alkaline water.1 Curcuma longa is native to places with significant rainfall and high temperatures (20-30 degrees Celsius).1 Once prepared, turmeric is said to have a bitter taste.1
Turmeric is mainly harvested in India but has been used all over the world as a culinary spice, medicine, and dietary supplement for the past 4000 years.1 It was initially used in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve gas, improve digestion, dissolve gallstones, remove worms, regulate menstruation, and alleviate arthritis.1 Today, the antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric are used in China, East Africa, West Africa, Jamaica, Pakistan, and North America.1 In the culinary world, turmeric is a spice in curry powder as well as a yellow food dye.1 Turmeric is also sold as a dietary supplement in most pharmacies. Turmeric can be found in capsules, tablets, and ointments.
Is Turmeric Safe?
The short answer is yes, when consumed in the right amounts. One of the active ingredients in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin is mostly what we’re concerned about when looking at the safety of turmeric. Curcumin is a curcuminoid, a class of compounds that the FDA has deemed “Generally Recognized as Safe” due to its performance in clinical trials.2 The Joint United Nations and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have set the Allowable Daily Intake (ADI) for curcumin as 3 mg/kg of body weight.2
Turmeric is usually taken orally or topically (on the skin).3 High amounts of turmeric (greater than those found naturally in foods) may be unsafe while pregnant or breastfeeding.3 Like most things, there are possible side effects of taking more than the recommended amount of curcumin. In one study, seven subjects out of 24 reported diarrhea, headache, rash, or yellow stool 72 hours after taking between 500 and 1200 mg of curcumin.4
What are the Health Benefits of Turmeric?
When consumed in the recommended dosage, turmeric has shown numerous benefits. Turmeric has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can alleviate metabolic syndrome and other inflammatory conditions.2 It is believed that curcumin–the main active component of turmeric–is responsible for these effects.
Oxidative stress has been linked to chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes, and metabolic disorders.5 To give some context, oxidative stress happens in cells when there are more oxidants than antioxidants.5 Oxidants (also called free radicals) are reactive molecules that are produced by our cells during energy production. High oxidant levels can damage protein and DNA structure, which is why we need to control them with antioxidants.5 Curcumin, and other antioxidants, work by neutralizing oxidants, activating enzymes that eliminate free radicals, and inhibiting enzymes that produce oxidants.2 All of these effects lower oxidative stress.
Inflamed cells release reactive species (free radicals), which then tell nearby cells to further increase inflammation.2 Inflammation is associated with many chronic conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer, allergy, asthma, colitis, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, and depression.2 By combating inflammation, turmeric may help various types of inflammatory conditions.
Research into turmeric’s effects on people without chronic health conditions is less extensive. However, some studies have shown decreased triglyceride levels and decreased plaque buildup in the brain among those taking curcumin.6 One randomized control trial showed that curcumin improved sustained attention and working memory within one hour of ingestion and that it also improved mood within four weeks of ingestion.7
How can turmeric benefit digestion?
Now that we’ve covered the overarching benefits of turmeric, we can go into more detail about how it helps digestion.
Curcumin works by interacting with our gut microbiota–a collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses living in human intestines that help digestion and immune function.8 The microbiome begins colonizing during fetal development. Once fully functional, these organisms prevent infection, help the immune system mature, regulate metabolism, and produce vitamins B and K.8 Problems with the microbiome–a condition called dysbiosis–is associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colorectal cancer, obesity, diabetes, and allergies.8 An overall healthy, diverse diet, as well as turmeric, can improve the strength and diversity of the microbiome.
Turmeric does this by decreasing pathogenic bacterial strains and increasing beneficial strains in the gut. This finding is supported by a randomized control trial comparing the number of bacterial strains in participants who took turmeric or curcumin for eight weeks to participants who took placebo.9 Microbe diversity in the placebo group decreased 15%, whereas diversity in the turmeric group increased 7% and in the curcumin group increased 69%.9 This study suggests that turmeric (curcumin) enhances diversity of the human microbiome and improves digestion.
Curcumin may also work by fortifying the intestinal barrier.8 The intestinal barrier is a semi-permeable lining of the gut that lets nutrients in but keeps harmful microbial toxins out.10 Problems with this barrier allow bacteria to invade normal colonic tissue, leading to inflammation and digestive health issues (e.g., celiac disease, IBS, colon cancer).10 Which is why maintaining a diet that strengthens this barrier is so important. Turmeric is one way this can be done.
How is turmeric delivered to the body?
Bioavailability describes the ability of a substance to be absorbed by the body and exert its effects. Curcumin on its own has low bioavailability when taken orally–that is, it does not have a very strong effect because it is quickly metabolized and excreted.2 Curcumin is resistant to stomach acid, so it makes it to the intestines.8 But once there, it is poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolized into a less active version of itself, and eliminated.2
Turmeric and curcumin researchers often use different techniques to increase bioavailability and observe more significant health benefits in their participants. Some strategies for improving bioavailability include administering turmeric with fatty foods or piperine, a compound found in black pepper.2
As always, CDHF recommends working with a health care professional if you are looking to add turmeric to your diet to treat a specific ailment.
- Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Turmeric, the Golden Spice: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 13. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/
- Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods. 2017 Oct 22;6(10):92. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5664031/
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Turmeric. Bethesda, Maryland: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; 2020 May. Available from: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/turmeric
- Lao CD, Ruffin MT, Normolle D, Heath DD, Murray SI, Bailey JM, Boggs ME, Crowell J, Rock CL, Brenner DE. Dose escalation of a curcuminoid formulation. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2006 Mar 17;6:10. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1434783/
- Pizzino G, Irrera N, Cucinotta M, Pallio G, Mannino F, Arcoraci V, Squadrito F, Altavilla D, Bitto A. Oxidative stress: harms and benefits for human health. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017 Jul 27;2017:8416763. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551541/
- DiSilvestro RA, Joseph E, Zhao S, Bomser J. Diverse effects of a low dose supplement of lipidated curcumin in healthy middle aged people. Nutr J. 2012 Sep 26;11:79. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3518252/
- Cox KH, Pipingas A, Scholey AB. Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population. J Psychopharmacol. 2015 May;29(5):642-51. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0269881114552744
- Scazzocchio B, Minghetti L, D’Archivio M. Interaction between gut microbiota and curcumin: a new key of understanding for the health effects of curcumin. Nutrients. 2020 Sep;12(9):2499. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551052/
- Peterson CT, Vaughn AR, Sharma V, Chopra D, Mills PJ, Peterson SN, Sivamani RK. Effects of turmeric and curcumin dietary supplementation on human gut microbiota: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study. J Evid Based Integr Med. 2018 Aug 8;23:2515690X18790725. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6083746/
- Vancamelbeke M, Vermeire S. The intestinal barrier: a fundamental role in health and disease. Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017 Sep;11(9):821-834. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6104804/