Turmeric- the fad, the facts and the future

Updated: Jan 27

by Sanjana Rao, Ph.D

No curry is complete without adding a pinch of turmeric. Growing up in India, I was always told about the many benefits of this magical yellow powder- adding turmeric to curries, using turmeric as a wound-healing agent, drinking milk with turmeric to cure a sore throat and its benefits for flawless skin. It seemed almost too good to be true and now as a scientist, I decided to dig a little deeper into the topic.

Turmeric (scientific name: Curcuma longa) is a member of the ginger family is a well regarded spice used since many years in South-asia especially in countries like Iran, Malaysia, India, China and Thailand. In recent years, it has become one of the fastest growing dietary supplements in the United states and in 2018, a report suggested a more than seven-fold increase in sales in the United States alone. From lattes, smoothies to ice cream, turmeric has come a long way from “just” being used in ancient kitchens.

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric has been used for many years in Ayurvedic medicine. It is believed to help build immunity and act as an antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic, and has long been used to help with diabetes, pain, rheumatism, osteoarthritis, memory and skin conditions like eczema. While laboratory studies on cells and animals have confirmed some of these benefits of turmeric and in turn curcumin, the same cannot be said for clinical studies on people. This is because curcumin is not readily absorbed by the blood stream and is not made bioavailable. Simply put, enough curcumin is not made available at the site in our body where it is needed. One study showed that if turmeric is consumed with black pepper, the absorption into the body increases by 2000%. However, to reach the amount of turmeric and in turn curcumin that is needed to benefit us, one might need to turn to supplements.

Many studies have shown that turmeric can help reduce inflammation. Research in rats and mice has shown benefits of turmeric in slowing down some types of cancers but in humans, these studies are still too premature to make any conclusions. Studies have also shown links to treating Alzheimers, lowering depression, arthritis and heart disease. Although ingesting curcumin is safe and it is non-toxic, significant efforts are still required to make the compound more stable, soluble and most of all, bioavailable. Scientists have also adopted new strategies to make the compound curcumin better suited as a drug- by chemically modifying it or chemical synthesis of its analogues.

One study shows that people taking drugs like cardiovascular drugs, antidepressants, anticoagulants, antibiotics, chemotherapeutic agents, and antihistamines, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult a doctor before taking curcumin as a supplement. Very high doses of turmeric also have been shown to result in some side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, headache and yellow stool.

In conclusion, while there might be no harm and even some benefits to having a turmeric in curries and a golden latte ever so often, from a scientist’s perspective, more studies on humans (referred to as clinical trials) are needed to make a conclusion about the effect of curcumin as a drug.

Note: Please consult a medical professional or a trained nutritionist regarding specifics of your health and symptoms or before changing your diet or trying something new.

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