Turmeric Benefits, an Anti-Inflammatory Spice
by Eric Madrid MD
How can you improve your health? The answer could be a spice in your cupboards! Turmeric, also known as Curcuma longa and Indian saffron, is a rooted plant of the ginger family, often consumed for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and digestive health properties. Curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric, is believed to provide many of the health benefits. While many people have used turmeric as a spice to enhance their food for over the past 4,000 years, turmeric has played an important role in medicine! Today, its use continues to be researched as an alternative treatment approach for many common illnesses, injuries, and chronic diseases.
Over the last few years, I have recommended turmeric to patients as a first-line approach for joint inflammation, also known as arthritis. The results have been great. Many patients have reported to me that they have been able to reduce their need for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and, in some cases, narcotic medications.
The History of Turmeric
In Indian culture, practitioners of the ancient Ayurvedic medicine have recommended herbs and minerals as sources of medicinal healing. Turmeric, in paste form, was applied on the skin for a multitude of conditions. It was also inhaled as vapor for respiratory congestion. Though clinical trials on the use of turmeric for these purposes are limited, modern practitioners of Ayurveda still recognize that over the past 3,000 years, turmeric has anecdotally provided symptomatic relief and still continues to do so.
Traditional Chinese medicine’s use of turmeric or jiang huang involved its perceived effect of being able to move a person’s “qi” or vital energy. In addition, people believed turmeric improved blood flow, alleviated abdominal pain, and helped restore the female menstrual cycle, a term doctors call amenorrhea. Though its mechanism of action in these cases have yet to be dispelled, the tradition of using turmeric for these purposes continues to live on.
Recently, the use of turmeric as an integrative approach to treating medical problems has gained further popularity. Its use has been recommended by many well-known physicians. One claim is that drinking turmeric tea helps to reduce stress and calm the mind. Another physician who hosts a popular television show suggests that consuming turmeric can help relieve the pain caused by the inflammatory effects of osteoarthritis and can be important to gut health, as it may relieve abdominal symptoms caused by acid reflux.
How Does Turmeric Work?
While we already know the active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, its exact mechanism of action must still be clarified. However, it appears that turmeric has numerous mechanisms of action, which explains why it has been used for an array of medical problems for so long.
Conditions Helped by Curcumin (Turmeric)
Arthritis is a condition that has affected humans since the beginning of time. Worldwide, over 250 million are affected. Before the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, those who were afflicted did not simply suffer endlessly from pain, but utilized nature’s herbs and organic foods to help minimize aches and discomforts. Today, as more people become concerned about the side effects of prescription drugs, many are seeking safer alternatives.
Arthritis comes from the Greek word arthron, which means joint, and the Latin word itis, which mean inflammation. Therefore, arthritis literally means “inflammation of the joint”. The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (~95%) and rheumatoid arthritis (~5%).
Studies show turmeric to be helpful in reducing pain for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Scientists have discovered that turmeric can reduce inflammation similar to multiple blockbuster prescription drugs. This herb can modify NF-κB signaling and reduce pro-inflammatory, which cause a person to have arthritis pain. Doctors call these chemicals COX-2 and 5-LOX.
A 2017 collection of data in Tucson, Arizona revealed that in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who self-manage additional therapies to their typical prescribed medication, turmeric was the most commonly used herbal therapy due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
In addition to curcumin supplements being helpful for arthritis pain, learn more about other natural treatments of arthritis.
Oxidative damage is the main process by which our body ages and ultimately is damaged. Examples of oxidation include the browning of an air-exposed apple or avocado left on the kitchen counter. The rusting of a steel bumper when exposed to the elements is also an example of oxidation. Oxidative damage can be caused by sun, air, sugar, processed foods and toxic chemicals. Fruits and vegetables, which are highly concentrated with phytochemicals (plant chemicals), provide our body with antioxidants, which help protect the body.
Turmeric is also a potent antioxidant, either when consumed as a spice in one’s diet or when taken as a curcumin supplement. Oxidative damage is commonly believed to play a causative role in cancer and heart disease. Turmeric can help prevent oxidation, according to a 2016 report in the journal Diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that generally affects older adults. The condition was named after Dr. Aloysium “Alois” Alzheimer (1864-1915), a psychiatrist who in 1906 diagnosed dementia in a woman who had died from a strange mental illness. He then published the findings in a medical journal. In 1912, this form of dementia was named Alzheimer’s disease.
When it comes to brain health, Dr. Dale Bredersen of UCLA and author of the 2017 book The End of Alzheimer’s considers turmeric an important part of improving symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Many scientific studies show proof of its usefulness. One scientific study showed that turmeric may play a role in decreasing amyloid plaque buildup in the brain. The build up of this material in the brain is believed to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2017 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that turmeric could also play an important role in preventing memory loss. There is much excitement surrounding turmeric’s possible role in preventing mild cognitive impairment and ultimately Alzheimer’s disease. It should be considered an essential supplement for anyone wanting to optimize their memory.
Asthma is a common respiratory condition among children and adults. Doctors define it as a chronic reversible obstructive airway disease which responds to albuterol medication therapy. Fortunately, if the cause is determined and the condition is correctly diagnosed, asthma can be treated with success. Despite our ability to control asthma symptoms, preventing attacks is also very important. Curcumin appears to play an important role.
A 2010 study has demonstrated improved management of bronchial asthma with the use of turmeric when consumed with boswellia serrata and licorice root. The results showed greater prevention of excessive swelling and mucus production associated with asthma, reducing inflammation, and increasing antioxidant properties.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research also concluded that turmeric, when taken orally, could help improve lung function in those with asthma.
Other conditions that turmeric may help with according to studies include:
- Ulcerative colitis (colon inflammation)
- Oral lichen planus
- High blood pressure
- Stomach ulcers caused by the h. pylori bacteria
- Prevention of gallstones
- Bacterial infections
- Uveitis (eye inflammation)
- Atherosclerosis and heart disease
- Helps remove mercury from the body
With the advent of the Internet, more and more people have access to information and seem to be open to treatments they can use alongside traditional Western medicine.
Is it safe?
One animal study of turmeric’s toxicity showed that there were no negative effects on health when given to adult rats, guinea pigs, and monkeys for three weeks, further investigation on the safety of turmeric consumption is warranted as it continues to gain widespread attention as a form of medicine. It’s important to remember that when trying new products for the first time, there is always a possibility of discovering that you have an allergy or food sensitivity.
Furthermore, your medical doctor must be consulted before trying any new supplements, as turmeric’s effect is unique to each individual’s medical condition. Because of the potential to interact with your current medications or interfere with your other medical goals, please speak with your doctor first to determine if the consumption of turmeric or its derivative curcumin is the right choice for you. The following are possible drug interactions:
- Turmeric and diabetes medications may result in increased risk of low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. In other words, turmeric may reduce one’s need for diabetic medications.
- Turmeric and blood thinners may interact. When turmeric and drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix) or warfarin (Coumadin) are combined, there may be a small increased risk for bleeding. Consult with your doctor prior to taking them together.
Many people consume turmeric by drinking it in tea form, using it as powder for some skin conditions, and also swallowing it in capsule form. Curcumin/Turmeric supplements are usually taken at doses of 500 mg daily or 500 mg up to three times per day.
For thousands of years, people have been using turmeric as a natural remedy for their health problems, and as history and research indicate, it's very possible that turmeric has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Consuming a well-balanced diet and being physically active is crucial to improving many health issues. However, adding turmeric spice to your diet and consuming a turmeric/curcumin supplement appears to play an important role in disease prevention.
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