There are plenty of ‘superfoods’ out there, so called for their almost magical health-giving properties. However, there are very few that actually live up to their hype. I can only think of a handful, in fact.
Turmeric is one of them.
It’s a simple seeming spice, delicious and earthy, used in plenty of different staple dishes in plenty of different cuisines. However, humble though it may seem, it’s just about one of the most potent nutritional supplements going.
Plenty of data support its use, underlining its efficacy in bringing about some quite profound physical and mental health benefits.
Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric has a long history of use – largely, but not exclusively, around the Indian subcontinent. It is an earthy flavored spice that gives a delicious looking golden hue to anything it’s cooked into. Aside from its use as a spice, it is also used in traditional medicines as a medicinal herb, credited with producing a range of benefits.
In recent years, the scientific, clinical community has begun to unravel what exactly it is about turmeric that makes it so beneficial.
It revolves around a set of compounds known as curcuminoids. Specifically, we are looking at a curcuminoid called curcumin, turmeric’s active ingredient. Curcumin lies behind most of the health-giving properties for which turmeric is famed.
The only issue is that turmeric’s curcumin content is a little on the low side, making up just 3% of its weight, or thereabouts. Most studies looking into the benefits of curcumin and using turmeric extract that is a lot stronger in curcumin, typically use doses in excess of 1g daily.
It would be very hard to get this from dietary turmeric alone. It would mean eating around 30g of turmeric per day – far more than the teaspoonful most recipes call for! Because of this, plenty of people opt to use much more potent supplements.
In addition, your body will absorb curcumin really quite inefficiently.
Much of it will be wasted. To really benefit from it, we need to severely improve its bioavailability – your body’s ability to absorb a substance into the bloodstream.
Many supplements will therefore contain black pepper. Black pepper contains piperine, a natural ingredient included in many supplements for its ability to make all other ingredients far more bioavailable.
Thus, a turmeric supplement containing a condensed dose of curcumin mixed with a little piperine will do far more for you than simply using turmeric as a cooking ingredient.
The Benefits of Turmeric
It’s one of the best anti-inflammatory compounds
Curcumin is one of the best anti-inflammatory ingredients that money can buy. This will have quite profound ramifications for your overall health and wellbeing.
Inflammation is a necessary tool in your body’s arsenal. It triggers in order to fight infection and aid in repairing your body when it is damaged. It’s beneficial in the short term. However, it can become chronic, at which point it is very dangerous.
It can attack your body’s tissue and play a leading role in causing, aggravating, and/or perpetuating several diseases and health concerns, including cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and arthritis, to name just a few.
Anything that can stop chronic inflammation from becoming a problem is therefore a great ally in maintaining your long-term health and wellbeing.
Fighting inflammation is complex and still not fully understood. However, a good bioactive substance known for mitigating it will always form a core part of any plan.
And there are few better bioactive substances for fighting inflammation than curcumin.
It can help to fight oxidative damage
Oxidative damage underpins plenty of chronic diseases and plays a key role in the aging process.
In short, oxidative damage involves free radicals. These are incredibly reactive molecules containing unpaired electrons. In very simple terms, they bounce around the body like wrecking balls – they react with vital organic substances, not least DNA.
Antioxidants provide protection against free radicals and the damage they can cause. Curcumin is a particularly potent antioxidant, able to neutralize free radicals and take them out of the equation.
In fact, some studies suggest that curcumin might be able to hinder free radicals’ actions whilst simultaneously stimulate those of other antioxidants. They might be something of a force multiplier, then, causing your body to fight free radicals.
It can boost your brain’s health and function
It isn’t all about the mechanics of keeping your body healthy. Curcumin can also enhance brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Our brains’ neurons divide and multiply throughout our lives; they create new connections – a little like building new bridges. This aids brain plasticity and keeps our brains young.
One of the main motive forces behind this ability comes from brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
BDNF is a gene involved in stimulating the longevity of neurons. The protein it creates is key to memory and learning. It can be seen in disparate areas of the brain, such as those associated with eating, drinking, and maintaining body mass.
This is part of the reason that curcumin is so good at combatting neurodegenerative diseases, as mentioned above. Many common neurodegenerative diseases and brain disorders have been linked with diminished BDNF protein levels. This includes depression, a massive factor in daily modern wellbeing.
Though the clinical data needs fleshing out a bit, it appears as though curcumin may aid in mitigating, postponing, and possibly even reversing many brain diseases and decline related to the aging process.
In theory, higher levels of BDNF should also lead to improved cognitive abilities, though this is as yet far from certain.
It may hold heart disease at bay
We’ve already seen that, as an anti-inflammatory, curcumin can help to hold off chronic diseases like heart disease. However, the benefits to your heart go a little beyond this.
Heart disease is the world’s biggest killer, responsible for more deaths than any other disease.
Though a complex matter with many underlying and interwoven factors, there are steps in the onset or development of heart disease that curcumin may undermine and help to reverse.
The main benefit may come from curcumin’s ability to improve the endothelium’s function (the endothelium is your blood vessel’s lining). Dysfunction of the endothelium is an important driver for heart disease, with heart disease being characterized by your endothelium being unable to control things like blood clotting and pressure.
It may help to protect against cancer
As with heart disease, we have seen that curcumin’s status as a powerful antioxidant can ward against cancer. However, also as with heart disease, there is more at play.
Cancer is characterized by mutated, uncontrolled growth of your body’s cells. Curcumin can help to undermine this process, affecting cancer cell growth and development. It has been shown to contribute to cancer cells’ death, suppress the growth of new blood vessels found in tumors (angiogenesis), and stop the spread (metastasis) of cancer.
Though more clinical data are needed before we can fully comment on curcumin’s role in treating cancer in human patients, there is good quality evidence to support the idea that it may inhibit initial cancerous growth, especially in cancers connected to the digestive system (colorectal and bowel cancer, for example).
4 grams of curcumin per day taken by men suffering with lesions in the colon have been shown to reduce the number of lesions by almost half, for instance.
It can keep you younger for longer
We’ve already hinted at this, but compounds like curcumin really can help you to live longer, with delayed aging and less susceptibility to age-related diseases.
We have seen how it can combat many degenerative and chronic diseases of the kind typically suffered later in life – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes and so on. We have also seen that it is a great antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Oxidation and inflammation are key drivers in the aging process – mitigating them will keep you young.
Should You Take Turmeric?
The benefits offered by turmeric use are profound and far reaching. You can keep chronic disease at bay, live more comfortably, with greater health, and age at a far slower rate than you otherwise would by simply including plenty of curcumin in your diet.
This is important – you need plenty of curcumin, not just turmeric. As we have seen, turmeric doesn’t contain large enough amounts of curcumin to be clinically relevant, at least not in levels that are in any way practical to take.
Therefore, you should include turmeric in your cooking as and when it makes sense. You will be able to make plenty of decent curries and stews that will be a genuine delight to eat with just a few tablespoons of the stuff.
However, you should also supplement. Go for the big guns and take a decent curcumin supplement, laced with black pepper or pure piperine.
This will give you more than enough curcumin to be medically relevant and, probably, quite revolutionary to your health.