Those of us who’ve recently started using turmeric in our smoothies and Asian-fusion recipes have come to this spice party a bit late. Archeologists working in India have found turmeric residue in clay pots dating to as early as 2500 BC. Throughout human history, the golden yellow-orange root, a member of the ginger family, has been prized for its supposed healing powers and use in religious ceremonies.
It’s only been within the last 25 years that modern medicine has taken notice. In that time, more than 3,000 scientific papers have explored the potential medicinal benefits of turmeric, according to the book Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects.
We took a look at some recent studies to learn what science says about what may happen to your body when you make turmeric a regular part of your diet. In short, researchers believe it’s turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that make the spice such a powerful healer. After all, inflammation and oxidative stress are implicated in many chronic diseases. Read on for the different ways turmeric may affect your body and then get the most from the spice with these 21 Winning Turmeric Recipes. One caveat: before taking turmeric supplements, check with your doctor to consider how it might affect prescription medication you are taking.
Knee osteoarthritis is one of the most painful and common age-related joint disorders. A typical first-line treatment is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac. In a small study in the journal Trials, researchers assigned 139 patients with knee osteoarthritis with either 500 milligrams of curcumin (the anti-inflammatory ingredient in turmeric) three times a day or a 50-milligram diclofenac tablet twice daily for 28 days. At days 14 and 28, the subjects receiving the turmeric reported a 50% improvement, similar pain relief noted by the subjects taking the prescription drug. Surprisingly, the researchers also noticed that those taking curcumin lost, on average, 2% of their body weight in four weeks.
A number of animal studies have suggested that curcumin may aid in weight loss and reduce belly fat. While much more research is needed, some small human studies indicate that bioavailable forms of curcumin supplementation may have a positive effect on body composition. A 2015 study of overweight people who had trouble losing weight on a 30-day diet and lifestyle change program showed that supplementing with 800 milligrams of curcumin for 30 days led to significant reductions in weight, body fat, and hip and waist circumference. These 10 Best Ways To Keep Belly Fat Off for Good, Say Experts can also help.
Several studies have suggested that turmeric may be effective in preventing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, including a 2009 study from the Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Program at Auburn University. That research compared curcumin, the bioactive compound in turmeric, to the common diabetes medication metformin, and found the anti-inflammatory spice to be even more potent than the prescription drug at lowering blood glucose. Other research published in 2012 in Diabetes Care tested curcumin supplementation in a group of 240 people with prediabetes. The subjects were randomly assigned to take either curcumin capsules or placebo capsules for nine months. After the test period, more than 16% of the people in the placebo group developed type 2 diabetes compared to none in the curcumin-treated group. Researchers say the study demonstrated that curcumin improves the function of insulin-producing β-cells in the pancreas. Diabetes is a result of the loss or dysfunction of these important cells.
Research has shown that curcumin can block certain inflammatory stimuli and suppress inflammation, which has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. A study in Advances in Nutrition in 2018 concluded that “supplementing the diet with curcumin, an anti-inflammatory polyphenolic compound from the curry spice turmeric, is a potential approach to prevent accelerated cognitive decline by counteracting chronic inflammatory processes.”
Other research indicates that curcumin may protect the brain from toxins—aluminum in particular. Aluminum is known to impair memory and spatial learning, and this metal can enter the human body through the gastrointestinal tract and lungs through cookware, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products.
In an animal study published in January 2021 in Biomed Research International, researchers injected aluminum chloride into mice that were given oral doses of turmeric extract and a turmeric extract essential oil. In the study, part of which put the mice through a challenging maze, the turmeric seemed to significantly reverse the cognitive symptoms from the toxic aluminum. What’s more, the turmeric fed to the mice seemed to protect brain cells in the hippocampus from damage.
While most studies show that turmeric is well-tolerated, some people experience heartburn and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), stomach upset, and diarrhea, according to RxList.com. Other potential side effects include low blood sugar, reduced blood clotting, iron deficiency, and negative interactions with prescription medications.
One significant problem with getting enough curcumin for our bodies to use for the potential benefits is that the compound is poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolized, and quickly eliminated. But another spice that you can add to your curry may negate that issue: black pepper. A review of research in the journal Foods showed that combining piperine, the key active ingredient in black pepper, with curcumin increased bioavailability by 2,000%. So, the next time you replenish your spice rack, grab some turmeric and black pepper, too, plus avoid these 18 Foods Making Your Heartburn Worse.