Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a culinary spice, a major ingredient in Indian curries, and the source of American mustard's bright yellow color. Used as both medicine and food for centuries, accumulating evidence suggests that this relative of ginger is a promising preventive agent for a wide range of diseases, probably due largely to its anti-inflammatory properties.
The National Institutes of Health lists 24 current studies on the effects of turmeric and its chief active component, curcumin. Such studies raise the question of which is better to take: whole turmeric, generally used as a powdered spice with food; or curcumin, which is usually taken as a supplement? Each has been shown to have health benefits, but unless you have a specific condition such as inflammatory bowel disease, I favor using turmeric (especially in cooking) rather than taking curcumin pills. This reflects my general belief that, until proven otherwise in head to head studies, whole plants are usually a better choice than isolates. On the other hand, curcumin appears to have a more rapid and dramatic effect, and may be the better choice as a therapeutic (rather than a preventative) preparation.
Here's a quick roundup of recent research on both turmeric and curcumin.
- Curcumin seems to delay liver damage that can eventually lead to cirrhosis, according to preliminary experimental research at the Medical University Graz in Austria.
- Kansas State University research found that adding certain spices, including turmeric, can reduce the levels of heterocyclic amines - carcinogenic compounds that are formed when meats are barbecued, boiled or fried - by up to 40 percent.
- Rodent studies at the University of Texas indicate that curcumin inhibits the growth of a skin cancer, melanoma and also slows the spread of breast cancer into the lungs.
- Researchers from the University of South Dakota have found that pretreatment with curcumin makes cancer cells more vulnerable to chemo and radiotherapy.
- Epidemiologists have hypothesized that the turmeric that is part of daily curries eaten in India may help explain the low rate of Alzheimer's disease in that country. Among people aged 70 to 79, the rate is less than one-quarter that of the United States.
This research, from Italy, was a three-month trial involving 50 patients diagnosed by x-ray with osteoarthritis of the knee. The Italian team was investigating the effect on arthritis symptoms of a curcumin-based preparation optimized for better absorption. Participating patients took the formulation in addition to standard medical treatment; those in the second group continued following their physicians' recommendations.
After 90 days, the researchers found a 58 percent decrease in overall reported pain and stiffness as well as an improvement in physical functioning among the curcumin group compared to the controls. They also found, via a standardized testing procedure, a 300 percent improvement in the emotional well being of the curcumin patients compared with the others. And blood tests showed a 16-fold decline in C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. Patients in the curcumin group were able to reduce their use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs by 63 percent, compared to the other group.
The bottom line that the therapeutic advantages of turmeric and curcumin are almost too numerous to list. An overview published in Advanced Experimental Medical Biology in 2007 states that, "Curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic illnesses."
If you find this compelling, there are many ways to add turmeric to your diet. Some Americans may find straight turmeric powder bitter or otherwise off-putting, but when a teaspoon or two is added to a pot of soup or stew, the flavor disperses and adds a subtle depth and complexity that most people find appealing. If even that's too much for you, both turmeric and curcumin supplements are now widely available - just take one along with your daily multivitamin. Note, however, that turmeric and curcumin are poorly absorbed from the G.I. tract. A recent finding is that absorption is enhanced in the presence of piperine, a constituent of black pepper. Indian cuisine commonly uses turmeric and pepper together. I suggest using only turmeric and curcumin supplements that contain piperine or black pepper extract.
If, like me, you love the flavor of turmeric, try this recipe for turmeric tea.
Naturally, there's far more to good health than adding this spice to your meals. But as part of an overall plan that includes an anti-inflammatory diet, regular exercise, stress-reduction and prudent supplementation, a daily sprinkle of turmeric in your cooking can be a valuable addition to your healthy lifestyle, and a great habit with which to begin a happy new year!
About the author
Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of DrWeil.com.