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Turmeric Rx: Centuries-old Indian spice may have multiple health benefits

Turmeric powder and fresh turmeric root from Patel Bros. Indian grocery store in Monroeville, Pa. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Turmeric powder and fresh turmeric root from Patel Bros. Indian grocery store in Monroeville, Pa. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Over the centuries, the root-like stem of the Curcuma longa plant has been used to make yellow dyes and spike food with some tasty zing. But an ever-growing mountain of evidence shows that boldly colored turmeric with its earthy, bitter-gingery taste may offer a plethora of potential health benefits.

Multiple studies – most originating in India, Europe and Australia – show that turmeric, and especially its color-rich constituent of curcumin, can help prevent or treat a wide spectrum of cancers, inflammatory conditions, autoimmune problems, neurological ailments including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and diabetes neuropathy, among other metabolic diseases.

Interest in turmeric and curcumin began decades ago when researchers began asking why India has some of the lowest rates of colorectal, prostate and lung cancer in the world, compared with the United States, whose rates are up to 13 times higher. They traced India’s advantages largely to its diet staple of curry powder, which is a combination of spices, with turmeric as a main ingredient.

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A recent review published in the journal Molecules said studies to date “suggest that chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and most chronic diseases are closely linked, and that antioxidant properties of curcumin can play a key role in the prevention and treatment of chronic inflammation diseases.”

An M.D. Anderson Cancer Center review of curcumin research, in the journal Phytotherapy Research in 2014, found that it regulates inflammation that “plays a major role in most chronic illnesses, including neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases.”

Yet another M.D. Anderson study found that curcumin exhibits “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities,” all bolstering its “potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic illnesses.”

There are no guarantees that turmeric or its active ingredient of curcumin will work for everyone. Researchers also caution that they may delay but not prevent, or slow down but not stop, a medical condition.

The Curcuma longa plant is a member of the ginger family. Curcumin makes up 3.4 percent of the turmeric root-stem or rhizome but provides its color and many of its health benefits. Curcumin is available only as a supplement or by eating turmeric spice.

Don’t confuse curcumin with cumin, which is a spicy seed or spice powder made from the seed and another common ingredient in curry with its own healthful properties. Cumin is unrelated to turmeric or the similar-sounding curcumin.

The NPD Group’s Kitchen Audit, conducted every three years, shows that a steady 40 percent of American kitchens since 2008 have had curry “on hand,” with turmeric showing a slow but steady rise in popularity by being available in 28 percent of American kitchens in 2008, 30 percent in 2011 and 33 percent in 2014.

“Turmeric, I’ve learned, is often used as a substitute for curry, which could account for curry powder not increasing in household penetration,” NPD Group spokeswoman Kim McLynn said.

The cascade of research about the healthful qualities of turmeric, curcumin and curry haven’t been lost on two Pittsburgh researchers.

Joseph Maroon, the noted University of Pittsburgh Medical Center neurosurgeon, says he uses curcumin supplements as part of his health regimen as an ultra-marathon runner. He also recommends the use of curcumin and fish oil to his patients with pain and inflammation from degenerative conditions of the spine, neck and lower back. He said 17,000 Americans die each year from over-the-counter, nonsteroidal pain medications.

He was lead author of a 2006 study, “Natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief in athletes,” that concludes that “Curcumin’s therapeutic effects are considered comparable to pharmaceutical nonsteroidal medications … but with a major difference in that this compound is relatively nontoxic and free of side effects.”

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