Turmeric is trending big time. You’ll find it in lattes, golden milk, immunity shots, and energy bars. Turmeric tea is a thing, and this brilliantly colored root spice has even been added to chocolate. A member of the ginger family, turmeric has been used medicinally for years around the globe, either directly or in concentrated extracts.
Turmeric really does live up to its healthy reputation, but with a few caveats. Here’s what you should know about the gorgeous spice, and how to take advantage of its many health benefits.
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Turmeric’s main claim to fame is its anti-inflammatory potency. Unchecked low-grade metabolic inflammation is a known trigger of premature aging, as well as chronic disease risk. It also exacerbates inflammatory conditions. This means turmeric can offer skin benefits, including improvements to psoriasis and eczema, in addition to other inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis, IBS, asthma, and even obesity.
Curcumin, turmeric’s active component, is the star
Several studies have found that the key protective compound in turmeric, called curcumin, reduces inflammation, and its effects are on par with some anti-inflammatory medications.
Curcumin also acts as an antioxidant, to counter damaging compounds called free radicals, and fight what’s known as oxidative stress. In a nutshell, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body’s ability to counter their harmful effects.
Because of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, turmeric has health benefits for skin, preventing or helping to repair visible signs of aging.
Curcumin has also been shown to increase levels of neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the brain. That’s crucial, because BDNF acts as a type of growth hormone that protects the brain from age-related decline or damage. Low BDNF levels are tied to depression, as well as Alzheimer’s.
Research also shows that curcumin inserts itself into cell membranes, which may help to boost cells’ resistance to damage, infection, and inflammation.
Curcumin protects the heart via its anti-inflammatory effects, and its ability to improve endothelial function, the function of the cells that make up the lining of our blood vessels.
The compound helps fight cancer through its ability to kill off cancer cells, and it prevent cells from growing and spreading. Research in this area typically uses higher doses of curcumin, however; much more than would be ingested from adding turmeric to a meal.
When it comes to combating depression, again curcumin is the standout. In one study, a curcumin supplement was found to be as effective as Prozac among people with depression.
In a review of studies, curcumin was shown to improve fasting blood sugar levels, reduce triglycerides (blood fats), improve “good” HDL cholesterol, and diastolic blood pressure.
In animal research, curcumin appears to play a role in detoxification, which essentially means helping to deactivate potentially damaging chemicals, or shuttle them out of the body more quickly.
Foods and products with turmeric: what to know
Turmeric can be purchased fresh, in the produce section, or dried, in the seasoning aisle.
It’s also been added to countless foods and products, but before you toss every turmeric-containing item you see into your cart, keep in mind that many contain just a scant amount of turmeric at best. Also, the spice is poorly absorbed without the addition of black pepper. Research shows that curcumin needs piperine, a substance found in black pepper, in order to be absorbed from the digestive system into the bloodstream.
If a turmeric product doesn’t contain pepper, you can add some yourself if that’s feasible, such as stirring black pepper into turmeric tea. Or, combine the food with another that contains black pepper, for example, pairing turmeric dark chocolate with fruit seasoned with a bit of the spice. (It may sound odd, but it’s a tasty combination!)
It’s also important to note that curcumin is fat soluble, meaning it needs to hitch a ride with fat in order to be transported from the gut into the body. To up absorption, whisk both turmeric and black pepper into a simple vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, garlic, lemon, and Italian herb seasoning. Sprinkle turmeric, black pepper, and sea salt onto a sliced avocado. Blend the duo into a fruit smoothie, along with nut butter or tahini. Or sprinkle it into an omelet made with veggies, herbs, and whole eggs.
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Finally, keep in mind that you can get too much of a good thing. I don’t recommend taking turmeric supplements, unless they’ve been prescribed (and will be monitored) by a physician, especially if you’re pregnant.
And don’t go overboard with turmeric root or powder. Too much turmeric has been linked to unwanted side effects, including reflux, low blood sugar, increased bleeding risk, reduced iron absorption, and worsened gallbladder problems.
Final words: Turmeric truly is a super food, thanks to its hard-working component, curcumin. Just be sure you’re using it correctly—and safely—in order to reap its research-backed benefits.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.