TURMERIC: THE TRUE SUPERFOOD
Turmeric is one of the most brightly coloured spices, best known for making curry a shade of deep yellow. Created from the root of a plant named Curcuma longa, this spice has long been used in Indian cooking, but also in the traditional medicine of both Chinese and Indian cultures too. It’s an interesting fact that turmeric has also recently been incorporated into western medicine, and there have been a large number of studies into the spice’s effectiveness for a range of diseases and complaints.
Turmeric contains minerals such as manganese, iron and vitamin B6, but the compounds that have been studied the most and which create the most medicine-like effects are curcuminoids, the most important of these being curcumin. It’s this active ingredient which creates turmeric’s biggest health benefits, such as reducing bodily inflammation, improving digestion and aiding the antioxidant capabilities of the body.
One of turmerics primary benefits to the body, and one that’s been known by civilisations for thousands of years, is it’s ability to provide a very strong anti inflammatory effect. It’s become apparent that a number of chronic health conditions such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s have their beginnings in bodily inflammation. Turmeric is a such a potent anti inflammatory agent because curcumin is able to block inflammatory pathways in the body, and the spice has been used in a number of studies involving arthritis. In one particular study, the effects of the spice were more potent than that of an anti inflammatory drug and it’s able to reduce joint inflammation while having an anti-arthritic effect that reduces pain and movement problems for sufferers. It has been suggested that regularly consuming turmeric may help to prevent such diseases as well as treat them.
Another of the many turmerics health benefits is that it can protect the body from free radical damage by bolstering the body’s antioxidant defences. Oxidative damage happens when free radicals, which are damaging molecules, react with important substances within the body such as DNA. This can cause a host of diseases and bodily problems. However, the curcumin contained in turmeric is able to create protection by increasing the body’s protective enzymes and damaging the free radicals themselves. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of turmeric have led some scientists to theorise that regularly consuming the spice may also help to slow down ageing processes in the body. This has not yet been proven, but is partially based on the fact that populations that use large amounts of turmeric in cooking and medicine have a different and more limited set of ageing related diseases compared to western populations.
Heart health is another area in which turmeric could play a medicinal role, as it’s been shown to strengthen the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, and help them to work more efficiently. Because it’s important for the proper functioning of blood clotting and blood pressure, problems with the endothelium can cause a number of different issues in the body that all contribute to heart disease. Not only have studies compared the medicinal properties of turmeric to drugs that treat high cholesterol, but it’s also been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack in coronary artery bypass patients.
Turmeric has long been noted as an ‘old wives tale’ for improving digestion, but the curcuminoid curcumin has actually been officially approved for this use in Germany. It seems that the compound is able to stimulate the gallbladder so that more bile is produced, which makes it helpful for people with IBS and bowel diseases. In particular, curcumin has been used in patients with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and even simple stomach upset, who all benefited from the results.
It isn’t just the body that turmeric is healthy for, a number of studies have shown that it could be a powerful medicinal tool for the mind as well. The curcumin in turmeric is able to cross the blood brain barrier, creating positive effects such as increasing the brain levels of BDNF. BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a hormone that helps brain neurons multiply and connect and low levels of this hormone can cause mental health problems such as Alzheimer’s and depression. More research is needed, but at least one study has linked the intake of at least a gram of curcumin a day to positive effects that even trumped the antidepressant prozac, so the mental health benefits of turmeric may be stronger than previously thought.
Although turmeric does provide a good number of health benefits that have so far been proven to both treat and prevent several conditions, it’s worth noting that not all turmerics on the market are as potent as each other. The majority of the studies used turmeric that contains large amounts of curcumin, much more than the usual 3% found in lots of samples. Curcumin can be destroyed by the heating process that the spice undergoes when it’s processed, so for the maximum turmeric health benefits it really pays to buy raw when you can and check to see if the curcumin content is listed on the packaging. In addition, curcumin isn’t absorbed well by the body, but thankfully there’s an easy remedy for that- taking black pepper along with your daily ration of the spice will improve its bloodstream absorption by up to 2000%.
So you know all about turmeric’s health uses and you want to give it a try to see if it will help you, but how exactly do you incorporate it into your daily diet? The fragrant taste of the spice is warm and slightly peppery, which makes it great to add into a number of dishes. It can raise the recipe to another level if you add a little more than normal to your curry, but those who don’t like curry can also enjoy turmeric in salad dressings, on sautéed cauliflower, in soups or lentil dishes. Turmeric is also brilliant with eggs and can be added to everything from scrambled eggs to savoury pancake batters. You can also try adding turmeric into your smoothies with fruit and veggies such as carrots, oranges and peppers.
If none of those ideas are for you, some people swear by ‘golden milk’ which is dairy free and makes for a very warming drink. Add to a saucepan half a teaspoon of turmeric paste, a teaspoon of coconut oil, a cup of almond milk (or your favourite dairy free milk) and a little honey or natural sweetener to taste. Mix these together and warm gently for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool before drinking for a delicious way to increase your turmeric intake.