Turmeric: World’s Oldest Superspice?

Turmeric (pronounced TOO-mur-ick) is a plant stem that is finely ground and used in cooking primarily to provide curries and other foods with an enticing yellow color. Due to its rather mild flavor, many people overlook this spice thatís hiding in plain sight in the spice rack, but the health benefits of turmeric (aka Curcuma longa) are now getting documented with Western academic rigor, validating what ancient medicinal practice has believed for thousands of years. Turmeric has been used in food and as medicine for at least 4,000 years, first in India and other parts of Asia, and later in Africa and the Caribbean.

The key active compound in turmeric is curcumin, a polyphenol with increasingly evident anti-inflammatory properties, first identified in 1910. So what does modern science tell us about the health benefits of turmeric and, specifically, curcumin?

Slowing degenerative illnesses
One recent study, published in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy, linked turmeric extract to the growth of stem cells in the brains of live rats, potentially paving the way for new treatments of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Another study, published in the journal Gut, looked at damage to the liver caused by progressive inflammatory illnesses (primary sclerosing cholangitis and primary biliary cirrhosis). These conditions cause the liver's bile ducts to become inflamed, scarred and blocked. The damage to the tissues can be irreversible and cause progression to cirrhosis of the liver.

Researchers from Austria and the U.S. studied tissue and blood samples taken from mice with chronic liver inflammation. The samples were looked at before and after adding curcumin to their diets for a period of four or eight weeks. Being fed curcumin led to fewer blockages of the bile duct and less damage to cells in the liver and less scarring, while no such effects were seen in mice fed a normal diet. Interestingly, there were no extra benefits if the mice were fed curcumin for eight weeks rather than four.

Breast cancer therapy
The anti-cancer potential of curcumin was examined in a study that found with controlled release, the compound was toxic to the breast cancer cell line known as MCF-7. One shortcoming of curcumin is its poor bioavailability, meaning that the body does not easily absorb it, but this study illustrates how this can be overcome. Here the researchers loaded curcumin in gum arabic aldehyde-gelatin nanogels to improve its bioavailability. The researchers were confident enough in the cancer-killing properties of curcumin that they observed to declare its suitability in nanogel form as a cancer therapy.

Treating colitis and IBS
Researchers are testing the effects of turmeric on everything from achy joints to blood sugar management and finding various promising results. Some of the most promising, however, have been found in curcumin’s application in inflammatory disorders, as with the liver-disease study above. Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis are two other areas of promise.

In one study, the preventive effects of curcumin on inflammation were assessed using dextran sulfate sodium (DSS)-induced colitis in mice. After curcumin treatment for just six days, the disease activity index of the mice with colitis was alleviated. Levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNFα, IL-1β and IL-6 were also consistently repressed.

This study did not find the curcumin as deployed to be of antioxidant value, though other studies have. The authors write, “Curcumin reduced the amount of nitrite in DSS-induced colitis but did not affect total S-nitrosylation level on proteins on day 6, indicating that curcumin inhibited NO oxidation.”

Alleviating renal dysfunction
And finally, a study in the journal Cytokine has found that curcumin ameliorates chemotherapy-induced kidney damage in rats. Curcumin also effectively reduced a type of white blood cell that encourages inflammation (M1 macrophages).

Treatment with curcumin additionally suppressed inflammatory protein expression and increased M2 macrophage presence, the type of white blood cell that can turn off damaging immune-system activation and promote tissue repair while reducing inflammation. M2 macrophages can also remove cholesterol from blood cells.

A good deal more research seems warranted to further understand this potentially health-changing compound, so readily available in what ought to become an everyday spice. To that end, below are a few ideas on how to increase the curcumin in your diet.

Cooking with turmeric
Its mild flavor makes curcumin-rich turmeric an easy addition to your daily diet. Sprinkle turmeric generously in pasta, rice or potato dishes; on fish or chicken and in meatballs; and in soups, stews, curries, casseroles and chili. If you are considering a curcumin supplement, on the other hand, discuss with your doctor whether it may interfere with any medications you are on, most notably blood pressure meds like talinolol, a beta blocker whose effectiveness high daily doses of curcumin may adversely affect. Turmeric only contains between 2 and 5% curcumin, so recipes involving the spice are another matter from pill forms of the compound.

If you’re looking for ideas, try the turmeric recipes listed here that you may not have considered before.

Materials Science and Engineering, Aug. 2016, Vol. 65, pp. 331-337

International Immunopharmacology, Sep. 2016, Vol. 38, pp. 1-7

Cytokine, Aug. 2016, Vol. 84, pp. 1–9

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