Turmeric: Miracle Spice or Herbal Myth?
All of a sudden, this yellow stuff is everywhere. It’s being stirred into your smoothies and heaped into products at your favorite health-food store. It’s in every hot recipe from curries to cocktails. But this herb is certainly not new. So what’s the deal with turmeric as a health trend?
Turmeric (also known as curcuma longa) is a native plant from India and part of the ginger root family. It’s what gives Indian curry its yellow coloring and flavor. (It’s also used in mustard, and colors our butter and cheese.) Turmeric has been used for over 4,000 years to treat a variety of things — first to treat cloth as a dying agent, later to treat food as a seasoning, and even later to treat a great number of maladies. A quick search on the web seems to endow turmeric with the ability to do everything from reducing inflammation to fighting cancer… and it’s pretty tasty, too. If the rumors are true, this is a wonder drug if ever our pantries have seen one!
But while everyone loves a good kitchen-cabinet-to-medicine-cabinet cure-all, we wanted to find out more about this current turmeric craze. Is the herb really that good for us, or should we slow down and proceed on the yellow stuff with caution?
Used in ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory, turmeric is still used today as a curative treatment — and as a preventative measure — for a variety of conditions, from osteoarthritis to cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, dementia, and many skin problems, like psoriasis and eczema. All the way back in 250 BC, there is documented evidence of turmeric being used to promote a healthy digestive system, to enhance brain function, and balance the effects of skin flora. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the spice is still spicing things up. But then again, an herb’s historical use doesn’t necessarily prove that is has modern medicinal value.
Numerous more recent studies have shown turmeric to have anti-inflammatory properties — as well as helpfulness in treating osteoarthritis, certain gastrointestinal disorders, and depression — but it should be noted that results are contentious. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database has reviewed these available scientific studies and concluded that turmeric is “Likely Safe,” and “Possibly Effective” for dyspepsia and osteoarthritis, but that there is “Insufficient Reliable Evidence” to rate its effectiveness in cases involving conditions like Alzheimer’s, colorectal cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or skin cancer. Additionally, it’s important to understand that turmeric’s cancer curing studies up to this point have only been conducted on animals (mainly rodents), and thus are inconclusive on humans.
Those that believe in the power of turmeric insist that it can tame heartburn and an upset stomach; it may ward off heart attacks, delay diabetes, protect the brain, and, yes, possibly be the cure for cancer. Whether this is true or not, incorporating a dash of turmeric into your diet isn’t a bad gamble. If you want to add turmeric to your life, but not necessarily your menu, try supplements. Both turmeric and curcumin (the main active component of turmeric) supplements are available. Be sure to pick one that contains piperine, a constituent of black pepper, it helps the body to absorb the turmeric.
That said, adverse side effects can exist. Sprinkling some in your morning tea is totally fine, but taking large amounts for long periods of time may cause an upset stomach and possible ulcers. It is generally agreed that turmeric is safe to eat in foods, but high doses have caused indigestion, nausea, vomiting, reflux, diarrhea, liver problems, and worsening of gallbladder disease. Turmeric can lower your blood sugar level, so be careful if you are diabetic. And the herb can also act as a blood thinner, so be sure to stop taking it two weeks before surgery. Pregnant and breastfeeding women shouldn’t take turmeric supplements (though it is still safe to eat in foods), and supplements (though not generally the edible spice) may alter the effects of some drugs — like decreasing the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs.
In short, consult your doctor before deciding on a turmeric regimen — especially through the use of supplements. This trending ancient remedy may be the stuff of legend… or it just might be the most superior spice we’ve ever seen.