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What are the health benefits of turmeric?

What are the health benefits of turmeric?

Even if you know very little about herbal and traditional medicines, you’ve probably come across one in particular: turmeric.
 
Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its distinctive golden yellow colour, which explains why it’s sometimes called Indian saffron. In fact, if you’re a fan of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines, you’re probably already getting some turmeric in your diet. But besides making food look and taste good, turmeric is thought to have several health benefits – indeed, it has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years in countries such as China and India. Today, many people around the world take turmeric to support their wellbeing, with the spice often described as a ‘super food.’
 
As far as we can tell, turmeric was probably first used as a culinary spice around 4,000 years ago in India (i). In fact, most of the turmeric in the world is grown in India, which is also where 80 per cent of it is consumed (i). The spice comes from a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant called Curcuma longa – a member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). The rhizomes (underground stems) are dug up once a year, boiled and left to dry in the sun. When they are fully dried, the rhizomes are ground into the yellow powder we know as turmeric.
 

What’s in turmeric?


More than 100 components have been isolated from turmeric, including plant compounds called curcuminoids. The most prevalent and important of these curcuminoids is curcumin – also called diferuloylmethane – a yellow pigment or polyphenol that’s responsible for the majority of turmeric’s claimed health-supporting properties. Meanwhile other components of turmeric include sugars, proteins, resins and volatile oils.
 
An analysis of turmeric shows that 100g of turmeric breaks down as follows (i):
 
390 kcal
 
10g fat (including 3g saturated fat)
 
0mg cholesterol
 
0.2g calcium
 
0.26g phosphorous
 
10mg sodium
 
2500mg potassium
 
47.5mg iron
 
0.9mg thiamine (vitamin B1)
 
0.19mg riboflavin (vitamin B2)
 
4.8mg niacin (vitamin B3)
 
50mg ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
 
69.9g total carbohydrates
 
21g fibre
 
3g sugars
 
8g protein
 

What is turmeric good for?


Turmeric has a long history of traditional use as a herbal medicine. In Ayurveda – the ancient Indian medical system – turmeric has many applications for energy and digestion support, menstrual health, arthritis, respiratory health, liver health, as well as coughs, sinusitis and a runny nose. In traditional Chinese medicine, turmeric is often used for conditions that cause abdominal discomfort.
 
Nowadays it’s also used as an antiseptic in many South Asian countries, helping to clean wounds and speed up healing, while in Pakistan turmeric is commonly used to relieve gastrointestinal discomfort and as an anti-inflammatory medicine. In India, some people also use turmeric as a treatment for skin conditions.
 
Turmeric – or more specifically curcumin – has two main properties that explain many of the effects it has on our health: it acts as an anti-inflammatory and as an antioxidant.
 

Anti-inflammation  


nflammation is widely believed to play a key role in the development of many serious diseases and health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease, dementia and cognitive decline – to name but a few. Curcumin is thought to negate inflammation in a number of ways, including reducing the concentration of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines in the blood (ii).
 

Antioxidation  


Many diseases are also thought to be caused by oxidative damage in the body caused by molecules commonly known as free radicals. Scientists believe curcumin works in several different ways to neutralise these molecules, including inhibiting enzymes that generate reactive oxygen species (a type of free radicals) (iii).
 
Some of the specific indications’ curcumin has been found useful for are:
 

Heart health

 
Taking turmeric may be a good idea if you want to keep your heart healthy, since inflammation and oxidation often play a significant role in the development of heart disease. Researchers have discovered curcumin may help improve some of the factors that contribute to heart disease, suggesting it may protect against cardiac diseases largely through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms (iv).
 
Curcumin may also help keep your heart healthy by lowering the amount of ‘bad’ cholesterol in your blood, with one review of seven studies suggesting it benefits people at risk of developing cardiovascular disease by doing exactly that (v).
 

Joint health

 
Turmeric may be helpful if you have aching joints, with one study finding curcumin may be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, including arthritis of the knee (vi). Another trial has even found that turmeric supplements may be as effective for knee osteoarthritis as the anti-inflammatory painkiller ibuprofen (vii). And there’s similar evidence curcumin may be as effective for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms as another anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac (viii).
 

Immune health

 
Many scientists have shown interest in the effect curcumin may have on the human immune system. Writing in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, researchers suggest curcumin appears to be an antimicrobial agent and modifies the body’s immune system by interacting with immune cells such as macrophages, dendritic cells, B cells, T cells and natural killer cells (ix). Indeed, some experts suggest many of curcumin’s reported beneficial health effects might be due in part to its ability to modulate the immune system (x).
 

Digestive health

 
Turmeric may help with several health problems that affect digestive health too. In one study, more than 200 volunteers with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) took either one or two supplements containing turmeric extract a day. After eight weeks, two thirds of both groups said their symptoms had improved (xi).
 
Turmeric may also be useful for healing stomach ulcers, with one study finding 76 per cent of volunteers no longer had an ulcer after 12 weeks of treatment (xii). An older study also found that turmeric may be helpful for people with indigestion – though the results showed it was less effective than conventional indigestion medicines called antacids (xiii).
 

Cognitive health

 
Early research suggests curcumin may have benefits for brain health, as it’s been found to increase levels of a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain. BDNF supports learning and memory, and some brain conditions including Alzheimer’s disease have been linked to low levels (xiv). Unfortunately, however, only animal studies so far support this, so we cant be absolutely sure that curcumin would increase BDNF levels in humans. We do know, however, that inflammation and oxidative damage can be linked with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, and that curcumin has properties that have an effect on both.
 
Meanwhile, curcumin may also have benefits for mental health, with one small-scale study concluding it may be a safe and effective treatment for people with major depressive disorder (xv).
 

Muscle recovery

 
Turmeric is becoming increasingly popular as a post-workout sports supplement too, as some experts believe it may help with muscle rehabilitation and recovery. One small-scale study, for instance, suggests curcumin may help reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness (DOMS) in volunteers taking part in a downhill running test (xvi), while another trial has discovered it may help reduce recovery time after exercise (xvii).
 

What’s the best way to take turmeric?


If you’re interested in taking turmeric, should you just add it to your diet – or should you consider taking a supplement?
 
Turmeric is a commonly used spice in Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian cuisines, plus it can easily be added to many other dishes (and is widely available in supermarkets, including as a spice in its own right and in curry powder blends). There is also a growing number of food products that contain turmeric, including turmeric tea, turmeric latte mixes, vinegar and even turmeric sauerkraut
 
However, the amount of curcumin found naturally in turmeric is quite low – around three per cent by weight (xviii). Studies that have found positive evidence for the health properties of turmeric (including those mentioned above) tend to use either pure curcumin or turmeric extracts that have been designed to contain very high levels of curcumin – far higher than you’d normally expect to find in a curry or by adding a pinch or two of turmeric to your food.
 
This is why, if your aim is to harness any of the health benefits curcumin offers, it’s a good idea to also take a good-quality, high-dose turmeric supplement with a high curcumin content.
 
However, it’s not just about making sure you’re getting enough curcumin. That’s because curcumin has poor bioavailability, which means your body doesn’t absorb it very effectively. Some supplement manufacturers have added a substance called piperine – a compound found in black pepper – to their turmeric products, as there are experts who believe it improves the absorption rate of curcumin into the blood (iii). But other scientists have found piperine may cause increased side effects in people taking certain prescription medicines as it increases the blood concentration of some drugs (xix).
 
The good news is there are other turmeric supplements that have been treated to increase their bioavailability but don’t contain piperine. For instance, some turmeric tablets have been designed to break down quickly in your stomach after you take them, which helps with absorption. Others contain curcumin that has been treated to make it more soluble, which also makes it easier for the body to absorb.
 

When should you take it?

 
Taking a turmeric supplement every day will help build up your body’s levels of curcumin. And since curcumin is a fat-soluble compound – which means it breaks down in fat or oil – it’s a good idea to take your supplement with whichever of your daily meals contains the most fat (for most people this will be their evening meal).
 

Is it safe to take turmeric?

 
Curcumin has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as ‘Generally Recognized As Safe’ (GRAS), with clinical trials showing it has good tolerability and safety profiles (iii).
 
According to Patient UK, however, taking large amounts of turmeric may cause mild side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and stomach pain (xx). Experts claim high doses of curcumin may also interact with some medicines, including painkillers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, paracetamol and indomethacin, as well as the blood-thinning medication drug warfarin, some chemotherapy drugs and an immunosuppressive drug called tacrolimus (xxi).
 
Meanwhile turmeric in doses higher than those commonly found in food may be unsuitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding (check with your doctor or midwife if you’re considering taking any supplements while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding).
 
If you do decide to take a turmeric supplement, always follow the dosage instructions on the packaging carefully.
 

Need more information?

 
Find out more about inflammation and how it affects your wellbeing in our guide. There’s also lots of information on a wide range of health conditions including what you can do to help yourself in our pharmacy health library.


 

References:

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  2. . Effects of curcumin on serum cytokine concentrations in subjects with metabolic syndrome: A post-hoc analysis of a randomized controlled trial. Biomed Pharmacother. ;82:578-82. Available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0753332216303997?via=ihub

  3. . Curcumin: A Review of Its’ Effects on Human Health. Foods. ;6(10)92. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5664031/

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  5. . Efficacy and safety of turmeric and curcumin in lowering blood lipid levels in patients with cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr J. ;16:68. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5637251/

  6. . Short-term effects of highly-bioavailable curcumin for treating knee osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled prospective study. J Orthop Sci. ; 19(6): 933-939. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4244558/

  7. . Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study. Clin Interv Aging. ;9:451-8. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3964021/

  8. . A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Phytother Res. ;26(11):1719-25. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ptr.4639

  9. . The Impact of Curcumin on Immune Response: An Immunomodulatory Strategy to Treat Sepsis. Int J Mol Sci. ; 23(23):14710. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9738113/

  10. “Spicing Up” of the Immune System by Curcumin. J Clin Immunol. 2007 Jan;27(1):19-35. Available online: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10875-006-9066-7

  11. Turmeric extract may improve irritable bowel syndrome symptomology in otherwise healthy adults: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Dec;10(6):1015-8. Available online: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2004.10.1015

  12. Phase II clinical trial on effect of the long turmeric (Curcuma longa Linn) on healing of peptic ulcer. Southeast Asian J Trop Med Public Health. 2001 Mar;32(1):208-15. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11485087/

  13. Curcuma longa Linn. in the treatment of gastric ulcer comparison to liquid antacid: a controlled clinical trial. J Med Assoc Thai. 1993 Nov;76(11):601-5. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7964234/

  14. Lower brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels are associated with age-related memory impairment in community-dwelling older adults: the Sefuri study. Scientific Reports. 2020 Oct 1;10(Article number: 16442). Available online: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73576-1

  15. Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):579-85. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ptr.5025

  16. Reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness by a novel curcumin delivery system (Meriva®): a randomised, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:31. Available online: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-11-31

  17. Reduced inflammatory and muscle damage biomarkers following oral supplementation with bioavailable curcumin. BBA Clin. 2016 Jun;5:72-78. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4802396/

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  19. Piperine, a major constituent of black pepper, inhibits human P-glycoprotein and CYP3A4. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2002 Aug;302(2):645-50. Available online: https://jpet.aspetjournals.org/content/302/2/645

  20. Available online: https://patient.info/news-and-features/is-turmeric-good-for-you

  21. Available online: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/turmeric-benefits

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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.

 
 
Our Author - Christine Morgan

Christine

Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.

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