I often hear people say they have heard turmeric is good for them but they aren’t sure exactly why, or which health conditions they might take it for. In addition, where to buy turmeric and how to take it can be other questions people have about this spice.
I aimed to write this blog as a Turmeric: 101. First, let’s take a brief look at the origins of turmeric and the history of its use. Then we’ll look at some of the researched health benefits of turmeric, where you can buy it and how you can eat it, drink it and cook with it.
Native to southern India and Indonesia, turmeric has been cultivated and harvested since 3,000 BC. It has played a role in many Asian cultures and is still used by Hindus today for ritual and as a dye, and has long been valued in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. It is the rhizome (root) that is used in cooking and medicinally.
While Arab traders brought turmeric to Europe in the 13thC, its popularity in Western cultures is a recent happening, owing to the ongoing research on the medicinal benefits of turmeric’s yellow pigment, curcumin.
Curcumin has been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antimicrobial effects. Curcumin appears to be able to both prevent cancer and stop existing cancer spreading. Let's take a look at curcumin’s anti-cancer and associated liver-supporting effects.
One way curcumin may prevent cancer is through its antioxidant nature. Antioxidants can chemically react with and thus remove free radicals. The free radicals might otherwise oxidize the molecules of our cells, creating more free radicals in the process, in a chain reaction that can damage our healthy cells, disrupt normal cell signalling, and lead to cancer. Antioxidants are thus sacrificed in their function of protecting cells.
Curcumin’s antioxidant nature may be especially helpful for maintaining the health of our epithelial tissue, which has a high cell turnover. Epithelial tissue is one of four key tissue types in the human body; it is a sheet of cells that either covers body surfaces or lines body cavities. We know epithelial tissue best as the epidermis of our skin; it also lines hollow structures like our mouth, esophagus, stomach, colon, bladder, the ducts of some glands, and parts of our respiratory system. Around 80–90% of cancer cases originate in epithelial tissue. Curcumin has been shown to support regeneration and healing of epithelial tissue through various mechanisms, and its antioxidant nature supports normal cell turnover by helping to neutralise any free radicals that are generated.
Curcumin appears to inhibit cancer in other ways too. Several studies have found curcumin inhibits both the growth and spread of cancer cells by inhibiting nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kB). NF-kB is a protein involved in immune and inflammatory responses and cellular growth that is persistently active in many illnesses, including cancer. By inhibiting NF-kB, curcumin suppresses expression of NF-kB-regulated gene products, resulting in suppression of cancer cell survival and proliferation, and induction of cell death in cancer cells.
Curcumin also helps destroy mutated cancer cells so they can no longer spread through the body and cause harm, and a key way it does this is by enhancing the processes of the liver. Curcumin increases formation of glutathione. Glutathione is vital for the two phases of liver detoxification, and especially for converting fat-soluble toxins (e.g., heavy metal, pesticides) into water-soluble toxins during Phase II so the body can eliminate them through urine. By enhancing glutathione production, curcumin enhances the liver’s ability to detoxify cancer-causing compounds such as the toxins mentioned above.
Another study showed that when curcumin is combined with phenethyl isothiocyanates, a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, both the growth and spread of cancerous cells in prostate cancer is significantly reduced. India has low rates of prostate cancer, and the high consumption there of both turmeric and vegetable curries could be a factor in this.
To learn more about the ways curcumin may inhibit tumour development and growth, check out this 2009 study: Curcumin and Cancer Cells: How Many Ways Can Curry Kill Tumour Cells Selectively?
In addition to the many studies on curcumin’s anticancer effects in different types of cancer, other studies are finding evidence for its possible roles in treating Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and more. It has also been studied for its role in supporting surgical recovery.
Ways to enjoy turmeric in your meals (please source organic if possible, especially if buying turmeric powder)
For health maintenance, you can simply buy the powdered form of turmeric used in curries or fresh turmeric root from good health and organics stores that sell fresh produce and bulk spices, and from farmers’ markets.
Large intake of curcumin is not advised for pregnant women. Please note, there is a difference between taking a concentrated curcumin supplement and taking a 'food dose' by adding turmeric to a curry. Food doses may be safe, please discuss with your health professional if you are pregnant or aiming to become pregnant and you are routinely consuming turmeric or curcumin supplements.
People with known or suspected biliary tract/duct obstructions (such as gallstones) should be careful about consuming high doses of curcumin because it facilitates the pumping action of the gallbladder.
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