If you follow my blogs here at HuffPo, you'll know I like to shut down diet trends and wellness fads that aren't backed up by any sort of science. So, you also know that sooner or later I had to take a look at turmeric. Anyone who follows the wellness scene knows that turmeric is a thing and that 'Golden Mylk' and Turmeric 'lattes' are all the rage. I think they might actually be the same thing though ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ anyway, pretty sure they've been drinking them since forever in India.
You might be thinking, "here we go, turmeric is more BS that some marketing machine has spat out and we've fallen for it". Well, spoiler; TURMERIC IS AMAZING AND THERE'S LOTS OF GOOD SCIENCE TO PROVE IT.
And no, I don't have any connections to the supplement industry and I'm not a mouthpiece for big pharma. I just really like Turmeric.
Anyone who has ever made a curry will know that turmeric is that annoying yellow powder that stains your fingers and clothes. What you might not know is that it grows as root and is related to ginger - in fact, it looks like bright yellow ginger. Like I said, it's big in India.
A lot of the research around turmeric in humans has focussed on the active compound - curcumin (although later I'll argue that you might want to stick to turmeric powder). Let's look at the science.
Image Credit:Nutrition Stripped Turmeric Latte
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic degenerative disease causing inflammation in the joints. It's seriously uncool, and usually results in disability for around 80% of sufferers, as well as reducing life expectancy. The good news is, clinical trials are beginning to show that supplementation with turmeric is not only as effective as the standard of care drug (like diclofenac sodium), but that it may actually reduce symptoms more than treatment with drugs alone. PLUS, curcumin is really well tolerated by patients, without the side effects associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). That's pretty cool, right?
Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects 8 million people in the UK. That's like the population of Scotland AND Wales, combined. Like RA, osteoarthritis is a breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone causing joint pain and stiffness. A recent clinical trial randomised osteoarthritis sufferers to either an ibuprofen group, or a curcumin group; it appears that the turmeric extract was just as effective as ibuprofen for reducing pain. And in the case of going up or down stairs, may have been even better at reducing pain than the drug, and none of the side effects.
So turmeric appears to be a pretty solid anti-inflammatory but what else can it do? Well how about help protect DNA damage for a start? One study showed that just a tiny pinch of turmeric was able to reduce breakages in peoples' DNA by HALF! MIND BLOWN!
Turmeric on it's own is a powerful antioxidant, but it also seems to boost our body's' natural antioxidant enzymes - like the fun to say SUPEROXIDE DISMUTASE. If it sounds like a badass, it's because it is. The job of this enzyme is to take the free radical, superoxide (aka oxygen that has gone off the rails and turned bad) and turn it into good oxygen, or water. Some scientists think that stimulating antioxidant enzymes (by using things like turmeric) are more effective, and safer than simply taking antioxidant vitamin tablets (Like Vits A,C & E). This means that turmeric may be a useful chemoprotectant, i.e. it helps prevent cancer.
Plus, turmeric might help reduce the risk of heart disease in people with Type 2 diabetes, as well as help improve their metabolic profiles.
A lot of research has been done on the isolated curcumin compound but it seems as though there might be some benefit of taking the whole turmeric root or powder. After all, curcumin isn't the only compound in turmeric that has beneficial properties - a study that supplemented with curcumin-free turmeric showed that this type of supplement was also very effective - possibly because of a compound called turmerones. But, there are over 300 compounds in turmeric, so who knows?
Interestingly, it seems as though raw turmeric is better for anti-inflammatory effects, and cooked is best for protecting DNA. So, try and get a mixture of both. You can get fresh turmeric root at fruit & veg markets. Try grating fresh on top of a curry, or blend in a smoothie. Adding soy milk to your turmeric smoothie may DOUBLE the anti-inflammatory power for osteoarthritis sufferers too. (Subscribe to my newsletter to get a great tofu scramble recipe for that savoury turmeric - soya goodness). Black pepper can boost the potency of curcumin in turmeric by up to 2000% by slowing the rate of metabolism by the liver, so make sure and add a pinch to your meal.
Adding a source of fat (but NOT coconut oil) - like avocado, or nuts, also helps boost the absorption of turmeric.
If you don't like the taste of turmeric, you can always take supplements like this one from Solgar. It's basically just turmeric you can get in the supermarket, stuffed inside a capsule.
Turmeric has a really good safety record - meaning that even at high doses, there don't seem to be toxic effects. There are just a few exceptions though -turmeric can boost the activity of the gallbladder - which is usually a good thing, unless you have gallstones, in which case it will hurt like a mofo. Likewise, people with kidney stones need to be careful. ALWAYS, check with your doc before you go adding any supplements or changing up your diet. They'll most likely be cool with you adding turmeric in, but you may need to adjust meds if you have a pre-existing condition. Capisce?