You may have heard that turmeric is loaded with health benefits. And it's true: the spice is getting a reputation as a nutrition powerhouse, potentially protecting against Alzheimer's disease, cancer, arthritis and depression. You may know turmeric best as the spice in many curry dishes, lending warm and peppery notes and golden color. Although it has been around for thousands of years, turmeric has recently surged in popularity and might just be one of the hottest nutrition trends—you can now find turmeric teas, golden milk, turmeric shots and more. Here's what you need to know about turmeric's health benefits and how to use it.
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Health Benefits of Turmeric
Many studies have been done on the healing properties of curcumin—the active compound in turmeric—in regard to diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis and depression. Most of the research has turned up positive results, but many studies have looked at the effects of supplemental curcumin (extracted from turmeric), rather than consuming turmeric with foods. Also, turmeric is not well absorbed by the body, and much of the research has been performed in the lab or in animals, rendering some results more conclusive than others. That said, here's what the latest on the health benefits of turmeric.
The main cause of arthritis is still unknown, but many experts suspect it comes from cartilage getting inflamed. Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant, and antioxidants help remove potentially damaging free radicals and reduce inflammation. Taking 1 gram of curcumin daily for 8 to 12 weeks reduced arthritis symptoms just as well as ibuprofen, according to a recent review of studies. However, that equates to almost 1/4 cup of turmeric daily, much more than you'd normally get from food. But, when researchers gave a lower dosage of curcumin to people with knee arthritis (180 mg/day, or the amount that's in about 1/2 tablespoon turmeric), they reported less knee pain after 8 weeks compared to people who were given a placebo pill.
Reduces Alzheimer's Risk
Turmeric and curcumin are perhaps best known for their roles in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. Numerous animal studies have shown that the compound holds promise for preventing accumulation of plaques in the brain. Unfortunately, curcumin must cross the blood-brain barrier to prevent the plaque buildup, and the human digestive system breaks down the curcumin before it can do that. However, in a study on mice, researchers found that inhaling an aerosol type of curcumin bypasses digestion and reaches the brain. Researchers are optimistic that the inhalation method may work for people too (but don't try this at home!).
New oral formulations of curcumin are also showing promising results going across the blood-brain barrier. Taking 80 milligrams of an oral curcumin supplement for 4 weeks can reduce the plaque levels associated with Alzheimer's, according to a study in Nutrition Journal.
"Although research in humans is just getting started, if you have a family history of Alzheimer's, you may want to talk to your doctor about new supplemental curcumin formulations," says dietitian and Alzheimer's expert, Susie Zachman, M.S., R.D.N.
Helps with Depression
Taking curcumin may help relieve some symptoms of depression. When people with major depressive disorder were given curcumin supplements for 8 weeks they reported feeling better, and taking curcumin was significantly more effective in improving several mood-related symptoms than a placebo.
May Help Fight Cancer
There's promising research around turmeric's ability to help keep cancer at bay. Several studies conducted in mice suggest that curcumin may be toxic to tumor cells. There is lots of promising research in this area, but curcumin is not a cure-all—the type of cancer and other treatments impact how effective curcumin is. One study, published in the Korean Journal of Urology, shows that curcumin may hinder the growth of prostate cancer by about 27 percent. Up to 8 grams of curcumin supplements daily may help stop the spread of some brain tumors, too, according to a study in Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology. The same 8-gram dose, combined with existing cancer medicines, may also work to prevent the spread of cancer cells by helping eliminate cells resisting chemotherapy treatment. Research continues, but the links and outcomes so far are promising. Consult your medical team before adding curcumin supplements to cancer treatment, though.
Featured recipe: Turmeric Latte
How to Use Turmeric
Turmeric should be easy to find in the spice aisle of your local supermarket. Bold-flavored and colorful, turmeric is often used in Asian dishes. You'll see it in Indian recipes, like curries, dal, tikka masala or tandoori. But just because it's traditionally found in Asian cuisine doesn't mean you can't use it in new and interesting ways. Try adding a dash to roasted root vegetables, scrambled eggs, smoothies or sautéed greens.
Turmeric is also added to ancient drink recipes that were thought to have soothing properties. Golden milk—a mixture of milk, turmeric and sometimes sweetener, black pepper, ginger and cinnamon—has been part of Eastern medicine tradition for years, where it was believed to clear up coughs and congestion. Golden milk drinks and turmeric lattes have recently gone mainstream in the U.S: you may even see your local coffee shop serving up a cup of gold, sometimes with coconut milk or oil added, as the fat may increase absorption. Many people are also drinking turmeric teas for their supposed health benefits.
If you've never tried turmeric before, now is the perfect time. Although research on specific beneficial uses is ongoing, it definitely can't hurt to spice up your cooking with a little more turmeric.
Watch: How to Make a Vegan Turmeric Latte