On Your Health

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The Health Benefits of Turmeric

Turmeric is a warm, bitter spice used in cooking that comes from the turmeric plant. A relative of ginger, it’s commonly featured in Indian and Asian food and is a main ingredient in curries. It’s what makes American mustard bright yellow and is also sometimes used to color butters and cheeses. But did you know the root of turmeric has been used as a medicinal herb for prevention and healing for centuries? Current medical research is confirming what has been understood in India and Asia for thousands of years — turmeric and its active phenolic acids may offer a large number of health benefits for your body and brain.

There are many medical studies (over 6,000 so far) that suggest curcumin, the main active compound in turmeric, has significant anti-inflammatory effects and is a potent antioxidant, making it a powerful agent in fighting and preventing a range of diseases. Juli Johnson, APRN and Integrative Medicine practitioner at INTEGRIS, is particularly excited about curcumin’s potential to help prevent and treat cancer. “One of the most interesting new developments in curcumin research involves the use of curcumin nanoparticles as a new delivery system in cancer therapy,” she says.

Although Mayo Clinic says research is still ongoing, making it too soon to say conclusively what effect curcumin has on cancer prevention, “Laboratory and animal research suggests that curcumin may prevent cancer, slow the spread of cancer, make chemotherapy more effective and protect healthy cells from damage by radiation therapy. Curcumin is being studied for use in many types of cancer,” says its website.

In addition, Juli Johnson notes curcumin also has potential to treat Alzheimer’s, as it has been shown to reduce oxidative damage in Alzheimer transgenic mice.

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, who is a world-renowned pioneer in the field of Integrative Medicine and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine:

  • Curcumin seems to delay liver damage that can eventually lead to cirrhosis, according to preliminary research at the Medical University Graz in Austria.
  • Research at Kansas State University found that adding turmeric can reduce the levels of heterocyclic amines — carcinogenic compounds that are formed when meats are barbecued, boiled or fried — by up to 40 percent.
  • Studies at the University of Texas indicate that curcumin inhibits the growth of melanoma, a skin cancer, and also slows the spread of breast cancer into the lungs when tested on rodents.
  • Research at the University of South Dakota found that pretreatment with curcumin makes cancer cells more vulnerable to chemo and radiotherapy.
  • Epidemiologists have hypothesized that the turmeric that is part of daily curries eaten in India may help explain the low rate of Alzheimer’s disease in that country. Among people aged 70 to 79, the rate is less than one-quarter that of the United States.

Another study suggests curcumin’s value for arthritis treatment. The Arthritis Foundation recommends turmeric, although it cautions on its website, “High doses of turmeric can act as a blood thinner. Avoid turmeric/curcumin if you take blood thinners such as warfarin, are about to have surgery, are pregnant or have gallbladder disease.”

With all this promising news, your next question might be, “How do I take it?” Some people might find straight turmeric powder bitter, but when a teaspoon or two is added to a pot of soup or broth, many people find it delicious. In addition, turmeric supplements are widely available.

However, turmeric is poorly absorbed from the G.I. tract. According to Juli Johnson, to enhance absorption, whether eaten as a spice in cooking or in supplement form, turmeric should be taken with food. Some turmeric dietary supplements contain piperine, an alkaloid from black pepper, which has been shown to dramatically increase absorption, so if you’re taking turmeric as a supplement, make sure it contains piperine or black pepper extract.

Dr. Weil recommends taking 400 to 600 milligrams of turmeric extracts (available in tablets or capsules) three times per day or as directed on the product label. Juli Johnson agrees. “3000 milligrams a day is a great dose. Most studies recommend between 2000 and 6000 milligrams a day,” she says.

Dr. Weil adds another note. “Be patient. The full benefit takes two months to develop. Don’t use turmeric if you have gallstones or bile duct dysfunction. Pregnant women shouldn’t use it without their doctors’ approval. In rare cases, extended use can cause stomach upset or heartburn,” he says on his website.

The Today Show has a great article and video showing ways to cook with ground turmeric, with ideas that include sprinkling it on eggs and a stir-fry and even adding it to teas and smoothies! Just remember to always use it with black pepper for proper absorption.

Here is a delicious turmeric recipe, courtesy of the blog Anti-Cancer Club.

Turmeric Ginger Latte:

1.5 cups unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ginger, freshly grated or ground
1/2 tsp cinnamon, ground
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp organic vanilla extract
1 tsp sweetener of your choice (I use Manuka honey)
1/2 tbsp coconut oil

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan; bring to a boil, whisk the ingredients together, then cut the heat source, transfer to a cup, add sweetener and enjoy a warm cup.

Alternatively, you could substitute 1/4 tsp cardamom for the cinnamon, add all ingredients to a mason jar, shake for a couple of minutes and enjoy it as a cold beverage.

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