Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, peppermint, nutmeg…nothing evokes the holiday season quite like the smell of spices. But while all of these wintertime favorites have potent medicinal properties, new evidence is showing that a steamier spice may be the most medically versatile of all.
Turmeric, the bright yellow spice that flavors Asian curry dishes, is attracting the attention of more than just chefs. Researchers are finding that when it comes to good health, this popular spice is truly a “gift from the East.”
So far, nearly 6,000 studies show that turmeric and its active ingredient curcumin have the potential to treat virtually anything that ails you. Researchers have uncovered a whopping 175 different ways this spice affects our bodies, as well as over 600 potential therapeutic applications.
Turmeric has been found particularly effective at fighting cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, depression, and osteoarthritis.
This simple spice is so powerful, in fact, that I’m starting to believe it should actually be replacing many of today’s most popular drug treatments. Turmeric may very well be the embodiment of the ancient Greek medicinal concept of “panacea,” or “all-heal.”
Pinpointing turmeric’s power
Turmeric gets many of its health properties from curcumin, the antioxidant ingredient that is also responsible for the spice’s yellow color. In fact, that blaze of color is a clue to turmeric’s potent biological properties.
The list of turmeric’s “drug-like” actions reads like the entire Physicians’ Desk Reference. Of course, we should really read that sentence the other way around.
Human physiology is a product of nature, and plants are the predominant feature of the environment in which humans developed. Therefore, to be effective, a drug would be expected to have properties that are naturally found in plants. Unfortunately, the isolated, synthetic chemical nature of drugs makes them less safe (and often less effective) than plant ingredients.
So maybe we should skip the drugs and stick with plant sources. Research certainly suggests just that about turmeric and curcumin.
Why is this duo so powerful? One reason is because turmeric is an impressive anti-inflammatory. As I’ve often noted, inflammation has been shown to be an underlying cause of many chronic, ultimately fatal diseases. Which helps explain why turmeric is effective against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and more.
In one study, curcumin was found to be as potent an anti-inflammatory as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen (Aleve), steroids, cox-2 inhibitors like Celebrex, and the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.1
And those are only some of the drugs turmeric can potentially replace.
Whole-body health from the “spice of life”
Let’s look at the various health conditions that turmeric has been shown to improve, compared with the harmful drugs used to treat those conditions.
Cardiovascular disease. Researchers have discovered that curcumin improves the health of the cells that line blood vessels, reducing atherosclerosis, inflammation, and oxidative stress. In essence, the researchers concluded that curcumin does the same thing as the popular statin drug Lipitor, but without all of the crippling drug side effects.2
Like aspirin, curcumin also works as a blood thinner, which can help prevent blood clots that could lead to heart attacks or stroke.
Cancer. Among dozens of natural substances that can treat multidrug-resistant cancers, curcumin tops the list. I mentioned above that it’s as effective as the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. And other research shows it compares favorably with the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin as well.3
Studies also report that curcumin causes cancer cell death or sensitizes drug-resistant cancer cells to chemotherapy and radiation—theoretically reducing the doses of these toxic cancer treatments that would be required.4
Diabetes. In the study comparing curcumin to the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin, researchers also found that the spice was at least 500 times as potent as the diabetes drug Metformin.
An impressive finding, indeed. But keep in mind this is only one study. As I’ve explained before, while many herbs show tremendous promise for blood sugar management, the research is still preliminary. No real-world clinical protocols have been established. So, unfortunately, there’s simply not yet enough evidence for me to feel confident recommending herbs to control diabetes.
However, curcumin is thought to activate an enzyme that increases muscles’ and other tissues’ ability to extract glucose from the blood, and suppress glucose production in the liver. Both of these actions can reduce your chance of developing diabetes in the first place.5
And, as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of “cure.”
Dementia and memory loss. Reams of research show that curcumin helps protect brain and nervous tissues. It’s also been shown to prevent the clumping of a specific protein in the brain—a process that is considered to be one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia.5
In addition, a new study shows that curcumin can improve memory, boost attention span, and reduce mental fatigue in people over age 60.6
Depression. Animal research shows that curcumin has neurochemical affects on the brain that are similar to antidepressant drugs—but without all of the dangerous side effects.7
How much should you take?
Of course you can get turmeric by eating curry dishes. But you need a steady daily diet for best results. A less spicy option is to take turmeric supplements.
Aside from joint health (see sidebar), we need more research to determine the optimal daily doses of turmeric for all of the many other health benefits I’ve discussed here (especially when it comes to managing diabetes and controlling blood sugar). But a good starting point is 200 mg a day of a turmeric supplement standardized to contain at least 95 percent curcuminonids.
Since turmeric has been used for centuries in food with no negative health effects, there are strong arguments for developing this spice as a safe and effective alternative to a whole host of expensive and dangerous drugs used to treat today’s most common medical conditions.
Of course, big pharma has gotten wind of all of this impressive research. And there are reports that some pharmaceutical companies are actually working on turmeric-related drugs. But there’s no guarantee that these drugs will be as nontoxic as the simple spice—or that we’ll see them any time soon. Or that we’ll be able to afford whatever turmeric drug big pharma comes up with.
So in the meantime, consider adding this “spice of life” to your diet or daily supplement regimen. Your mind, body, and taste buds will thank you.
SIDEBAR: Spice up your osteoarthritis remedy
Considering turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory effects, it’s no surprise that it’s highly effective for joint pain. In fact, research shows that a combination of turmeric and boswellia (frankincense) reduced knee osteoarthritis symptoms more effectively than the popular—and dangerous—drug Celecoxib.8
Of course, any NSAID, including osteoarthritis drugs, is associated with significantly increased risks of gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney damage, and heart problems. But no adverse effects were reported with turmeric/boswellia.
I know a man who combined these two ingredients with the ancient South Asian herb ashwagandha, or winter cherry. He had been scheduled to have both knees replaced earlier this year after living for four years in constant pain.
But after only two months of taking the turmeric/boswellia/ashwagandha combo, he asked his doctor to cancel the knee replacement surgery. And he now feels confident he will never need this painful and expensive surgery. (This is especially fortunate since, as I reported in an August Daily Dispatch, recent research reveals that only one-third of knee replacements are both appropriate and necessary.)
This man achieved these results by taking 250 mg of boswellia, 300 mg of ashwagandha, and 120 mg of turmeric per day. Based on all available research, for joint health for most people, I recommend a larger dose—450 mg of boswellia (gum extract), 500 mg of ashwagandha (root extract) and 500 mg of turmeric (Curcuma longa, or root extract). And make sure to also get nutrients that support the health of the underlying bone: magnesium and vitamins C, D, and E.
1Takada Y, et al. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents differ in their ability to suppress NF-kappaB activation, inhibition of expression of cyclooxygenase-2 and cyclin D1, and abrogation of tumor cell proliferation. Oncogene. 2004 Dec 9;23(57):9247-58.
2Usharani P, et al. Effect of NCB-02, atorvastatin and placebo on endothelial function, oxidative stress and inflammatory markers in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized, parallel-group, placebo-controlled, 8-week study. Drugs R D. 2008;9(4):243-50.
3Kim T, et al. Curcumin activates AMPK and suppresses gluconeogenic gene expression in hepatoma cells. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2009 Oct 16;388(2):377-82. Epub 2009 Aug 8.
4Somasundaram S, et al. Dietary curcumin inhibits chemotherapy-induced apoptosis in models of human breast cancer. Cancer Res. Jul 1 2002;62(13):3868-3875.
5Ng TP, et al. Curry consumption and cognitive function in the elderly.
Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Nov 1;164(9):898-906. Epub 2006 Jul 26.
6Cox, HMC, et al. Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population. J Psychopharmacol October 2, 2014 0269881114552744.
7Sanmukhani, J, et al. Evaluation of antidepressant like activity of curcumin and its combination with fluoxetine and imipramine: an acute and chronic study. Acta Pol Pharm. 2011 Sep-Oct;68(5):769-75.
8Kizhakkedath R. Clinical evaluation of a formulation containing Curcuma longa and Boswellia serrata extracts in the management of knee osteoarthritis. Mol Med Rep. 2013 Nov;8(5):1542-8. doi: 10.3892/mmr.2013.1661. Epub 2013 Aug 29.