History Turmeric is the root system of Curcuma longa, a plant that belongs to the ginger family Zingiberaceae, native to South Asia. The tropical Indian spice has truly stood the test of time, resonating throughout cultures for 5000 years. Pots discovered in New Delhi contain turmeric residue, dating the plant’s use back to at least 2500 BCE, predating the Egyptian pyramids and the construction of Stonehenge. While being prevalent in Indian cuisine, it is also considered sacred, used in religious ceremonies, and has been utilized medicinally for thousands of years, emerging as a key component in the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine around 500 BCE. Given its cultural and medicinal importance, it’s no surprise that India produces the majority of the world’s supply of turmeric, and consumes close to 80% of it (1), which may explain their relatively low rates of disease.
Scientists have successfully isolated some of the compounds within turmeric; curcumin, the main active compound in turmeric, has gained popularity in health communities due to the anti-inflammatory (2), anti-alzheimer's (3), and anti-cancer properties it exhibits (4). Remarkably, curcumin is only one of over 300 compounds that scientists have isolated in turmeric. Each compound, although usually present in smaller amounts, may have distinct and beneficial effects on the human body that have yet to be thoroughly researched by scientists. Tumerone compounds, for instance, are also present in turmeric and have been shown in research to substantially boost the regeneration of stem cells in the brain (5), have anticancer properties (6), and a variety of other benefits. Turmeric is easily accessible, inexpensive, and non-toxic at high levels, making it an excellent topic within the conversation of long-term, vibrant health.
Epigenetics & Food Advances in nutrition science have demonstrated that dietary changes can influence genetic expression, and over time this small epigenetic** activity can have profound effects on long-term health (7)(8). The food you eat actually does significantly affect your long term health, it is no longer an apocryphal quote from Hippocrates (“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food”). For instance, if you drank a shot of turmeric juice everyday, the ‘King of Spices’ would award you with it’s unique anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, influencing more than 700 genes (9)(10). On the other hand, if you make toxic or unhealthy diet or lifestyle choices, negative genes might be expressed, leading to disease.
**Epigenetics is the study of examining how external and environmental factors influence variations in the expression of genes. The genetic contribution to genetic expression is referred to as genotype, whereas the phenotype is affected by external and environmental factors, such as food, exercise, pollution, etc. Together, the genotype and phenotype create a DNA blueprint, which the body then reads and rebuilds the body according to the blueprints. The environmental factors, which can be both positive and negative, have the ability to switch genes on and off, similar to a light switch, changing the DNA blueprint accordingly. If you eat certain foods, like turmeric, you may switch certain genes that promote long-term health; alternatively, if you eat unhealthy foods, smoke, or drink, you can turn disease promoting genes on. The expressed genetic code is then read and replicated throughout your body. Epigenetics emphasizes the importance of making healthy decisions, because even if you have, for example, a gene that gives you a high chance of getting cancer, if you are thoughtful of what you eat, you may prevent that gene from ever being turned on. Inversely, if you have outstanding genetics, but constantly smoke and eat fast food, you may put yourself at risk for turning on genes that may lead to disease. This process is constantly happening, so it is never too late to make positive decisions.
Induction of epigenetic alterations by chronic inflammation and its significance on carcinogenesis
Anti-inflammatory Perhaps turmeric’s most acknowledged advantage is the anti-inflammatory mechanisms it exhibits in the body. Acute inflammation is a normal occurrence in the body, and are often associated with physical trauma, pathogens, toxins, or other environmental factors. If this inflammation persists for an extended period of time, referred to as chronic inflammation, it can give rise to inflammation related medical conditions like arthritis (11), cancer (12), depression (So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?), and diabetes (13). Astonishingly, turmeric has demonstrated the capability to alleviate symptoms of conditions that are caused by chronic inflammation, which also plays an important role in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease (14). So much so, in fact, that when University of Southampton researchers stopped inflammation in the brain, the progression of Alzheimer’s stopped as well (15). When turmeric was administered to Alzheimer's patients for twelve weeks, it significantly improved their behavioral symptoms of irritability, agitation, anxiety, apathy, and urinary incontinence. The patients were able to recognize their family within one year of treatment (16).
Antioxidants Compounds in turmeric exhibit potent antioxidant effects in the body (17). Antioxidants counteract free-radicals, which can damage cells and DNA, ultimately causing cellular death and disease. Being a much stronger antioxidant than vitamin C and E, research has shown that turmeric’s compounds, particularly curcumin, actually insert themselves into the membranes of damaged cells, physically restoring the membrane, positively affecting function and order to the damaged cell (18). Unlike most sources of antioxidants (the best sources are fresh fruits and vegetables), turmeric not only has potent antioxidant capacities, but it also stimulates the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes (1). The dual antioxidant mechanisms powerfully targets and neutralizes free-radicals, then goes a step further and reverses damage done to cells within the body.
Cancer Fighting The ‘holy spice’ has recently proven to be effective against cancer (19). Turmeric and its compounds have combatted cancerous cells in three important ways: preventing cancer from forming by stimulating healthy function in cells (20), killing cancerous cells and inhibiting the growth of tumors (21), and preventing the metastasizing (spreading) of cancer to other areas of the body (22). Curcumin has also showed potential to enhance and work synergistically with several natural and synthetic agents, increasing the sensitivity of treatment resistant cancer cells to treatments like chemotherapy (23).
Weight Loss / Anti Obesity Turmeric may turn out to be a phenomenol weight loss tool. For many years the word ‘fat’ had a pretty notorious reputation, which created the fat-free obsessed trend in food production. Nutrition science has since made a distinction between good fats (unsaturated) and bad fats (saturated). There also seems to be the same divide between between fat cells in the human body. White adipose tissue, or white fat is the type of fat that instinctively comes to mind, it is generally just there to store energy, and the more you have the more detrimental it can be to your health. Brown adipose tissue, or brown fat, on the other hand, is able to create energy and generate body heat. They are colored brown because the cells have more iron-containing mitochondria than white fat cells. It is abundant in babies, since they are not yet able to shiver as a way to keep warm. In adults, brown fat helps convert white fat into energy, which has prompted news headlines like “Brown Fat: The Fat That Makes You Skinny”. So where does turmeric come in? It turns out that Korean scientists established that curcumin caused white fat cells to turn into brown fat cells through four separate mechanisms (25), as well as targeted and mitigated obesity caused or exacerbated by inflammation. Separate research determined that curcumin clearly induced cell death (apoptosis) of fat cells (26). Furthermore, scientists from Tufts University documented that regularly consuming curcumin increased the rate of the metabolism, reduced existing fat cells (accelerating weight loss), inhibited the growth of new fat tissue, and lowered cholestorol levels (27).
There’s More... You might think there would be a limit on just how good a culinary spice can be for you, especially given the headline-grabbing benefits listed above. However, it indeed does go on. It successfully works better than a variety of beauty products, preventing hair loss, reversing wrinkles and other signs of aging. Given its antiseptic and antibacterial properties (which weren’t discussed in this post), it makes a great face wash or cream, combating redness, inflammation, and scars associated with acne or other skin conditions. Turmeric can also be mixed with aloe vera to sooth burns. Sound too good to be true? Johnson and Johnson sells a specially made band-aid with turmeric paste on it. Turmeric has also begun to show potential in supporting and regenerating liver health, the unsung hero in the human body (27). It has been proven to be as beneficial as exercise on benefitting cardiovascular health (28), as effective as Prozac for depression while exhibiting no serious side effects (29), and, in one study, completely prevented the onset of type 2 diabetes in at risk patients (30).
Conclusion Pretty impressive for a common cooking spice! And this isn’t close to the full story of turmeric’s potent effects on the human body. Curcumin has been shown to prevent, treat, or reverse over 600 health conditions, and those are just the attributed to one of 300 compounds in turmeric. Given that it is usually accessible, relatively inexpensive, and safe for consumption at higher doses, the long list of benefits from taking a shot of turmeric juice truly can’t be matched. Most importantly, curcumin has relatively low bioavailability (what can be absorbed by the body) when consumed, which has kept it from being officially considered a therapeutic agent. There are a few non-technical (unless you have a nanoparticle lab in your home) ways to increase curcumin’s bioavailability, while also slowing it down from being metabolized and excreted from the body. Black pepper has many health benefits on it’s own, but it also contains piperine, a compound that increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000% (31). Quercetin is a flavonoid found in many plants and fruits such as apples, citrus fruit, and onions. Quercetin inhibits a particular enzyme in the body that inactivates curcumin. Ginger, a herb in the same family as turmeric, also acts synergistically with turmeric to make it more effective (32). So whenever possible, apply methods of increasing curcumin’s bioavailability to get the most benefit from turmeric.
This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition or disease. Please consult a medical professional for all healthcare related information.
(4) Curcumin―The Paradigm of a Multi-Target Natural Compound with Applications in Cancer Prevention and Treatment. Teiten, Marie-Hélène, et al., et al. [ed.] Florian Lang. 1, Basel: MDPI - Open Access Publishing, January 21, 2010, Toxins, Vol. 2, pp. 128-162. DOI: 10.3390/toxins2010128; http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6651/2/1/128. ISSN: 2072-6651.