Turmeric is a spice derived from the dry ground root of the Curcuma longa, a plant native to India and Indonesia with the health benefits of turmeric being utilized for many tens of generations. Although the root has a thick brown skin and orange flesh, turmeric is a deep yellow-orange color from which it derives the nickname of Indian saffron. Turmeric has been used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years, but it is best known today for its culinary uses. Turmeric gives American yellow mustard its bright yellow color, and it is one of the main ingredients in curry dishes. It has a bitter, peppery flavor and gives off a scent that is similar to mixture of orange peel and ginger.
History of Turmeric
Evidence suggests that turmeric has been used for over 5,000 years. Its use began in Indonesia and India, where it became a valued Ayurvedic medicine where the health benefits of turmeric are used extensively. Use of turmeric for both culinary and medical purposes began to spread in the following centuries, first reaching China and the Middle East. The Middle East introduced turmeric to European traders in the 13th century. Today, turmeric is still principally harvested in India and Indonesia, but it is also an important export in many other countries, such as China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Jamaica and Haiti.
Composition of Turmeric
The primary active ingredient in turmeric is a substance called curcumin, which is non-toxic and gives turmeric its pigmentation. Different batches of turmeric contain varying degrees of curcumin, but turmeric supplements and curcumin extract can be purchased that has a guaranteed and evenly distributed curcumin content. Other nutrients can also be found in turmeric. The nutrients and quantities in 2 teaspoons, or 4.52 grams, of turmeric powder is as follows:
- Manganese – 0.36 mg
- Iron – 1.88 mg
- Vitamin B6 – 0.08 mg
- Potassium – 114.48 mg
- Dietary fiber – 960 mg
Turmeric has been used as a part of traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for centuries, and modern medicine is beginning to back up many of these uses with scientific data. The most widespread use of turmeric is as an anti-inflammatory. Curcumin has been shown to produce anti-inflammatory effects that rival those of hydrocortisone, phenylbutazone and ibuprofen. Additionally, curcumin does not have the potential for toxicity that these other drugs have. Some of the conditions for which turmeric may be beneficial are as follows:
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Curcumin is an inexpensive and non-toxic way to treat most forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IFB), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. A medical study performed on mice shows that curcumin reduces the inflammation of intestinal walls and reduces intestinal ulcers. The same study showed that curcumin also helps obese mice to lose weight. One of the hallmarks of this study was that curcumin was found to be effective in concentrations of only 0.25 percent, which is about the same as in most curry dishes.
Curcumin has been found to be a powerful antioxidant. As such, it can eliminate free radicals in the body that damage healthy cells. In rheumatoid arthritis, free radicals are responsible for causing joint inflammation and joint pain. The combination of an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory provides relief for those with mild to moderate joint disease. Arthritis sufferers taking curcumin were found to benefit from reduced morning stiffness and increased maximum walking time.
A study in 2004 shows that curcumin can correct the most common type of genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening disease that affects about 30,000 people in the United States. Cystic fibrosis causes the lungs to be covered by a thick mucus, and it also damages the pancreas. The disease is caused by a birth defect in a gene responsible for producing a certain protein. The most common defect is called the DeltaF508 defect. Curcumin has been found to allow the defectively produced protein to be eliminated by the body instead of building up and forming the mucus.
Curcumin has been found effective in many types of cancer. Because of its antioxidant properties, it is beneficial for all types of cancer, but studies have primarily focused on colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer and leukemia. Curcumin is also effective against cancer because it has been found to increase liver function. Although curcumin can help prevent cancerous cells from growing, it can also slow the spread of cancerous cells by inhibiting their growth. Turmeric is most effective in fighting cancer when combined with a diet high in beneficial vegetables. Turmeric and onions may help to prevent colon cancer, while turmeric and cauliflower may fight prostate cancer.
The liver is responsible for detoxifying the blood. This is done through the production of enzymes that break down the toxins into materials that are easily eliminated by the body. Taking turmeric increases the production of these enzymes, thus improving liver function. In studies done on rats, enzyme production increased by 16 percent after 14 days of taking curcumin on a daily basis.
Many forms of cardiovascular disease are caused by unhealthy cholesterol levels. When cholesterol oxidizes in the blood, it attaches to the vessel walls and builds up as plaque. Both the curcumin and the vitamin B6 in turmeric can help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. In addition, vitamin B6 regulates homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is responsible for the direct damage of blood vessels.
Curcumin helps to lower cholesterol levels through interaction with the liver. Liver cells begin to produce increased amounts of mRNA, which increases the number of receptors for LDL cholesterol, thus increasing the elimination of LDL from the body.
New studies have found that one of the most important health benefits of turmeric may be effective in preventing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Research began when it was noted that cases of Alzheimer’s disease is very low among elderly Indian people with diets high in turmeric. Animal studies have backed up the belief that turmeric slows Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought that curcumin may block production of a protein, IL-2, that is known to destroy the protective sheath that surrounds nerves.
In 2004 and 2006, two studies proved that curcumin crosses the blood-brain barrier where a protein called amyloid-B accumulates in the brain and disrupts normal brain function. Normally, this protein is eliminated by the body, but patients with Alzheimer’s disease can no longer eliminate it. Curcumin in the brain has the effect of breaking down this protein so it can be successfully eliminated by the body.
The health benefits of turmeric are still being explored and documented but by using turmeric in curry’s or taking supplements, it is possible that a raft of degenerative diseases can be affected positively as well as a tasty meal being cooked!