What does turmeric do?
Over the past few years, the health and wellness world has developed an obsession with a particular yellow spice. Turmeric has been a buzzword on health blogs and hipster café menus, with advocates sipping on golden lattes and adding the ancient ingredient to cooking for its believed health benefits, as well as its spicy flavour.
Believed health benefits of turmeric include reducing inflammation and supporting digestion. But what does turmeric actually do, and how much should we be consuming?
What is turmeric and what does it do?
As you probably already know, turmeric is a bright yellow spice that has been used for thousands of years as a cooking ingredient, but it’s been used since ancient times as a medicinal herb, too. Turmeric is extracted from the root of the turmeric plant and is related to ginger, as both are part of the Zingiberaceae family.
The compound curcumin, which gives turmeric its yellow colour, has been isolated by scientists as turmeric’s most important active ingredient. Studies show curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties and may support digestion, too. Between two and six per cent of turmeric consists of curcuminoids, which are active plant compounds, most of which are curcumin.
As well as the familiar yellow powder, turmeric is available in the form of capsules, teas, essential oils, scrubs and is sometimes even used in face masks. Scientists have discovered that black pepper helps your body absorb curcumin, so you may sometimes find the two blended together in food products.
What does turmeric do in the body?
Traditional Ayurvedic medicine – a holistic approach to medicine that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago – has long supported that turmeric benefits health and wellbeing. And today, Western studies into the effects of curcumin are beginning back this up.
It can reduce inflammation. A 2013 study in the journal Biofactors found that curcumin may be responsible for curbing inflammation and swelling. Researchers say it has this effect by blocking enzymes and other proteins that create an inflammatory response in the body.
It may support your joints. Curcumin’s effect on reducing inflammation means it can also help protect your joints from wear and tear. This includes easing symptoms of arthritis like joint movement and stiffness, according to a 2016 study in Journal of Medicinal Food.
It can ease digestion problems. Curcumin benefits gut health, including relieving excess gas, abdominal pain, and bloating. A 2013 trial by the University of Nottingham found that curcumin stimulates the gallbladder to produce bile, an essential substance needed to break down fat in foods.
However, it’s important to remember that the dosage of curcumin in turmeric is low, while many of these studies have investigated the effects of curcumin in a concentrated dose. For this reason, the health benefits observed here may not be directly translatable to consuming small amounts of turmeric in the diet.
How much turmeric is safe to take?
There is no reference nutrient intake (RNI) for turmeric, but don’t exceed the dosage stated on any label. However, there is an RNI for curcumin. The World Health Organisation advises up to 3mg per kg of bodyweight of curcuminoids, which includes curcumin. However, the average daily intake in an Indian diet is much higher, between 60 and 100mg per kg of bodyweight.
For the best effect, try turmeric in combination with black pepper. A 2017 study by USA’s Central Michigan University reported that an important compound in black pepper, piperine, can increase the body’s ability to absorb curcumin by 2000 per cent.
Children under 12 years old and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take turmeric, as its safety in these groups not been proven.
What are the side effects of taking turmeric?
Side-effects are rare, but can include:
- An upset stomach, including diarrhoea
- Yellow stools
- Skin rashes
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.