Turmeric: Golden Medicine


Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, has a history of medicinal use that is as deep and rich as its color. Native to India and Indonesia, it has been used for over 5000 years, and is an important medicinal herb in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. In Thailand, you will see it used in cosmetics, you'll find it served in tea in Japan, used as an antiseptic in Malaysia, and added to curries or made into a paste for various skin conditions in India. It has traditionally been used as an anti-inflammatory, as well as in the treatment of a wide range of conditions, including liver disease, menstrual problems, wounds, poor circulation, pain, depression and digestive issues. 

Health Benefits

I love to turn to Matthew Wood's books when I want to read about a herb from the perspective of a traditional herbalist. In the EarthWise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, he explains some of turmeric's effects on the liver and digestive tract: "Curcuma is a stimulant with an affinity to the liver, gallbladder, and digestive tract. As a stimulant to the liver it acts on both the catabolic side, to "purify the blood," and on the anabolic, to create more bile. It is also thought to rebuild damaged hepatic tissue. By increasing the  output of bile it promotes gallbladder function, clears intermittent heat and chills, fullness, constriction, heat and pain in the gallbladder region, and jaundice. While increasing bile production it also stimulates digestive secretions and is used as a carminative."  

Looking back at historical uses of a medicinal plant, as well as turning to the wisdom of the herbalist traditions is a great way to start learning about it. To take it a step further, it's good idea to also take a look at the research that has been conducted (and as a naturopathic doctor, I love delving into the research). There are 1000's of research studies that have been done on turmeric, particularly one of its most active constituents, curcumin. In fact it was curcumin that catapulted turmeric into the Western medical limelight, especially as its unique anti-cancer effects were uncovered.

Multiple studies show curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects. We now know that inflammation is implicated as an underlying factor so many chronic diseases, so it's no wonder that turmeric can be a beneficial add-on in the treatment and/or prevention of many chronic conditions. Also, unlike some well known pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory agents, turmeric has been shown to work on almost all of the known inflammatory pathways (not just one or two!).

There is so much research to shift through, but I wanted to highlight a few human studies (as opposed to animal or in vitro studies), to give you a sense of some of the wide-reaching health benefits of this deep yellow spice. Below, I will highlight 4 different conditions that science has shown can benefit from the use of this golden medicine (consider this list illustrative, and far from exhaustive).

4 evidence based uses of turmeric or curcumin EXTRACT

1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Lower rates of relapse were found in a study of patients with quiescent ulcerative colitis given sulfasalazine medications along with 2g of curcumin a day, compared with patients with ulcerative colitis given sulfasalazine medications alone. In another randomized, placebo-controlled, double blind study, patients with active mild-moderate ulcerative colitis given curcumin with mesalamine, had greater rates of remission than those given mesalamine with placebo.

2. Hyperlipidemia 

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial showed that the use of 1g/day of curcuminoids for 30 days in obese individuals resulted in lower levels of triglycerides, compared to placebo. In another study, healthy individuals taking a low dose of lipidated curcumin (80g) for 4 weeks had lower levels of triglycerides compared to placebo. The effects seem to reach beyond just lowering triglycerides in this study that showed significant decreases in LDL, triglycerides and VLDL in overweight individuals with high cholesterol, compared to placebo.

3. Arthritis

Turmeric, or a standardized extract of curcumin, can help ease the joint pain, inflammation and swelling associated with both osteoarthritis (also, check out this study) and rheumatoid arthritis.

4. Depression

Curcumin has been shown to have beneficial effects for people with depression in multiple studies. One study showed that turmeric supplementation resulted in lower levels of depression, vs. placebo, as well as lower levels of certain inflammatory cytokines, in adult males with depression. A mini meta-analysis (a review of clinical trials) also showed that curcumin/turmeric had beneficial effects on depressive symptoms, compared to placebo, with the effects increasing over a longer course of administration. Wondering how turmeric compared to Prozac in for major depressive disorder? This study found no statistically significant difference between the two therapies!

How to take it

For general health purposes, taking 1/2 teaspoon a day (this is about 1500mg) of turmeric powder can be a great adjunctive to health. Always use organic turmeric. As with all herbs and supplements, the sourcing is important, to ensure safety and high quality (remember the 2016 FDA recall of some brands of turmeric due to elevated lead levels?) My favorite brands are Mountain Rose Herbals and Banyan Botanicals for organic, high-quality turmeric powder.

There's another thing you need to know. For all of its wonderful health effects, turmeric is not very well absorbed in the body. Luckily, there are two ways to enhance absorption: Adding pepper, which contains piperine, and fat. However, there are some conditions for which it is more beneficial that turmeric stay in the GI tract (ex. Inflammatory bowel disease or colonic polyps), so in these instances you would not want to increase absorption out of the GI tract. Also, if you are taking prescription medications, higher doses of piperine (often added to standardized extracts of turmeric) can affect levels of the medication in your body. It's always best to work with a qualified health care professional to determine the best form and dosage for you to take for your unique health needs.

Use caution or consult with a physician before using curcumin extract/turmeric if you have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, experience easy bruising, gallstones, GERD, hypercholorhydria or iron deficiency, are pregnant, or if you are soon to have surgery. 

BONUS: Golden Milk Recipe

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 4 cups of full fat milk or dairy-free milk (I like to use a 50:50 mix of  organic coconut milk and unsweetened almond milk)
  • 2 teaspoons of fresh, organic turmeric powder
  • 6-8 black peppercorns 
  • 2 cardamom pods 
  • 1 clove
  • 1 inch of fresh ginger root (ideally cut up or grated)
  • 1 teaspoon of either ghee or coconut oil
  • Honey to taste

Mix all of the ingredients together in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, and let simmer for 5-10 minutes. Strain, let cool slightly, and enjoy! If you have any left over, you can store it in the refrigerator and drink within a couple of days.

I love cozying up with a warm cup of golden milk on cold winter's days. Sometimes I add some  boiling water to it, if I'm feeling like having a less creamy version.

I'd love to hear if you have any personal experiences with turmeric or have your own favorite twist on making golden milk. For example, you can play with other spices to add into the mix (if you don't love cardamom or cloves - try adding a cinnamon stick instead!) Feel free to share your favorite recipes in the comments section!