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Spotlight on Superfood: Turmeric

Turmeric contains three major phytochemical compounds – called curcuminoids – which give turmeric its bright yellow-orange color. (The most active component is curcumin.) These curcuminoids have been the focus of numerous clinical studies designed to examine their long-term safety, antioxidant properties, and anti-inflammatory activity.

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant known to decrease oxidative damage of DNA and proteins. And is thought to have potential therapeutic benefits in diseases associated with oxidative damage such as certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.

It is known to inhibit many important enzymes systems associated with inflammation. Malfunction of these enzyme systems is associated to tumor production and several inflammatory disorders. Due to its possible benefits associated with cancer prevention, much research has been dedicated to curcumin (and other extracts of turmeric) over the past few decades.

Experiments in test tubes have demonstrated the ability of curcumin to kill colon-cancer cells. In people, preliminary evidence suggests taking curcumin may reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also been shown to prevent the development of Type-2 diabetes in people with prediabetes.

A study from UCLA found that rats that consumed curcumin were more resistant to the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque in their brains — an abnormality associated with Alzheimer’s in people. Elderly people in India have one of the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s, according to the NCBI, and also have diets high in turmeric. But more research needs to be done to confirm a connection between curcumin and Alzheimer’s in humans.

Research suggests extracts of turmeric can ease symptoms of indigestion, prevent irritable bowel syndrome and alleviate knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. 

A study published in Clinical Nutrition found that taking curcumin supplements reduced inflammation in people with metabolic syndrome. A person is thought to have metabolic syndrome if he or she has a large waist circumference plus two or more of the following symptoms: high blood triglycerides, high blood pressure, elevated fasting blood glucose and low HDL (good) cholesterol. The cluster of risk factors is thought to double the risk of heart attack and increase the likelihood of developing Type-2 diabetes fivefold.

Recent research from Tufts University in Massachusetts found that curcumin suppressed the growth of fat tissue, and therefore prevented weight gain in mice. However, more research has to be done to demonstrate its effects on humans and weight loss.

Curcumin is beneficial for joints so is highly recommended for athletes, active people and especially for those with arthritis. Problem is, curcumin is rarely soluble in water or oily solvents which results in poor bioavailability.

A solution to this problem comes in the form of Meriva®, a delivery form of curcumin with lecithin. Meriva has been shown to increase the hydrolytical stability of curcumin and to increase the oral absorption of curcuminoids by nearly 30 fold.

You can buy turmeric as a fresh root in natural food stores (it looks like ginger root), in capsules containing powder and in tincture form. Curcumin is sold as a supplement in capsules. Supplements are best taken with food to increase the absorption of curcumin.

Turmeric is generally safe, particularly when used simply as a flavouring ingredient in food. However, some people might have side effects if they consume the spice in excess or take turmeric supplements. The NIH advises that people with gallbladder issues such as stones, bleeding disorders, gastrointestinal reflux disease, iron deficiency, hormone-sensitive conditions, and pregnancy should avoid medicinal quantities of turmeric. If you have any questions, ask your doctor.

That said, fresh turmeric root or ground turmeric spice is a healthy addition to your diet. Add grated turmeric root or a pinch of turmeric powder to smoothies, nut milk, rice and quinoa (when cooking), curries, soups, stir-fries, egg dishes and dips.