Ayurveda, the 5000 year old Chinese and Indian medical system, advocates use of a wide range of spices for better health, from nutmeg to help you sleep, black pepper for improved brain function, cinnamon to boost circulation and ginger to ease digestion. It also advocates star anise to treat flu – mirrored in modern medicine in fact, where an extract of star anise is used to make the anti-viral flu treatment Tamiflu - if you remember back to 2005 this is the drug stockpiled by the Government to treat the threatened epidemic of bird flu.
The scientific evidence that spices have beneficial, medicinal qualities is not hard and fast but difficult to dismiss. Alongside the anecdotal evidence of centuries of tradition, there are plenty of scientific studies that suggest that spices are good for us, with benefits including lowering blood pressure, fighting diabetes, and fending off Alzheimer’s Disease.
The latest star of the spice rack is turmeric - the root stalk of a tropical plant that's part of the ginger family.
It has been used for many thousands of years in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for conditions including heartburn, diarrhoea, stomach bloating, colds, fibromyalgia and depression.
Turmeric contains compounds known as curcuminoids, curcumin being the most important and the major active component in turmeric.
The surging interest in turmeric is largely due to turmeric’s myriad of purported health benefits – there is a staggeringly long list! Although much of the research on turmeric focuses on curcumin, there are over 50 different molecules in turmeric thought to have numerous benefits to human health.
Here we focus in on a few of the top health benefits of turmeric:
Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals, which transform lipids, proteins, and DNA in a harmful way - in turn this can lead to a variety of diseases. A balance is needed between free radicals and antioxidants for healthy functioning of the body. Curcumin is a highly effective antioxidant which neutralises free radicals and also improves activity of the antioxidant enzymes in the body.
Turmeric contains more than two dozen anti inflammatory compounds, including six different COX-2-inhibitors (the COX-2 enzyme promotes pain, swelling and inflammation; inhibitors selectively block that enzyme).
Curcumin also inhibits activation of the transcription factor NF-kB, which plays an important role in the regulation of the immune response to infection. Poor NF-kB regulation has been associated with cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, viral infection and weak immune development.
Taking curcumin can help to improve endothelial function - the endothelium is the blood and heart vessel lining. Dysfunction of the endothelium is linked to most kinds of cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, and chronic heart failure.
Turmeric extracts may help support brain health by helping to protect brain cells from damage from toxins. There are numerous studies into the effect of curcumin on Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Studies have suggested that curcumin can block the formation of the beta-amyloid plaques that get in the way of brain function in Alzheimer's disease.
As turmeric is believed to help control inflammation, it may also be beneficial to sufferers of joint problems. There have been many studies into this in fact - one of which looked at 50 joint pain sufferers who were given a curcumin supplement every day. After 3 months, the patients using curcumin were able to walk significantly further than those not who were not. Another study also used curcumin extracts and found that patients could walk on a treadmill up to 3 times better after taking curcumin, and furthermore levels of important chemicals in our blood that promote inflammation were reduced significantly compared to the placebo group. An added bonus being they also found that curcumin to have less side effects than other alternatives.
Dyspepsia is a general term which includes various digestive problems, such as gas, belching, bloating, stomach discomfort and nausea. Dyspepsia is usually caused by inadequate bile flow from the gallbladder, digestive secretions which are essential for the break down of food. The gallbladder is stimulated by the ingestion of curcumin to produce bile, which helps to improve digestion.
Some studies suggesting that turmeric and curcumin, like many plant compounds, may help to influence our gut bacteria, which is so vital for digestive health.
Interestingly, turmeric is approved in Germany to be prescribed for the treatment of digestive problems.
Turmeric is difficult for the body to absorb
Unfortunately our bodies don't absorb curcumin very well, in other words it has poor bioavailability. However the good news is that researchers have identified how to help our bodies to better absorb it - piperine in black pepper has been shown to increase bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%. That's why Just Vitamins' turmeric supplement is formulated with BioPerine - an extract obtained from the black pepper fruit.
How much should I take?
It has been established that even at fairly high does, it's safe to take turmeric however for optimal health benefits its recommended to take around a teaspoon of organic turmeric powder daily or if you opt for a supplement, around 500mg 3 or 4 times per day is advisable.
As always if you have any health conditions, are pregnant, or are taking medication please speak to a health professional before taking any medicinal doses of either turmeric or curcumin.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.