Like its rhizomey cousin ginger, turmeric (curcuma longa) is proving to be a superstar in terms of the health conditions it can help with. It has a wide range of pharmacological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antibacterial, wound healing, anti-cancer, heart- and liver-protective effects.
As well as being used as a spice and as a natural food colouring, it has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for its significant anti-inflammatory effects,. A plethora of recent scientific studies support this claim, suggesting that curcumin (one of the active ingredients in turmeric) downregulates inflammation, as well as preventing the breakdown of cartilage in osteoarthritis.
Other studies have also shown that curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, scavenging free radicals which can cause cell damage and tamper with DNA. It also seems to play a part in reducing indigestion symptoms such as gas and bloating, as well as helping ulcerative colitis sufferers to stay in remission. Significantly, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects could also play a promising role in the slowing the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
There has also been a lot of recent research on the potential of turmeric’s anti-cancer properties, with preliminary findings suggesting that curcumin could not only prevent the growth of new cancer cells but also kill existing ones. Cancer Research UK states that curcumin seems to have the most promising effect on breast, bowel, stomach and skin cancer, but more clinical trials are needed on humans, and more investigation needed into how well the spice is absorbed to be effective in cancer treatment.
Research is showing that absorption may be an issue in terms of getting the most powerful benefits from curcumin. As well as curcumin, turmeric contains over 300 individual compounds, which have also shown to be active anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic components, which seems to suggest that whole turmeric is just as or more effective then curcumin alone. In terms of everyday use in cooking, it is best absorbed when taken with fat (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil) and spice (black pepper).
How can I add it into my diet?
Turmeric has an earthy, peppery, slightly bitter taste that can be added to any curries and stews. It can be made into a tea (better with a few slices of fresh turmeric root if you can find it!); and ‘golden milk’ (usually a combination of turmeric, nut milk and honey). Mix it into scrambled egg, add it to your rice or use it in soups…. beware of getting it on your clothes though – it stains!