Turmeric is a ‘rhizomatous’ herbaceous perennial plant in the ginger family (specifically the ‘zingiberaceae’ family). It grows in South Asia under temperatures of 20-30 degrees centigrade. They are gathered for their rhizomes, which are then ground and boiled to create an orange powder than is commonly used as a spice in curries as well as for dyeing foods such as mustard. It is considered the ‘Indian Saffron’ and makes a cheaper alternative to ‘normal’ saffron.
However in Indian ‘Ayurvedic’ practices it is also thought to have many medicinal properties and is used as a herbal remedy. It is also popular as an antiseptic for cuts and burns in much of South Asia, and taken in the UK and US as a dietary supplement. The list of positive side effects of turmeric is thought to be extensive and it is thought that these work through the active ingredient ‘curcumin’ (by active ingredient is meant the part that has medicinal properties). This is also what gives turmeric its yellow colour and its flavour. It is also what gives turmeric its health benefits and its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, circulatory system and stomach soothing benefits.
The first of the positive side effects of turmeric, the antioxidant effects, are something found in many health supplements (such as Omega 3 fatty acids) and ‘super foods’. Antioxidants help to protect the cells of our body by fighting ‘free radicals’ which constantly bombard the cell walls. This battery is what causes us to age, and over time this barrage can wear down the cell walls and through to the nucleus where it can damage the DNA itself. Damaged cells then split to yield more imperfect cells which can cause a variety of problems including cancer. By eating turmeric the number of free radicals are reduced which can help fight ageing and prevent against cancer. Some studies have also suggests that curcumin can help target and destroy cancerous cells thus preventing them from spreading.
Another of the positive side effects of turmeric is that they can reduce inflammation by stimulating the adrenal glands and by lowering histamine levels (the stimulation of the adrenal glands also causes perspiration which is why we sweat eating spicy foods!). By reducing inflammation, turmeric can also ease joint pain and is a popular supplement for those suffering from arthritis.
Turmeric can also be used for it’s affects on the brain, and it has been demonstrated in laboratory settings to be possessed of nootropic properties (meaning that it affects the brain in a positive way enhancing cognitive performance). This works by strengthening and encouraging the transmission of the electrical signals across synapses in the neurons that the brain uses to communicate. At the same time by reducing swelling it may also be able to reduce the occurrence of amyloid plaques and tangles – the build up of proteins on the neurons which leads eventually to cell death.
As swelling has been associated with the build of amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain (the exact reason for the association being uncertain), the substance’s use as an anti-inflammatory can be used to prevent them from occurring and thus prevent immature neuron death. Cell death in the brain of this sort is thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related cognitive decline and for this reason turmeric has found prominence as a supplement taken to prevent these conditions.
The herb also thins the blood and reduces its ability to form clots. This makes it good for those with high blood pressure or high cholesterol and can help to protect against heart attacks and strokes. However it may not be a great supplement for those who have blood clotting problems already, or who have very low blood pressure.
Turmeric also helps protect the liver from toxins such as alcohol, and the also aids digestion by stimulating the flow of bile. As turmeric was once taken to help the liver and digestion, modern science seems to be supporting many of the positive side effects of turmeric touted by Ayurvedic experts. More research is also suggesting that turmeric might help fight bacterial infections and cataracts (through its antioxidant properties). While further research is needed to substantiate many of turmeric’s touted benefits, it is certainly potent enough to classify as a ‘super food’ and would make a good addition to anyone’s cooking (especially as it’s cheaper than saffron).
However there are also some negative side effects of turmeric if taken in large quantities or when an individual already suffers from health complaints. Those who take turmeric in large quantities are likely to experience diarrhoea, sweating and nausea – much as you would expect a curry. While turmeric is considered a ‘safe’ herb, it also shouldn’t be taken if suffering from congestive heart disease, gallstones, liver disease, jaundice or acute bilious colic due to its blood thinning and gland stimulating properties. As mentioned it also shouldn’t be taken by those with blood clotting disorders that prevent their blood from clotting efficiently and pregnant women should consult a physician whenever starting a new course of supplements or medication of any form.