From South Asia to the Middle East, turmeric has long been known for its health benefits in a wide range of ailments, as well as being a spice and a beauty application. However, separating fact from fiction is necessary especially when it comes to the purported medical benefits of turmeric as with any natural substance.
Turmeric the Cure All
It is important to state at the outset that turmeric is not a cure all. While some ‘old wive’s tales’ may have some element of truth and scientific basis, turmeric as with any edible substance can be toxic to the body if consumed in large quantities. In other words, too much of a good thing can be bad for you.
Turmeric is widely credited for treating arthritis, depression, sore throats, colds and flus, fungal skin infections (ringworm) and lung infections. It is also said to be useful in the treatment and management of kidney problems, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels and Alzheimer’s disease.
Science has been able to prove and refute some of these claims. It is also important to understand that what turmeric may do outside of the body may not be the same as what it can do once consumed. For example, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that turmeric extract can inhibit viral activity in laboratory studies. However, this does not mean that consuming large quantities of turmeric will work in the same was as an antiviral drug.
Some of the more commonly proposed medical benefits associated with turmeric include that for diabetes, high blood cholesterol and inflammatory diseases.
Turmeric to treat diabetes
Several animal studies have shown that turmeric (Curcuma longa) may in fact lower blood glucose levels after eating. It appears to do so by increasing the levels of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that reduces blood glucose. While it may have some benefit for diabetics, the problem with diabetes is that the pancreas either does not produce insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the body does not respond to even high levels of insulin (type 2 diabetes).
Turmeric to lower blood cholesterol
Animal studies have also shown that turmeric may have some benefit in lowering the lipid levels in the blood. This includes blood cholesterol and triglycerides. However, it is also known that turmeric which is eaten may be changed by the liver after it is absorbed in the intestines and is also poorly absorbed in the gut. In high doses it could also interfere with the blood-thinning drugs that are commonly used by people with high cholesterol levels.
Turmeric as an anti-inflammatory
The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is known for it anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting certain substances like cyclooxygenase (COX-2), phospholipases and other chemicals responsible for inflammation (cytokines). In this regard it may have some similar benefits as anti-inflammatory drugs but only for certain tissues in the body. This means that turmeric may not be effective for all inflammatory conditions and should not be used as a substitute for anti-inflammatory drugs.
The Science and the Supplements
While some of the supposed medical benefits of turmeric has been disproved by science, there are also promising results from various other studies done on turmeric.
Since 2001, there have been repeated studies that have shown that turmeric may be beneficial in reducing the oxidative damage to nerve cells that is seen with Alzheimer’s disease. It may explain why the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is so much lower in countries where turmeric is used in daily cooking, like in India, as compared to western nations.
Turmeric supplements that are sold for its supposed health benefits should not be used to replace any drug. These supplements may not contain the same quantity of the active ingredient that was used in studies which showed turmeric to be helpful in certain conditions. As with any plant extract, the quantity of the active ingredient can vary from one plant to the next and also with geographical and seasonal factors.
Ultimately the choice to use turmeric for health reasons is not entirely unfounded, particularly if it is included in food within moderate amounts. It may at best be useful as a preventative measure for some diseases. However, delaying medical treatment to instead use age old ‘cures’ like turmeric can be sometimes do more harm than good.