6 science-backed benefits of turmeric, including reduced inflammation and depression

Turmeric powder can be added to sauces, salads, and even frothed milk for a latte.

  • Turmeric benefits include reducing inflammation, boosting heart health, and improving skin.
  • Most turmeric health benefits come from curcumin, which is difficult for your body to absorb.
  • Therefore, consider taking turmeric pills or supplements to increase your consumption.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Turmeric has been a staple in traditional medicine for thousands of years. Now, modern science has confirmed some of the spice's health benefits, from its anti-inflammatory properties to its role as an antioxidant.

Curcumin – an active chemical that gives turmeric its yellow color – is responsible for most of these benefits, but it is difficult for the body to absorb. Therefore, turmeric's health perks are difficult to measure. So far, neither turmeric, nor its active component curcumin, have been approved as a treatment for any disease.

Here are some of the health benefits of turmeric and tips to incorporate more of it into your diet:

1. Turmeric reduces inflammation

Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system, and it occurs each time the body is injured. Inflammation isolates an injured area from nearby healthy tissue by wrapping it in a shield of white blood cells as a part of the body's healing process.

However, in some instances, your body's inflammatory response is set off without an injury or acute situation. If inflammation becomes chronic or excessive, it may lead to lasting damage and an array of chronic diseases, from heart disease to diabetes.

Symptoms of acute inflammation include:

  • Redness
  • Tenderness
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth of the wounded area

A 2017 medical review published in Foods found that curcumin relieved inflammation in patients with osteoarthritis – a chronic disease characterized by joint stiffness and occasional inflammation. Patients who took 1000mg of curcumin a day for eight to 12 weeks saw a reduction in inflammation symptoms like morning stiffness, joint swelling, pain, and motor capacity.

2. Turmeric is an antioxidant

The 2018 medical review published in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry found that curcumin acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants are stable molecules that counterbalance the effects of free radicals in the body. Free radicals come from both natural metabolic processes like digestion and outside sources like pollution or cigarette smoke.

When the number of free radicals and antioxidants are balanced in the body, free radicals help fight off pathogens. However, when the balance tips, and there are more free radicals than antioxidants, oxidative stress occurs.

Oxidative stress is when free radicals start damaging proteins, fatty tissues, and cell DNA. Over time, this continuous damage may lead to diseases like diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A 2010 study published in Clinical Biochemistry found that in 21 patients with b-thalassemia/Hb E – an inherited blood disorder – 500mg of curcuminoids a day for 12 months reduced oxidative stress levels.

3. Turmeric may help treat cancer

Many research studies on curcumin have focused on its potential to treat or alleviate symptoms of different types of cancer. Because there is a correlation between chronic inflammation and the development of cancer, curcumin's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may prove beneficial in fighting the disease.

In fact, a 2019 medical review published in Nutrients found that curcumin may prevent the proliferation of breast cancer cells, thereby slowing tumor growth. The same review found that curcumin is being explored as a treatment for lung, colorectal, pancreatic and some other types of cancer. While results are inconclusive, studies have found promising results in test tube and animal studies.

The biggest obstacle in using curcumin in cancer treatment is the human body's inability to absorb it in any significant quantities. Pharmacologists are working to overcome this obstacle, but until they succeed, neither turmeric nor curcumin is used to treat cancer.

4. Turmeric may boost heart health

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that healthy participants who consumed between 80 to 4,000 mg of curcumin per day saw key heart health indicators improve. This included a decrease in the amount of fat in their blood as well as a drop in both their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.

While consuming 4,000 mg of curcumin a day is a lot, there are currently no known side effects associated with the compound. However, if you are on blood thinners, consult with a doctor before consuming large amounts of curcumin as it is known to thin blood and prevent clotting.

5. Turmeric may alleviate depression and promote brain function

According to the results of a 2018 study published in the European Journal of Medical Chemistry, consuming 500 to 1000mg of curcumin daily for at least six weeks improved symptoms of depression and reduced anxiety in multiple clinical trials.

Scientists have also investigated whether or not curcumin could potentially treat or prevent the development of debilitating neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's.

According to a 2008 review published in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, curcumin may be effective in managing factors that could lead to the development of Alzheimer's. These include inflammation, oxidative stress, and the formation of beta-amyloid plaques – an accumulation of small fibers – in the brain.

6. Turmeric promotes healthy skin

Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, curcumin may even improve the appearance of skin.

A 2007 medical review published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology found that curcumin also had wound-healing properties, possibly making it a good treatment for skin conditions like vitiligo, psoriasis, and various eczemas.

Topical tonics and ointments containing curcumin reduced the time it took for skin wounds to heal, improved the distribution of collagen – the protein that gives skin its elasticity – and promoted the growth of new blood vessels.

How to get enough turmeric in your diet

While The National Institute of Health has not set a daily recommendation for turmeric or curcumin intake, studies have found that a safe daily allowance is 3mg/kg of curcumin.

Despite all the health potential of curcumin, its percentage in turmeric is quite modest, between 3% to 6%, which means that each tablespoon of turmeric powder contains less than 0.4g of the active ingredient. And, only a minuscule amount of that is being absorbed into the bloodstream.

There are, however, simple ways to ensure your body is absorbing it better. Nutritionist and cook book author Velonda Anderson, PhD, suggests toasting turmeric powder, combining it with fats, or mixing it with black pepper, which can improve absorption by up to 2000%.

For those wondering how to incorporate turmeric into their diet, Anderson suggests:

  • Adding a teaspoon of it to a smoothie
  • Sprinkling it on top of salads
  • Incorporating turmeric paste to stews and curries

Turmeric supplements

Another way to add turmeric into your diet is by taking supplements. Most turmeric and curcumin supplements on the market are in 500mg capsules. These are meant to be consumed up to three times daily, with or without food.

Anderson recommends talking to your primary care provider before committing to a higher dosage of curcumin. "Even though there are no known allergies or side effects associated with turmeric, some medications and pre-existing conditions are worth discussing," Anderson says.

Insider's takeaway

Turmeric's active ingredient curcumin provides a variety of health benefits thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. From reducing the chance of developing cardiovascular disease to possibly warding off certain cancers, curcumin should be a part of any healthy diet.

While researchers are still seeking out ways to improve our body's ability to absorb curcumin, you can easily add turmeric to your diet by sprinkling it on foods you already eat.

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