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What's the deal with turmeric?

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

Ever wandered into a Pret a Manger and seen a turmeric latte on offer - and thought what? Or are you already ankle deep in the turmeric trend? I am going to discuss the evidence on turmeric and help you get the most out of the bright orange beauty.

Turmeric is a plant that is grown in certain parts of Asia and central America. It has been used for thousands of years in Asian culture as traditional medicine for many conditions including breathing problems, pain, fatigue and rheumatism. You may be more familiar with it in curries. It has a signature bright yellow colour which is due to the active ingredients called curcuminoids, or curcumin. Curcumin is a polyphenol that naturally occurs in turmeric, which in simple terms means that it defends body cells from ultraviolet radiation and pathogen damage. Much of the research that is available on turmeric is focused on this active ingredient. Unfortunately, both turmeric and curcumin are poorly absorbed by the human gut. To make things worse, it is also rapidly absorbed and eliminated by the body. So both of these factors are important to consider when you are consuming turmeric.

Why would you want to eat (or drink) turmeric?

There is a range of different conditions that turmeric may play a useful role in. Most commonly, turmeric is prized for its anti-inflammatory properties. Which is why it is often used to try and treat joint inflammation and pain such as arthritis. Turmeric extract is actually shown to be equally effective as non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen for pain in osteoarthritis. In order for turmeric to have any effect on your joints, you will need it to be absorbed into the blood - which is almost impossible by consuming turmeric alone. Thankfully researchers have discovered that combining black pepper with turmeric slows down the breakdown and enhances its absorption by up to 2000%. This is because of the active ingredient in black pepper called piperine. But need not despair yet, you can still get the benefits of turmeric in your morning lattes as a similar effect can be achieved by combining turmeric with fat. So for example, you could use full fat cow's milk to help enhance the absorption of turmeric too. Unfortunately, all the other milk alternatives such as soy, oat and nut varieties would not be as effective as they are low in fat as most formulas contain a large amount of water.

For similar reasons, curcumin in particular can be used in sports as an ergogenic aid. The anti-inflammatory effects can reduce the symptoms of muscle damage, and enhance recovery from muscle damaging exercise. Although there is some good evidence, this is not a general recommendation for any Tom, Dick and Harry doing a glute workout at the gym or going to a badminton match with their BBFL. As it depends on the activity, sport or training event being performed. But regardless, trying to incorporate some curcumin in the form turmeric by adding it to curries (with lashings of coconut milk and black pepper) is only going to be a good thing.

Turmeric may also have anti-cancer properties. Both turmeric and curcumin have anti-oxidant properties that can protect DNA from cell damage and mutations. They may also reduce tumour growth by reducing the spread of cancerous cells. Most impressively it may naturally kill cancerous cells, by activating enzymes that destroy cancer cells. Although these studies are mostly in tubes and animals, to confirm them. Generally consuming turmeric in its whole form is not going be a bad thing at all, unless someone is undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy which acts to destroy cells (as turmeric may interact with treatment) or if you are taking blood thinners such as warfarin. In this instance, always consult with your GP or healthcare professional first.

Turmeric has been used to help alleviate symptoms of ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. With some evidence that it may even induce remission in ulcerative colitis. Now going back to the point I made earlier, the formula that you take turmeric in is important here. Turmeric is poorly absorbed as we know, which means that is lingers about in your gut. Whilst its loitering there it starts to act as a anti-inflammatory agent. So this is where consuming turmeric without enhancing agents such as black pepper or fat is needed. Here the turmeric latte with low fat milk may be beneficial.

You might be reading this and thinking, but I have none of these conditions, so why would I take turmeric?. Well, there is also some existing evidence in healthy individuals that turmeric may help reduce total and LDL cholesterol (this is your bad cholesterol), reduce inflammatory markers, reduce brain ageing and improve alertness and mood. Although this evidence exists, the small amount of studies existing often contain a small number of participants and often the doses of curcumin are higher than what you could consume in turmeric itself. Plus the dose used in these studies varies, so the amount needed to get a therapeutic effect will also vary. So although these results are interesting, they are hard to translate into guidelines for the general population. More good quality studies are needed to replicate these findings. But incorporating more turmeric in your diet will only be a good thing.

How much is too much?

Curcumin is often found in health stores or online in supplement or pill form, but often these contain up to 3-4 times more than what is recommended for therapeutic effect. So I would avoid using over the counter supplements, as this is not necessary for everyday use. Consuming the curcumin by using turmeric as either ground spice that you can store in your cupboard or by buying the root itself and grating into food or drinks which is kept in the fridge. Curcumin only makes up about 10% of turmeric so it is hard (if not impossible) to over consume to a toxic level. I would aim for about a teaspoon a day to get enough of the ingredient to get any of these benefits. If you consume too much turmeric, you may experience some gastrointestinal issues. Make sure that if you are taking regular medication, to check with your GP, dietitian or healthcare professional before making any dietary changes, including increasing your turmeric intake.

How can you use it?

Turmeric goes well with cumin, black pepper, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds and coriander hence it makes a killer addition to any curry (if anything it is essential). Try it with a dressing by mixing it with tahini or yoghurt. Mix turmeric with the above spices and oil then drizzle over butternut squash, cauliflower, potatoes or brussel sprouts. It can even be added to an omelette or scrambled egg to with other spices and some onion. Onto sweet things, it goes well with coconut, so you could also use it in porridge with some dried coconut, coconut milk and raisins for sweetness.

Disclaimer: this blog article is written for educational and entertainment purposes, it is not written to provide bespoke advice. If you are requiring personalised advice or help, please get in contact with your GP or healthcare professional who can signpost you to registered dietitian or nutritionist.

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