Unless you’ve been living underground, you have likely heard an overwhelming amount of information related to turmeric this past year. Somewhere along the way it was awarded super-spice status and now can be found almost anywhere you look, from supplements, to grocery store products, to even toothpaste!
The benefits of this wonder-spice are mainly anti-inflammatory in nature and for that it has been reported helpful in many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and possibly even cancer. In Indian culture they even use it topically to speed wound healing. What can’t this spice do?
Recently, however, a report came out saying that we were duped. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has little bioactive activity in the body. The report pointed out few studies showing curcumin itself to have any health benefits, and that in fact the compound often breaks down before it can elicit any sort of positive health impact.1
Oh no! How could we have gone so far astray, especially regarding an ancient spice that has been used for centuries therapeutically in other countries? Is it simply placebo effect.
Let’s hold up for just one second. For starters, before we go dumping all our turmeric capsules down the toilet, let’s read the article fully. What exactly are they saying?
Pay careful attention to the wording. The author in this article is mainly discussing the inability to successfully create a drug utilizing curcumin. Essentially they are saying we have been unable to isolate this active compound in such a way that has a positive and reproducible effect in the human body. Instead of acting on a target protein as they had hoped, the compound broke down and apparently produced no anti-inflammatory result. The article then goes on to say that we have very few published studies to show any benefits from turmeric, and specifically, curcumin usage, so in their conclusion, the time and money spent on turmeric is worthless.
That is all very interesting, however it is also misleading. First of all, just because they cannot isolate curcumin in a stable form suitable as a drug does not mean that curcumin does not work. The body, as we discover daily, works in mysterious ways. Simply because curcumin does not work on one specific target protein does not mean that it is not producing health benefits by other means.
Secondly, we do in fact have some studies to show beneficial effects. Do a quick search on PubMed and you will see what I mean. Some of these studies use the isolated curcumin, and others use the turmeric whole. Both do have research to show some effectiveness. One study, in fact, showed that turmeric was just as effective as ibuprofen in reducing pain from osteoarthritis.2 That is exciting news if you ask me! In fact there are many studies showing positive outcomes with arthritis patients.
Additionally, there are also many in-vitro and rat studies demonstrating the anti-inflammatory benefits this spice can have. While obviously these results are not always directly relatable or applicable to humans, the take-away is that this compound is very active and holds promise for a wide variety of disease states.
On the whole, based on this one critique, I would not be so fast to discount the powerful effects turmeric can have for our health. Ancient tradition and wisdom aside, there are actually studies showing benefit which should lead us to conclude that turmeric is actually doing something, but maybe not in the precise way we are looking at it currently.
Don’t forget that like with most things in nature, compounds work synergistically. Another reason why food, not supplements and fortification, is paramount for health. For example, we know that the phytochemicals in fruit are more powerful when eaten together in the whole food. When we try to isolate specific phytochemicals to make a pill, we find that the compound is unstable and frankly doesn’t work. But these compounds DO work when ingested in the right form and combination that nature intended.
All that to say, keep up with your turmeric if you find it to be working for you. Consider eating it in the whole form in cooking rather than isolated pill forms. If you do choose a pill, purchase from a reputable company and even consider purchasing the same forms used in the studies. When using the whole spice for the root, combine it with other foods known to enhance the bioavailability such as fats and black pepper.