From the outside, you might confuse turmeric with ginger. The two roots look very similar until you peel back the skin and see the vibrant deep yellow color (so deep you could call it orange) that distinguishes turmeric from its rhizome cousin. Aside from its medicinal and culinary uses, turmeric makes a great natural dye for anything from fabric to Easter eggs. The color is due to the curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric. That is where the magic lies within this fabulous plant, also known by the scientific name Curcuma longa L.
The use of turmeric dates back at least 4,500 years. Turmeric’s many benefits have been praised by and shared from India, where it was first used, to Asia, Europe and the rest of the world. Pliny the Elder described it as “an Indian plant with the appearance of ginger but taste of saffron” (1). Ayurvedic medicine has used turmeric for centuries to alleviate pain, inflammation and even cancer symptoms. The curcumin in the root itself is only about a 5 percent concentration, and even that small amount is enough to show a positive effect.
Let’s take a closer look at potential turmeric benefits and how to use this popular spice.
5 Turmeric Benefits You Should Know About
Arthritis is not only common—it’s painful and even crippling. Curcumin from turmeric performed as well or better than Western medicine in a study to see whether its anti-inflammatory properties could soothe painful rheumatoid arthritis (2). In addition, randomized clinical trials provide scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric extract (about 1,000 milligrams per day of curcumin) in the treatment of arthritis (3). However, more research still needs to be done.
“Turmeric is also great for sports recovery,” says registered dietician Kerri Schwartz of Los Angeles-based Creative Nutrition by Kerri. “If you are feeling super sore, you may want to add some turmeric to your juice or smoothie.”
With Alzheimer’s disease on the rise, turmeric’s ability to slow it down or prevent it has become an increasingly studied topic. You don’t need to have the fear of failing health to gain benefits from this potent plant stem. One study found that participants who ate curry often or even just occasionally had better cognitive performance that those who never or rarely ate it (4). Turmeric is a key ingredient in curry pastes, and the curcumin is thought to be responsible for its memory-enhancing effects.
Many studies have found that an age-related increase in oxidized proteins in the brain might contribute to the aging process (5). In addition to its antioxidant properties, turmeric has been shown to enhance the body’s natural antioxidant production, which may help combat oxidative damage associated with aging.
There is some evidence that both topical and oral formulations of turmeric may promote overall skin health, says Dr. Jeremy Wolf, a naturopathic doctor and lead health advisor at LuckyVitamin. Be cautious when using turmeric topically, however, as its yellow-orange color could stain the skin, he advises.
Many skin conditions are linked to imbalances of the inflammatory response, and curcumin has been shown to reduce or suppress inflammatory targets (6). Studies suggest that turmeric may help improve conditions like acne and psoriasis (7). In addition, turmeric has been shown to speed wound healing and help promote skin repair (8). Turmeric extract may also prevent the signs of aging from UVB exposure, an animal study found (9).
Several studies have shown that the curcumin in turmeric has anticancer effects and could potentially be useful for cancer prevention and treatment (10). Turmeric is also believed to enhance detoxification in the body, which could mitigate the effects of several dietary carcinogens, an animal study suggests (11). Other evidence indicates that curcumin may be effective in helping the body accept chemotherapy treatments when resistance occurs (12).
In addition to being a powerful anti-inflammatory, curcumin from turmeric may aid in weight control. It may also help with the adverse effects of obesity that make some people hold onto weight and create more stress on their system (13). One animal study found that curcumin could not only reduce weight gain, it could also stop fat cells from expanding (14).
How to Use Turmeric
If you buy the fresh root or the powder, turmeric might seem like a mysterious, staining mess. The key is not to go overboard or turmeric’s bitter notes can take over. You will get the benefits from smaller amounts, so go ahead and throw a 1/4 teaspoon in a stir fry, juice a little in with your smoothie, turn your pancake batter yellow by sprinkling it in, or add it to a sauce. You might like it in a pudding. Chocolate can hide the flavor, or you might enjoy it with enough sweetener and other spices such as cinnamon in your hot cereal.
Another great way to get turmeric into your diet is to enjoy an Indian-derived beverage called golden milk. You can make it yourself, or enjoy prepared mixes.
When using the fresh herb or convenient powder in your recipes, it’s best to incorporate black pepper along with it. That’s because studies have shown that curcumin alone is not easily absorbed by the body. Piperine, the major active component of black pepper, has been shown to increase bioavailability of curcumin by a whopping 2,000 percent (15).
Here’s one recipe for a creamy dressing that balances turmeric’s pungent flavor with the sweetness of carrots:
Turmeric Carrot Dressing Recipe
Makes: 4 Servings
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
This versatile dressing is great on a wide variety of salads. Try it poured on grilled vegetables, on raw lettuce, or any combination that appeals to you.
Should I Take a Turmeric Supplement?
If you are not a fan of turmeric’s identifiable flavor, you might want to take supplements to get the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and other studied benefits. There are many reputable brands that have created easy-to-swallow formulas filled with turmeric extracts that can be absorbed easier than a traditional powder-filled capsule.
At minimum, your supplements should contain an extract of black pepper called Bioperene to aid in absorption, LuckyVitamin’s Dr. Wolf recommends. “Forms of turmeric that I recommend looking for are called Meriva and BCM-95, which have even better absorption capabilities,” he says.
Turmeric Side Effects
Registered dietitian Schwartz noted that some studies have found diarrhea to be a potential side effect of taking large doses of turmeric. If you feel that your dosage is too high for your digestive system, you’ll still get great benefits by cutting down how much you are taking. Additionally, people with gallstones should ask their doctor before taking turmeric.