With a history dating more than five thousand years, the origins of turmeric lie in Indonesia and south India, where the brightly orange colored rhizome is used as an ingredient in local cooking.
Turmeric is harvested from the root base of the Curcuma longa plant which belongs to the same family as ginger.
The root, which is similar to ginger in looks, is typically dried and used in the powder form.
It has a distinct aroma with a nutty, mildly spicy taste. In addition to being used as a condiment, it is also employed as food coloring (due to its natural deep yellowish-orange color) in butter, cheese, margarine, to tint cotton, silk, paper and cosmetics. It is also used as a food preservative and to make pickles.
Turmeric has also been used in Indian and Chinese medicines since the seventh century AD. The traditional folk medicine of various Asian cultures use turmeric to treat a large number of ailments like fever, colds, bronchitis, bladder and kidney inflammations, diarrhea and a host of others.
Additionally it is made into a paste and applied directly to the skin in Indian and Malaysian customs to give a glowing healthy skin tone.
Mounting evidence now shows that this age old spice is a promising deterrent against a number of diseases due to its anti-inflammatory abilities. In fact the German Commission E (Germany’s regulatory agency for herbs) has approved it for use against dyspepsia and appetite loss.
According to one review of seven hundred turmeric studies, published in October, 2007 issue of Alternative & Complementary Therapies by renowned ethno-botanist James A Duke, turmeric seems to perform better than numerous pharmaceuticals against a number of chronic, debilitating ailments. Slowly but surely, people are becoming aware of the health benefits of turmeric (curcumin), everywhere. And the bonus is that to date, turmeric does not have any known side effects.
What is Curcumin?
The health benefits of turmeric are actually due to the Curcumin in the rhizome. Curcumin is one of the main curcuminoid antioxidants found in the root and is the natural phenol that gives turmeric its characteristic yellow color.
Antioxidants are compounds frequently found in plants, and are known to protect the cells in the body against damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are the natural by-product of respiration produced in the body.
A lot of interest has been generated in Curcumin over the last few decades due to the medicinal value it provides. Latest research has shown Curcumin to be a very effective anti-inflammatory agent. This is vital because a vast majority of the modern diseases have their roots in inflammation.
Additionally, curcumin has a role in the treatment of cancer. Curcumin has been able to cut down on the transformation, spread and proliferation of tumors in a number of studies and it can impede the creation of carcinogenic cells by suppressing certain isozymes.
Curcumin Fights Free Radicals
During the normal process of extracting energy from the food we eat by using oxygen, the body inadvertently also creates some unstable molecules, the most well recognized of which are free radicals.
Free radicals are also produced by environmental factors like air pollution, excessive consumption of highly processed foods containing saturated fats, overexposure to sun, strenuous exercise, drinking alcohol and just the daily job and life related stress of modern life.
The free radicals are unstable ions because they are short of one electron. To become stable they steal an electron from cell structures like the cell membrane, proteins, and even DNA of a cell. This process of gaining an electron is called ‘oxidation’ which is why a surplus of free radicals produces oxidative stress in the body.
When electrons are taken from cellular structures the cells become damaged and cease to function properly or even die. Oxidative stress is believed to be responsible for chronic diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, aging, heart failure, cancer types like breast, bladder cancer, and a host of others.
To counter the effect of oxidative stress, the body produces antioxidants whose job it is to neutralize the free radicals so they do not harm the cells in the body. There are two main types of antioxidants called endogenous, which are made inside the body and exogenous those we get from our diet and other sources.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric is an antioxidant. It has been found to be a very effective scavenger of free radicals in test tubes and there is some evidence that it does the same in the body.
How Much Curcumin is in Turmeric?
A study conducted to determine the amount of Curcumin available in a variety of turmeric and curry powder brands available on the market was carried out in 2006. Using liquid chromatography technique, twenty eight different spice products were analyzed. Pure turmeric contained the greatest amounts of Curcumin, a little over three per cent by weight.
Other than the minimal amount of Curcumin found in turmeric powder, there is another issue as well. It has low bio-availability, which means that most of what is consumed does not make it into the blood and on to the cells where it most effective.
Once it is ingested, it is quickly metabolized in the body and removed, hence minimizing absorption into the blood stream. So for Curcumin to be effective, large amounts of turmeric have to be consumed for just small amounts of Curcumin to enter the blood.
Since the benefits of Curcumin are well documented, many researchers worked to find ways to eliminate this issue. Shoba et al tested bio-availability of Curcumin by combining it with piperine, the active component in black pepper which gives it its bitter taste.
They gave human subjects two grams of Curcumin combined with piperine and found that the bio-availability of Curcumin increased by 2000%. Other studies show that absorption of Curcumin is increased in tissues also, when taken in combination with black pepper. Dissolving turmeric powder in a fat also enhances the bio-availability of Curcumin in blood.
Which is Better, Turmeric or Curcumin?
There hasn’t been much published when it comes to comparing the effectiveness of turmeric rhizome and commercially available Curcumin supplement. One recent paper did compare the two for immune-stimulatory, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
In every aspect, turmeric rhizome out-performed the purified Curcumin on its own. This study offers support for the basic principle of Ayurvedic medicine that the whole root is better in treating humans rather than just a single component of the root.
Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years and having been time tested, should hold some value. Part of the findings may also be explained by the fact that turmeric contains a number of other antioxidants and perhaps the combination of all their benefits allows the turmeric powder to perform better.
Can You Just Take a Curcumin Supplement?
Figuring out whether to take turmeric or Curcumin may be a little confusing. So we have tried to ‘decipher’ the issue for you.
Turmeric is a food condiment that has been used for ages without any adverse effects so it is safe to consume in large amounts. For example in India and Pakistan it is added to almost all curries which are consumed at each meal.
Curcumin supplements are a fairly new phenomena and come with a long list of conditions where they should not be used. For example it should not be used if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, have gallbladder disease, are hormone-sensitive, are scheduled for surgery as it thins blood and increases the risk of bleeding and many others.
What many people do not realize is that taking even small amounts of turmeric powder in their diet on a daily basis will provide numerous benefits. The founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine feels that until further proof ‘whole plants are usually better than isolates’.
Additionally while Curcumin passes through the small intestine quickly, without being absorbed unless supplemented with oil or black pepper, it does sit around in the colon for some time and here it protects against cancer of the colon.
As a preventative, it is a good idea to start with small amounts of turmeric, but if you need to treat a specific condition then by all means use the more intensive quantities of absorbable curcumin supplement under your medical practitioner’s guidance.
How Much Curcumin Should One Take?
The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests a turmeric dosage of one to three grams of dried pure turmeric powder each day to acquire health benefits form the spice. This translates to ½ to 1 ½ teaspoons daily.
Turmeric has been used for thousands of years and its tolerance is well documented in human consumption. They suggest that if fresh root is to be used then one to three grams are sufficient.