Turmeric is a perennial plant in the ginger family. It is botanically known as Curcuma longa L. – turmeric longa. Basically, turmeric is a root that doesn’t look much different from ginger, except for its bright orange colour. The rhizomes and stems of turmeric contain the phytochemical curcumin, which gives turmeric its bright neon yellow-orange colour.
History of turmeric
This medicinal spice has been used for centuries. The first evidence of its use was found in Egypt in the Ebers Papyrus (note: an ancient Egyptian medical treatise dating back to 1500 BC). Research suggests that turmeric was used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as early as 250 BC. It later spread to various parts of Asia and was widely used in ancient traditional Chinese herbal medicine.
The European history of turmeric began with a substitution in the name of the spice. In fact, medieval Arab traders who brought spices from India often substituted turmeric for the more expensive saffron, calling the strange yellow powder Indian saffron for authenticity. As a result, turmeric became the Latinised Arabic name for saffron.
It is unclear whether turmeric was originally used as a spice or as a medicinal herb. However, it is known that ancient Indian medicine originally used turmeric to treat digestive problems because, according to Ayurveda, the digestive system is the root of all disease.
The active compounds called curcuminoids are responsible for the beneficial properties of turmeric – they make up 3% of the total weight of the plant . The main curcuminoid found in turmeric root is curcumin (diferuloylmethane). In the USA, curcumin is considered safe as a food additive and as a medicine.
Here are the main health benefits of curcumin:
The phytochemical curcumin is an excellent anti-inflammatory agent. It has even been compared to some pharmaceutical drugs, but unlike them, curcumin has no serious side effects. Curcumin blocks the NF-kB molecule, which enters the cell nucleus and initiates inflammation. Importantly, scientists believe that chronic inflammation is a major cause of many common diseases. These include heart disease, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and various degenerative conditions .
2. Antioxidant properties
Oxidation in the body is thought to be one of the mechanisms that accelerates ageing and causes disease. It involves free radicals that react with organic substances such as proteins, fatty acids and DNA. Antioxidants like turmeric protect the body from free radicals . They also increase the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes .
3. Improved brain function
Until recently, it was thought that nerve cells lose their ability to divide and reproduce over time. However, it is now known that they are able to form new connections and increase in number. One of the main reasons for this process is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of growth hormone. Many well-known diseases, including depression and Alzheimer’s, are associated with reduced levels of this hormone . Curcumin, in turn, increases levels of the brain hormone BDNF, which increases the growth of new nerve cells and fights various degenerative processes.
4. Reducing the risk of heart disease
Curcumin improves the function of the endothelium, which lines the walls of blood vessels. Its destruction provokes the development of heart disease, blood pressure disorders and deterioration of blood clotting. Studies confirm that curcumin works like the drug atorvastatin – it reduces plasma cholesterol concentrations .
5. Reducing the risk of cancer
Scientists have shown that turmeric affects the growth, development and spread of tumours at a molecular level . It reduces ontogenesis – metastasis and the formation of new blood vessels in tumours . The effect of high doses of curcumin in cancer treatment has not yet been studied, but it is believed that turmeric antioxidants may be used as a preventive therapy to prevent cancer from developing.
6. Help with arthritis
The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin may relieve joint pain and reduce swelling associated with various forms of arthritis. One study looked at patients with rheumatoid arthritis. They found that, in many cases, turmeric was just as effective at relieving pain as chemical anti-inflammatory drugs .
7. Fighting depression
This is possible because curcumin increases BDNF levels. And depression is associated with a decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels and shrinkage of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory.
8. Slowing down the ageing process
Curcumin acts as an antioxidant, improves blood circulation and thus skin regeneration. It increases collagen synthesis, promotes the healing of minor wounds and clears acne due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Thanks to its powerful antioxidants, turmeric evens out the complexion .
9. Diabetes prevention
Recent studies have shown that turmeric is very beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes. Regular consumption of the spice improves the body’s ability to absorb glucose and activates insulin production in the pancreas, reducing insulin resistance.
10. Slimming agent
The main ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is an effective remedy for those who want to shed those extra pounds. One of its properties is to effectively inhibit the growth of fatty tissue. Strictly speaking, curcumin does not act directly on the fat deposits themselves, but on the tiny blood vessels that need to develop in the fat tissue to allow it to grow. Curcumin actively inhibits the microvascular growth in fat tissue, which in turn inhibits its physical growth.
Despite all these benefits, turmeric can cause allergies. If your body reacts to known spices, you should use this spice with particular caution. Turmeric should be excluded from the diet of people taking blood thinners (aspirin, warfarin) and anti-diabetic drugs, as it lowers blood sugar levels. Pregnant women should also avoid frequent use of turmeric because of its blood-thinning properties. Adding a small amount of turmeric to food as a spice does not usually cause any health problems.
Prepared by Mary Clair