Over the centuries, the root-like stem of the Curcuma longa plant has been used to make yellow dyes and spike food with some tasty zing. But an ever-growing mountain of evidence shows that boldly coloured turmeric with its earthy, bitter-gingery taste may offer a plethora of potential health benefits.
Multiple studies – most originating in India, Europe and Australia – show that turmeric, and especially its colour-rich constituent of curcumin, can help prevent or treat a wide spectrum of cancers, inflammatory conditions, autoimmune problems, neurological ailments including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and diabetes neuropathy, among other metabolic diseases.
Interest in turmeric and curcumin began decades ago when researchers began asking why India has some of the lowest rates of colorectal, prostate and lung cancer in the world, compared with the United States, whose rates are up to 13 times higher. They traced India’s advantages largely to its diet staple of curry powder, which is a combination of spices, with turmeric as a main ingredient.
A NATURAL ANTI-INFLAMMATORY?
A recent review published in the journal Molecules said studies to date “suggest that chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and most chronic diseases are closely linked, and that antioxidant properties of curcumin can play a key role in the prevention and treatment of chronic inflammation diseases.”
An M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre review of curcumin research, in the journal Phytotherapy Research in 2014, found that it regulates inflammation that “plays a major role in most chronic illnesses, including neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases.”
Yet another M.D. Anderson study found that curcumin exhibits “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities,” all bolstering its “potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic illnesses.”
There are no guarantees that turmeric or its active ingredient of curcumin will work for everyone. Researchers also caution that they may delay but not prevent, or slow down but not stop, a medical condition.
The Curcuma longa plant is a member of the ginger family. Curcumin makes up 3.4 per cent of the turmeric root-stem or rhizome but provides its colour and many of its health benefits. Curcumin is available only as a supplement or by eating turmeric spice.