Turmeric Overview


Turmeric is a main ingredient in curry and mustard, imparting flavor and its characteristic yellow color. See more pictures of spices.
­iStockphoto.com/ajaykampani

Turmeric might just be one of the most versatile spices on the planet. Whether you're familiar with it or not, you've probably eaten it at some point or another because turmeric is one of the main ingredients in both curry and mustard. It not only helps to give them their unique flavors, but it's also responsible for giving them both their yellow color. For this reason, turmeric is also used in textile dyes. Beyond its abilities as a culinary spice and a coloring agent, turmeric has been used for hundreds of years in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of medical conditions. It is a known anti-inflammatory and scientific research has been conducted regarding its use in treating several medical conditions including high cholesterol, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), rheumatoid arthritis and scabies.

Turmeric is harvested from the roots of the Curcuma longa plant, which is native to India [source: Curcuma Longa]. To create turmeric, the roots of the Curcuma Longa plant, known as rhizomes, are boiled, dried and then ground into a powder. Eastern cultures have been incorporating turmeric into their diets and taking advantage of its medicinal properties for centuries. In recent years, the rest of the world has begun to take notice; time and resources are being put toward unlocking the secrets behind turmeric's healthy benefits in labs around the globe.

­While there is still a lot to learn, it has been determined that turmeric has also proven to be a strong antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals throughout the human body. Aside from that, it's also shown promise in the fight against Alzheimer's and many different forms of cancer. For centuries, it's even been a home remedy for diarrhea and bladder infections [source: Curcuma Longa].

Read on to find out about how turmeric works in your body.

 

Turmeric at Work in Your Body

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­OK, so we've established the fact that turmeric is about as versatile as a spice can get. Now let's look at how it works in your body. One of the main components in turmeric is curcumin, which just happens to be an incredibly powerful antioxidant.

When we breathe, cells use the oxygen we take in and then they spit out free radicals. This is a process called oxidation and it's the same thing that causes iron to rust. Now imagine that happening inside your body. The thing with free radicals is that they have unpaired electrons, which makes them highly unstable. A molecule with unpaired electrons is either going to get rid of an electron, or steal one from somewhere else to become stable [source: Health Check Systems]. The problem with this is that it can cause a damaging chain reaction. In order for one free radical to become stable, another molecule has to become unstable and so on and so on. This is where antioxidants like curcumin come into play.

Curcumin and other antioxidants neutralize free radicals. They literally hunt them down and stabilize them. This can help in a couple different ways. If a chain reaction has already begun, antioxidants have the ability to put a stop to it or they can prevent it from ever getting started in the first place. Keep in mind that oxidation is a natural process. There's nothing we can do to stop it. In fact, it's necessary to sustain life. However, by taking antioxidants like curcumin in moderation, we can slow down its degenerative side effects.

Aside form containing powerful antioxidants, turmeric also happens to be an anti-inflammatory. Our bodies produce two prostaglandins, cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2, known respectively as COX-1 and COX-2. While COX-1 is important in our bodies and necessary for proper blood clotting, COX-2 is only associated with inflammation [source: Mother Nature]. Aspirin prevent inflammation by blocking production of both prostaglandins, but turmeric only blocks production of COX-2. It is easy to see how this would be beneficial. Turmeric allows us to stop inflammation without affecting other important body functions.

Read on to find out more about turmeric's exciting health benefits.

Turmeric Health Benefits

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­Turmeric happens to have powerful anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antibiotic properties [source: Monda]. It can be made into a paste and applied directly to the skin to help heal sprains, open wounds and other injuries. As a result of its anti-inflammatory properties, it has been used for years to treat patients with many different types of arthritis. And some contend that it not only prevents heart failure but also can repair damage that has already been done. On top of all that, people use it to treat acne as well as other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

Curcumin, the main component in turmeric, has been known to help "clean" the liver, which in turn improves liver function. As a result, the liver is able to get rid of more LDL cholesterol. And yes, that's the bad kind [source: WHFoods]. The same principles applied here could mean that turmeric can be helpful with treating digestive illnesses. Furthermore, many believe its ability to speed up metabolism can assist with weight loss.

Surprisingly, turmeric can also provide relief from diarrhea and it reportedly cures bladder infections. Research regarding its affect on cancer is ongoing; it's shown promise in the area of slowing the spread of cancerous cells. Indian men who ingest turmeric regularly rarely develop colon cancer. New studies are also showing that turmeric may be able to prevent Alzheimer's and slow down the disease's progression in patients who already have it [source: WHFoods]. Studies are currently underway to determine whether or not turmeric can also be used in the fight against HIV and cystic fibrosis. Is there anything this spice can't do?

The number of health benefits linked to turmeric is truly extraordinary. We'll talk about some of them more in depth a little later. For now, let's focus on the side effects.

Turmeric Side Effects

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­Most remedies come with side effects. You have to exchange your stuffy nose for drowsiness or your depression for headaches and diarrhea. With turmeric, you don't really have to worry about that. Taken in moderation, there are very few negative side effects, if any.

With that being said, if you were to take too much turmeric your body might react adversely, but you'd have to take massive amounts in order for that to happen. There is also a possibility that you could be allergic to turmeric, so be careful if you're trying it for the first time. You might want to rub some on your skin and see if a rash develops before ingesting it. An allergic reaction isn't the only possible negative side effect. For persons being chemically treated for diabetes and high blood pressure, turmeric could increase the strength of your medication, which could be dangerous. Also, turmeric can interact with other medications, dietary supplements and herbs. So be sure to check with your doctor of pharmacist before inserting turmeric into your daily regimen.

Though the FDA has yet to weigh in on the use of turmeric, a similar commission based out of Germany has stated that turmeric is only dangerous for people with biliary obstruction [source: Mother Nature]. It has also been advised that people with gastrointestinal problems like ulcers and gallstones should shy away from turmeric and if you have a sensitive stomach, it may upset you. Studies have also shown that extraordinary amounts of turmeric can damage white and red blood cells. However, the amount of turmeric you would have to consume to make this happen is great, making it very unlikely.

While more research needs to be done regarding turmeric and its possible side effects, you might want to stay away from it if you have blood-clotting issues or if you're pregnant [source: Tattva's Herbs]. There is no hard evidence to support negative effects in regards to either condition, but the anti-inflammatory nature of turmeric means it could adversely affect blood-clotting disorders and the effects on pregnancy and nursing are completely unknown.

Turmeric for Bladder Infections

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­If you've ever had a bladder infection, you know how uncomfortable it can be. What you probably didn't know is that turmeric might help.

Bladder infections usually involve frequent urination, a burning sensation while you urinate and the urge to urinate when you really don't have to. These symptoms could be accompanied by a fever and, in some cases, blood will appear in your urine. Bladder infections are caused by bacteria, most commonly the bacteria Escherichia coli, or E. coli [source: Livestrong]. You've probably heard of this before. It is the same bacteria often associated with food poisoning.

When bacteria get into the bladder, they multiply very quickly. As a result, the bladder becomes inflamed. Luckily, as we've already discussed, turmeric happens to be a very effective anti-inflammatory and in the case of bladder infections, researchers believe it is able to stop the production of NF kappa-B, which is the main culprit responsible for inflammation in the bladder [source: WHFoods]. This unique ability makes turmeric a useful treatment for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis as well.

Curcumin's role as a powerful antioxidant also helps fight bladder infections. When our bodies get infected, oxygen molecules are damaged and they turn into free radicals [source: MC2Supermix]. They move throughout our bodies causing damage by stealing electrons from other molecules. This causes a nasty chain reaction. As we discussed earlier, antioxidants help stabilize these free radicals and keep them from doing harm. Antioxidants can also be preventative, which means that eating turmeric might just keep you from getting a bladder infection in the first place.

Turmeric for Diarrhea

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­Having intestinal issues is never fun, but turmeric could help. Eastern cultures have been using the spice to relieve diarrhea for hundreds of years.

Diarrhea can be caused by a couple different factors. In most cases, it is directly related to the fluids involved in digestion. A balance of fluids in our digestive tracks help break down food and turn it into energy for our bodies. Some of these fluids are created naturally inside our bodies, while others are ingested. If for some reason our bodies excrete too much of these fluids or don't absorb enough of what we consume, diarrhea will result [source: Mama Herb]. Turmeric's ability to aid in digestion provides relief by helping to balance out these fluid levels in our bodies.

Sometimes bacteria in our intestines can cause diarrhea. Salmonella is one of the worst culprits. Lucky for us, turmeric's antiseptic properties can provide relief [source: Hub Pages]. Not only will the spice fight bacteria that have already set up shop, but it can be taken preventatively as well. A diet with even moderate doses of turmeric can help keep your system working properly.

Aside from eating curry, there are a few other ways to take turmeric. The simplest method involves mixing a single teaspoon of the spice with a glass of warm water [source: IBS Tips]. Some people prefer mixing it with milk or yogurt. Of course, if you're lactose intolerant, these could just make the problem worse. There are also pill supplements and a number of herbal teas that contain turmeric.

Read on to find out how turmeric is helping in the fight against cancer.

Turmeric and Cancer

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­Perhaps one of turmeric's most exciting benefits is its potential ability to prevent cancer and even slow down the spread of cancer that has already developed. People who regularly include the spice in their diet have much lower occurrences of cancer.

In the case of colon cancer, turmeric's role as a powerful antioxidant is probably most significant. Cells throughout our bodies are constantly being turned over but in the colon, this process happens much faster and much more often. If free radicals get into the colon, they can disrupt this turnover and cause damage resulting in colon cancer. Turmeric's antioxidant properties prevent this from happening.

In the case of patients who already have cancer, turmeric could potentially be of help. Some reports indicate that turmeric has been capable of slowing down the spread of tumors in mice. As cancer cells spread and a tumor grows, transcription factors control the process. Curcumin, one of the main components in turmeric, actually shuts down many of these transcription factors. It can't stop them completely, but it slows down the process considerably. Turmeric's ability to inhibit COX-2 and NF kappa-B, as we discussed earlier, also comes into play [source: WHFoods]. Both of these inflammatory agents help contribute to cancer growth. Keeping them at bay could also help slow the formation of cancer cells.

Turmeric also looks promising as a treatment for lung and prostate cancer as well as childhood leukemia. Studies have shown that turmeric can completely stop the replication of leukemia cells in a cell culture [source: WHFoods]. While more time and resources are needed to unlock the full potential of turmeric, early results are encouraging.

For more information, visit the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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