Although best known as a spice that gives a distinctive flavor and yellow color to curry powder and mustard, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the ginger family and has long been used for healing. Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, and other traditional medicine systems practiced in India have relied on this pungent spice for centuries, and so it’s not surprising that the Asian subcontinent is where the most intensive research about this herb has been conducted.
The plant’s healing properties reside in its fingerlike stalk, which is scalded and then dried for medicinal preparations. This is the same part of the plant used to flavor, color, and preserve foods.
In India (and to some extent in China), turmeric has been used for centuries to treat indigestion and a host of other ailments. But it was considered only a culinary spice in many other parts of the world until the early 1970s, when laboratory researchers discovered notable inflammation-fighting compounds called curcuminoids in the herb. The most important of these–and the most intensively studied by far–is curcumin.
Among other findings, researchers discovered that turmeric (especially the curcumin component) has rich stores of antioxidants. In the body these important disease-fighting substances mop up unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals that can otherwise damage cells and cause diseases such as cancer.
Test tube studies done in the 1990s indicate that curcumin is as powerful an antioxidant as vitamins C and E, and even beta-carotene. Antioxidants are also powerful preservatives, which helps explain why turmeric has long been sprinkled on food to retain its freshness.
In animal studies and in one human trial published in 1992, turmeric also showed promise in lowering cholesterol levels and fighting atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries that can lead to heart attack. Preliminary tests even indicate that curcumin can inhibit the replication of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More research in this area is clearly needed before any specific recommendations can be made.
Today, turmeric is widely recommended for myriad diseases, from stomach ulcers and skin infections to eye conditions (such as chronic anterior uveitis). The evidence for it actually working for any of these conditions is mixed. For example, there’s no evidence that turmeric will help heal stomach ulcers but, when it’s applied as a paste, it may well eliminate scabies, an itchy skin condition caused by parasitic mites.
Specifically, turmeric may help to:
Relieve carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and joint inflammation. The anti-inflammatory compounds in turmeric appear to ease inflammation. This makes it possibly useful for relieving the inflammation in wrist and hand joints associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, for example. In India, curcumin is considered a standard anti-inflammatory medication. It appears to be most effective for acute rather than chronic inflammation.
Many sources recommend curcumin for arthritis-related inflammation and pain, but the evidence showing its effectiveness for arthritis is unclear. In a 1980 study published in India, rheumatoid arthritis patients who took 1,200 mg of curcumin a day experienced the same reduction in stiffness and joint swelling as those who took the prescription anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, which can have unpleasant side effects. Unfortunately, the study was flawed because results weren’t compared to a placebo (dummy pill) group.
Ease indigestion, excess gas (flatulence), bloating, and other stomach upset. Reinforcing an ancient use for turmeric, German health authorities have declared turmeric tea a valuable remedy for stomach upset. Laboratory findings back this up: The curcumin in turmeric fights bacteria commonly responsible for infectious diarrhea.
Clinical trials have been somewhat promising for this time-tested use as well. In a widely cited 1989 study, Thai researchers found that 500 mg capsules of curcumin (taken four times daily) was far more effective than a placebo in relieving indigestion. The study involved more than 116 adults at six Thai hospitals. And it was double-blind, meaning that neither the participants nor the researchers were aware of what each participant was taking during the trial. Nearly 90% of the participants taking the turmeric experienced full or partial pain relief after seven days, while only 53% of the group taking the placebo felt better.
Prevent cancer. In its role as an antioxidant, turmeric (presumably meaning the curcumin) inhibits damage to cells and thus helps to prevent cancer. In laboratory and small animal studies, curcumin has been found to hinder the growth of errant cells associated with cancer of the breast, skin, and colon, as well as lymphoma.
In a small but interesting 1992 clinical trial of 16 cigarette smokers, those taking 1.5 grams of turmeric a day for 30 days had a significantly lower level of mutagens (in the urine) than a control group consisting of six nonsmokers. Mutagens are substances that can increase the occurrence of a cancer-causing mutation.
Note: Turmeric has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Turmeric.
–Formulations to take internally include capsules, fresh juice, boiled tea made from powder, and tinctures.
–Topical formulations include creams, lotions, pastes, and ointments.
–To treat a specific ailment, look for turmeric standardized to contain 95% curcumin. You’d need to consume 100 grams (about 3 1/2 ounces) of turmeric as a culinary spice to get a therapeutic dose of curcumin (1.2 g per day).
–Teas are not as potent as formulations standardized to a curcumin concentration (and they don’t always appeal because of the herb’s distinctive taste). To make a tea, pour 1 cup (8 ounces) of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of powdered turmeric, let steep covered for 5 minutes, then strain. Drink two or three cups daily, as desired.
For carpal tunnel syndrome, indigestion, excess gas, and other other inflammation- and GI-related ailments: Take 300 to 600 mg (containing 95% curcumin) in capsule form three times a day. Alternatively, take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of liquid extract, mixed into 1/2 cup of water, three times a day. Continue until symptoms are relieved. If there is no improvement after a week of continuous use, then it is unlikely turmeric is going to help.
For cancer prevention: At this point, there is not enough firm evidence to recommend turmeric on a daily basis as an aid for preventing cancer. However, you may want to take advantage of any possible benefits simply by using turmeric regularly as a spice or even sipping turmeric tea.
Guidelines for Use
Once inflammatory symptoms improve, cut the daily dose of turmeric in half. And once symptoms actually clear up, discontinue taking the herb altogether. Like other anti-inflammatory medications, turmeric provides no apparent benefit for inflammation after symptoms have disappeared.
Because turmeric is not particularly well absorbed when taken orally, you might want to look for products that combine it with bromelain, a group of protein-digesting enzymes found in the pineapple plant. The bromelain will enhance the absorption of the active compounds in turmeric. There are numerous commercial preparations combining bromelain and turmeric.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with turmeric.
Possible Side Effects
While turmeric is safe to take at recommended doses, prolonged use of higher than recommended doses can cause stomach upset and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
Don’t take turmeric if you have a bile duct blockage or a blood-clotting disorder; it may negatively affect these conditions.
Because the risks are unknown, avoid medicinal amounts of turmeric (or concentrated curcumin) if you are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or are breast-feeding.
If you have gallstones or any gallbladder problems, you probably should not use turmeric supplements. This caution stems in part from a small 1999 study (of 12 people) which found that curcumin in low doses stimulated contractions of the gallbladder. This means that turmeric could potentially harm a person with gallbladder problems.