There's a reason they make those gigantic 1,000-count bottles of aspirin. Heartburn, fever, arthritis, stomach aches, sleep disorders, migraine headaches, and symptoms of common cold are all treatable with a dose of the anti-inflammatory drug. But a powerful compound found in nature can do the trick just as well—and you can find it in the spice aisle.
Turmeric, the crown jewel of Indian spices, is a health powerhouse. Though best known for its role in certain curries, the yellow powder (derived from a rhizomatous plant called Zingiberaceae, which is related to ginger) contains nearly 30 anti-inflammatory compounds known as curcuminoids, and it’s loaded with magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6.
What makes turmeric so powerful?
Turmeric’s secret weapon is curcumin, a type of curcuminoid found in smaller amounts than in other inflammation-fighting spices like cinnamon and curry.
As an anti-inflammatory, curcumin is just as powerful as some over-the-counter drugs according to research. It turns out the compound blocks a molecule that turns on inflammation in the genes called NF-kB, effectively stopping inflammation before it can even begin. It does way more than just ease achy joints—but to grasp how powerful it truly is, it’s helpful to know a little more about inflammation.
What is inflammation?
First up—not all inflammation is a bad thing. Think back to a time when you were really sick. Bacteria was coursing through your veins, and you felt downright awful. You probably had a fever, right? That’s a form of inflammation, and in this scenario, a very good thing. Your body elevated its internal temperature to kill off harmful bacteria.
Another form of inflammation—in the extremities—is one of the ways our bodies heal injuries. A freshly sprained ankle (ouch!) swells up, gets red, and the skin around it feels warm to the touch. Why? Right after the injury occurs, the body sends an inflammatory response to an area to enlist the immune system to prevent infection from happening in the area. Feeling sore the next day is a sign of the body re-growing and repairing damaged tissue, and a little inflammation increases blood flow and activity in the area. This is called acute inflammation, which only occurs for a short period of time and isn’t necessarily bad for your health.
However, chronic or systemic inflammation is more serious and far more detrimental to overall health. Scientists now understand that being chronically inflamed is the root cause of, or at least a major contributing factor to, many deadly diseases. The onset of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's have all been linked to excess inflammation in the body.
So fighting chronic inflammation is super important to maintaining life-long health and preventing future diseases—and the odds are pretty good that you have some low-level inflammation in your body, even if you don’t have aches and pain. Some symptoms of chronic inflammation include:
- Chronic headaches
- Weight gain/loss
- Brain fog
- Abnormal bowel function
- Joint pain
- Depression and mood swings
- Cravings for starchy, salty, and/or sugary foods
In addition to helping to alleviate all of these immediate symptoms, taking an anti-inflammatory drug helps prevent the development of future diseases. This proactive reasoning is why some people turn to over-the-counter drugs like NSAIDs or aspirin that ease pain and act as blood thinners. While those medications work, they can come with their own negative side effects if taken for extended periods of time. Hence why so many people look for natural solutions … like a certain compound that starts with a “c.”
Benefits of cur cumin
Prevents chronic joint inflammation
If you’re not willing to take over-the-counter drugs every day, yet want to keep inflammation at bay, eating an anti-inflammatory diet and supplementing with turmeric or curcumin is your best bet. Studies have shown that curcumin works at a molecular level to prevent chronic joint inflammation and reduce the severity of arthritic flare-ups by increasing the production of anti-inflammatory molecules and enzymes around the painful area.
Even if you’re a spritely young athlete, and don’t have arthritis (yet!), supplementing with this compound can help with muscle and joint recovery without any adverse side effects.
Boosts brain health
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is the growth hormone responsible for forming new connections and increasing the number of neurons in our brains. As we age, our BDNF levels decrease, which makes it more difficult to make new connections. Brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and depression are linked to lower levels of BDNF—but curcumin seems to up the levels of BDNF in the brain, even at an advanced age. Jumping off this idea, scientists believe that supplementing with turmeric could delay or even reverse impaired brain function, so it’s not out of the question to imagine it could even improve memory and make you sharper (hey, it worked on rats!)
Reduces cell oxidation
When free radicals go wild in your body, they cause oxidative damage, or damage to cells’ structure. This can lead to everything from superficial signs of aging (like wrinkles) to far more serious conditions like cancer—basically, free radicals are just not good news. However, antioxidants (antioxidant, get it?) are really effective at fighting and eliminating free radicals. Some are more potent than others, and wouldn’t you know it, curcumin contains antioxidants that immediately neutralize free radicals, thanks to the its unique chemical structure. The antioxidants found in curcumin are so supercharged that they boost the body’s own antioxidant enzymes, leaving you extra-protected from free radical damage and cell oxidation.
Emerging research suggests that curcumin may help the body detect and destroy mutated tumor cells before they can spread. In patients with colon cancer, it induces “programmed death” in cancer cells, and is so effective that current clinical trials are studying how the compound could be used in treatment for the disease.
Prevents heart disease
Turmeric and curcumin boost heart health in a couple of ways—they prevent atherosclerosis, or the hardening of arteries, and they improve endothelial function. Poor endothelial function means the body has trouble regulate blood pressure and clotting blood, which is decidedly bad for heart health. Curcumin’s ability to reduce inflammation and oxidation are also important in preventing heart disease.
How to supplement with curcumin
There’s no doubt about it—curcumin is a very important compound for internal health. You can take it as a supplement on its own. But if you’d rather eat your way to health, turmeric is going to give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to curcumin content.
Look for 400 to 600 milligrams of turmeric in tablet or capsule form, and follow the recommendations on the label—taking it either in one fell swoop or with meals throughout the day. It’s worth noting that a good turmeric supplement will have black pepper or piperine (a molecule that activates other enzymes and is responsible for the spiciness of black pepper) in its formulation, too. Why? Your body won’t be able to fully absorb, or reap the full benefits of, curcumin unless you take it with black pepper. That means when you’re cooking with turmeric, give the dish a heavy shake of black pepper.
After about eight weeks, you should start to notice positive changes.
Beauty benefits of turmeric
OK, so it’s certainly good for your insides—but what about turmeric’s external benefits? Turns out, this spice has a few beauty tricks up its sleeves.
Repairs and regenerates skin
With more than two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds, turmeric relieves more than just achy joints. In fact, the golden-hued spice can fight puffiness, acne, dryness, and even soothe eczema and psoriasis. Slather on this sunny yellow DIY face mask to experience turmeric’s rejuvenating powers firsthand.
Turmeric is also antimicrobial, so it can be helpful for everything from balancing gut flora to accelerating wound healing. In fact, some even use turmeric as a teeth whitener—if you're already a fan of oil pulling, you might want to consider adding a dash of turmeric to your coconut oil.
Ready to start cooking, baking, and chugging turmeric as often as you can? We’ve got you covered. Here are a few of our favorite turmeric recipes.
Spicy Ginger Wellness Juice
BAM! One small shot of this potent juice and you’ll kick any lingering sickness, fast!
The sweetness of frozen peach pairs so perfectly with earthy turmeric—this smoothie is so beautiful and bright, you might need shades.
Blueberry-Turmeric Spice Jam Muffins
Turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper come together for a chai-like flavor that perfectly complements the nuttiness of these gluten-free muffins.
Lunch and Dinner
Detoxifying Green Soup Recipe
Ginger. Kale. Watercress. Turmeric. Man, you can practically feel the detoxification already happening.
Smoky Roasted Eggplant Curry
On its own, eggplant ain’t too pretty. But after the hearty veggie is roasted in olive oil and spices, and then simmered in a spicy, golden curry sauce, it’s a totally different story.
Yogi Lentil Bowl
Feeling more, “Nah, Imma stay in bed”, than “Namaste”? A veggie-based, protein-filled lentil bowl will put a little pep in your step and have you ready to bend, fold, and flow in no time.
Yellow Curry With Rainbow Veggies
Almost too pretty to eat. (Almost.)
Paleo Mac and Cheese
Things that should never make you feel guilty: Eating mac and cheese and licking the bowl. Thankfully, this recipe supplies you with shame-free pasta and the tastiest non-dairy “cheese” sauce you’ll ever whip up.
Coconut Chicken Curry With Wilted Spinach
The addition of lemongrass to this curry adds a happy little kick of citrus that brightens up the entire dish.
Cod With Ginger Bok Choy, Sweet Potatoes, and Lemongrass Broth
Thai-inspired broth makes this part-soup, part-stew so warm and comforting—and it takes less than 30 minutes to pull together.
Apricot Almond Chicken Tagine with Cauliflower Couscous
The key to getting deep, rich flavors from your spices? Toasting them before you start cooking.
Way easier—and more yummy—than it sounds, a dash of turmeric gives this spread that buttery yellow color.
Elegant Eggplant Appetizer
Skinny Japanese eggplants act like little boats for the most delightfully vibrant Greek yogurt sauce you’ve ever tasted.
It’s not easy being green—unless you’re this briny, savory tapenade, which includes extra nutrients thanks to turmeric and spiraling!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont