Turmeric: properties, benefits and contraindications

Turmeric is a yellow-orange spice that is obtained from the dried rhizome of Curcuma Longa, a perennial plant belonging to the Zinziberacee family (the same as Ginger), native to India and cultivated in some tropical areas of Asia and America Central. The term Curcuma derives from the Arabic Kurkum, which means “saffron”, referring to the intense yellow color (although it is a different plant than the one from which the spice we call saffron is obtained ).

The English term that identifies it, on the other hand, ie Turmeric, derives from the medieval Latin Terra merita, ie “worthy, worthy land”.

Main ingredient of curry (Indian masala), it is used and known as an aromatic spice, but also as a food supplement for a number of diseases, by virtue of its properties

  • antioxidants,
  • anti-inflammatory,
  • immunostimulants.
Photograph of turmeric root and powder

In traditional Indian and Chinese medicine, turmeric has been used for hundreds of years for problems affecting various parts of the body, including:

  • skin (wounds, hives, dermatitis),
  • upper respiratory tract (rhinitis, pharyngitis, cough),
  • joints (rheumatism),
  • digestive system (digestive problems, bile or liver problems).

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a government agency of the United States, in the monograph dedicated to turmeric reports its use for the same indications as above, adding its recent use as an adjuvant in anticancer therapy , especially if aimed at enhancing the action of chemotherapy and reducing its side effects.

There are also interesting preliminary studies on how curcuminoids, molecules present in the extract, can

  • reduce the number of heart attacks in patients after bypass surgery
  • reduce knee pain in cases of osteoarthritis, with efficacy comparable to Ibuprofen-based drugs 
  • reduce skin irritation in case of radiation therapy for breast cancer 

Other studies concern the use of curcumin, the main active substance isolated from turmeric, for

  • different types of cancer,
  • colitis
  • diabetes mellitus 
  • dental problems 

The NCCIH has also conducted research on the use of curcumin in the case of

  • Alzheimer,
  • rheumatoid arthritis,
  • cancer of the prostate and of the colon.

The results are not yet definitive but they seem promising.

Side effects and interactions

According to the American National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), turmeric, in commonly used oral or topical doses, is generally considered safe. Moreover, it is estimated that in India the daily food consumption is between 2 and 4 grams of fresh rhizome, which corresponds to about 100-200mg of curcuminoids.

On the other hand, high doses or prolonged use of supplements can cause gastrointestinal problems.

Recently the Ministry of Health and the National Institute of Health have received reports of cases of hepatotoxicity in people who used supplements containing curcumin; these supplements were promptly withdrawn from the market and subjected to analysis, as the fear concerned the possible contamination of the batches themselves.

According to what was declared by Prof. Patrizia Burra – full professor of Gastroenterology at the University of Padua and vice president of the Italian Society of Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy (Sige) – it is known in the literature that about 5% of patients who use curcumin supplements , especially if for prolonged periods (over a month), you experience liver problems, which however disappear with immediate interruption of the integration. These problems seem to be of an idiosyncratic type, ie of unknown cause, probably due to individual predisposition or interaction with drugs taken concomitantly.

The same conclusion is reported on the website of the Ministry of Health: “in the light of these conclusions, it was decided to adopt a specific warning for the labeling of the supplements in question, aimed at advising against their use to subjects with impaired hepato- biliary or with gallstones of the biliary tract and, in case of concomitant drug intake, to invite in any case to hear the doctor’s opinion “.

This in consideration of the fact, it should be remembered that a natural product does not mean harmless  and, especially if taken in an uncontrolled manner and in uncontrolled doses, it can cause even serious damage.

For turmeric powder, on the other hand, the same Ministry adds: “considering the history and dimensions of consumption as a food, no elements have emerged for particular recommendations”.

All the more so since numerous recent researches have highlighted the hepatoprotective role of turmeric (in terms of protection from drug-induced toxicity), by virtue of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Turmeric, better fresh or in supplement form?

Photograph of the spice next to a set of curcumin-based capsules

The question of whether it is better to take a food in complete form or as an extract has been a subject of debate for several years, even if the so-called reductionist approach (the part for the whole, the single active ingredient compared to the whole food) continues to be that dominant in the nutritional field. This attitude derives from the belief that the active component of a given plant is only one and that therefore, by isolating and concentrating it, the maximum benefit can be obtained. Increasingly numerous studies, however, have highlighted how other components of the plant often act in synergy , enhancing the action and effectiveness of the remedy.

The study of the single substance is not in itself wrong: it is easier to study a single component at a time and to correlate it with a given biological response, studying its mechanism of action. However, it is necessary to bear in mind that in this way there is a risk of losing a large part of information. Ultimately, the two approaches, reductionist and holistic, should go hand in hand, in a complementary and non-competitive way.

Turmeric is one of the examples of what has just been described: the active ingredient, and the most studied, is considered to be curcumin, but according to research from the University of Texas there are numerous other active substances in turmeric (note that curcumin only accounts for 2-5% of the content).

The activity of these substances, on which studies over the last 10 years have focused, has been demonstrated by the use of turmeric without curcumin. Studies are still limited, but some of them suggest that whole turmeric works in some cases even better than curcumin alone.

To give an example, the same University of Texas researchers compared the activity of turmeric and curcumin on 7 different types of cancer cells: in all 7 cases, turmeric worked better than the active ingredient alone.

Frequent questions

Does turmeric make you lose weight?

According to a recent meta-analysis involving 21 studies and more than 1600 patients, taking curcumin was actually useful in reducing weight and body mass index (BMI) in subjects with metabolic syndrome. The same authors of the study, however, specify that the studies examined still have too many methodological defects, first of all the use of non-standardized doses of curcumin, as well as being extremely heterogeneous in terms of duration and number of people involved.

Other studies, on the other hand, report insignificant effects on the same parameters in case of supplementation with curcumin.

At the current state of research, therefore, there is a lack of solid foundations and rigorous studies on the effectiveness or otherwise of curcumin for weight control and metabolic disorders.

How much do I take and how?

Turmeric is well tolerated up to a dose of 2-4 g per day of dried powder (equivalent to approximately two level teaspoons), except

  • individual sensitivity,
  • liver problems
  • o pharmacological therapies in progress, for which it is advisable to consult the treating doctor.

Taken as a supplement, the dose is typically 1-2 400 mg capsules per day.

Photo of capsules of a curcumin-based integrator

However, 2 teaspoons of turmeric added to soups or fish dishes are sufficient to ensure the right daily dose of antioxidants. It can also be used in teas or infusions and in fruit and vegetable extracts. However, it is good to protect it from excessive heat, which reduces its benefits: it is better to add it after cooking or in non-boiling drinks.

Curcumin is a fat-soluble substance: it needs fatty foods in order to be better assimilated. The ideal is therefore to associate it with foods such as

  • olive oil,
  • linseed oil,
  • avocado,
  • nights,
  • salmon.
Turmeric, glass bottle olive oil and other spices

Pepper (this is the main scientific reason behind its inclusion in the recipe of the so-called Golden Milk) and chilli also improve its bioavailability, as does quercetin, contained in

  • capers,
  • Red onion,
  • my,
  • celery,
  • citrus fruits.

What is Golden Milk? Is it good?

Golden Milk is a turmeric-based drink used in Ayurvedic medicine and recommended as a natural anti-inflammatory, especially for

  • joint problems,
  • seasonal ailments (cough and cold),
  • and as a depurative of the organism.

There are no scientific studies on the effectiveness of the drink per se, but we can consider it as one of the ways to take turmeric and thus benefit from its effects.

On the net there are numerous recipes to prepare golden milk, but it is basic

  • turmeric,
  • water,
  • black pepper

to prepare the “paste” and then dilute it with

  • milk (cow or vegetable),
  • oil (olive, almond, coconut, according to preferences),
  • possibly adding honey to sweeten.