What Is Turmeric?
In the U.S., turmeric is best known as a spice. You might hear people say it in two ways: tur-mer-ik or too-mer-ik. It's one of the main ingredients in yellow curry powder. It also gives some mustards a more vibrant yellow color.
In India and other parts of Asia, you'll find it in curries also. But turmeric is used to treat many health conditions. It's thought to have anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties. Some people think it can help ward off cancer, too.
Turmeric comes from the roots of a plant that is native to Asia. For centuries, this ancient spice has been popular in condiments, cooking, and fabric dyes. But turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes for nearly 4,000 years. In traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it’s long been a treatment for health issues like skin conditions, allergies, and joint pain.
Researchers continue to study its possible health benefits and turmeric’s role in managing or preventing a range of chronic health conditions. While the full extent of the spice’s health effects isn't known, turmeric does have high nutritional value and is a healthy addition to any diet.
Over 1 billion people use turmeric every day, and the spice is easy to find at supermarkets and health food stores. It’s easy to add to foods in your diet. Try it in rich golden lattes or traditional curries. You can also get more turmeric in your diet by taking it as a supplement.
What is curcumin?
Curcumin is a compound in turmeric. It's the active ingredient in this popular spice. It also gives it the yellow color.
Curcumin belongs to a class of more than 8,000 compounds called polyphenols. You'll find polyphenols in plant-based foods. They come in different types. They also work as antioxidants, which mean they can help with damage from the sun or chemicals you're in contact with. As a group, polyphenols may protect against:
- Heart disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases
Turmeric (Curcumin) Benefits
Research has looked at the health effects of the curcumin in turmeric. Some benefits of turmeric and curcumin include:
Inflammation is your body's natural response to stress or infection, but when uncontrolled it can have harmful effects on your gut, joints, and other body parts. It can even affect the quality of your sleep. The curcumin in turmeric may help to lower inflammation. For example, one study found that turmeric taken in higher doses had a similar effect in reducing inflammation as ibuprofen.
Lower risk of chronic disease
Curcumin may increase the levels of antioxidants in your body. Antioxidants help control damaging free radicals that build up in your body from environmental and behavioral factors like pollution and cigarette smoke. When you have too many free radicals, they can harm your proteins, fatty tissues, and DNA. Over time, this damage can lead to chronic diseases including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
In a short-term study, turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties helped with symptoms caused by chronic pain and osteoarthritis.
Alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety
While not an alternative to treatments like therapy or medication, clinical trials have shown promising results of turmeric’s effect on easing symptoms of depression and anxiety. The causes of depression are complex, but scientists believe that health issues like inflammation, hypothyroidism, and damage from free radicals can contribute to poor mental health — all of which curcumin has been shown to relieve. Turmeric is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to good cognitive health.
Turmeric also has antimicrobial effects. Research shows promise that when put on the skin, it may help treat a number of conditions including:
Curcumin may also help improve your memory and general brain health. Early studies suggest that regularly eating moderate amounts of curcumin can help increase brain chemicals that are linked to better memory formation and growth. Curcumin is also linked to a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In lab tests, curcumin seems to block the growth of certain kinds of tumors. One study showed that turmeric extract containing curcumin could -- in some cases -- stop colorectal cancer that wasn't helped by other treatments from growing. But more research is needed.
Gut and metabolic health
Other preliminary lab studies suggest that curcumin or turmeric might protect against types of colitis, stomach ulcers, and high cholesterol. Based on studies, turmeric and curcumin might also help treat upset stomach, diabetes, depression, HIV, uveitis, and viral infections.
A word of caution
Keep in mind that most of these studies have been done in the laboratory. Researchers haven’t yet shown in the clinic that turmeric and curcumin will improve your health. So it's too early to say what health benefits turmeric might have or if they'd make you feel better. If you'd like to try turmeric to help with inflammation, pain, or a condition you have, it's a good idea to check with your doctor first.
In addition to curcumin, turmeric is also rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, and other antioxidants that may reduce your risk of serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Turmeric is also an excellent source of:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Dietary fiber
Nutrients Per Serving of Turmeric
Nutrients per Serving
A 2 teaspoon serving of turmeric (the amount typically added to recipes or drinks) contains:
- Calories: 19
- Protein: 0.6 grams
- Fat: 0.2 grams
- Carbohydrates: 4 grams
- Fiber: 1.4 grams
- Sugar: 0.2 grams
Studies show that turmeric’s good effects are based on the amount of curcumin in it. Some turmeric will have more curcumin than others. Curry powder has a mix of spices and usually won't have much turmeric or cucumin in it.
Some studies have looked at what happens when people take 400 to 500 milligrams of curcumin a day. Two teaspoons of fresh turmeric contain around 400 milligrams of curcumin, but this amount can vary depending on the spice’s quality. You should know that curcumin by itself often won't lead to better health. That's because your body can't absorb or use it well. Most of it will get broken down fast and pass right through.
Supplements are a popular alternative and provide more accurate amounts of curcumin. When choosing a turmeric supplement, it’s important to go with reliable, doctor-recommended brands. But there's no standard or recommended dose of turmeric you should take each day. Ask your doctor for advice.
How to Take Turmeric
On its own, your body won't absorb and use curcumin from turmeric in your diet well. So its health effects are tied to how much you take and how it’s prepared.
Studies have found that turmeric has more health benefits when you take it with:
- Black pepper: Peperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, increases how much turmeric you absorb by up to 2,000 percent.
- Healthy fats: Turmeric is fat soluble. That means it dissolves in fat and not water. When it binds to fat, your body absorbs it more slowly and more curcumin makes it into your bloodstream.
- Quercetin: This purple plant pigment found in berries, onions, and grapes (including red wine) is an antioxidant that encourages curcumin absorption.
- Heat: Low levels of heat (less than 15 minutes) make curcumin easier to absorb and heighten its effects.
Turmeric root or powder
You can buy turmeric powder with other spices at most grocery stores. You may also be able to find fresh turmeric root in the produce section. It looks a lot like ginger.
Another place to find turmeric at the grocery store is in the tea aisle. Many tea varieties include turmeric in their lists of ingredients. But you wouldn't know how much turmeric you're getting from drinking a prepared tea.
Turmeric lattes, also known as turmeric milk, golden milk, and haldi doodh, have a long history. People in India have been drinking turmeric and milk with spices as an Ayurvedic medical remedy for hundreds of years. These drinks are typically yellow to bright gold because of turmeric’s bright color.
Turmeric lattes can be made in many ways. The staple ingredients are turmeric and some type of milk, but many lattes are sweetened with honey or another natural sweetener. A turmeric latte can also contain other spices, including ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, and more.
Cooking With Turmeric
Turmeric spice is a common ingredient in Indian cooking, but you can use it in lots of ways. Here are some ideas for how to use turmeric in your diet:
- Add turmeric, black pepper, and a healthy fat like coconut milk or avocado oil to soups and curries.
- Heat turmeric in a golden latte or tea with a sprinkle of black pepper.
- Blend it into a berry-packed smoothie.
- Give your plain white rice a dash of color with subtle flavor.
- Mix it into dips and spreads like hummus or cream cheese.
- Use it to add color to vegan foods like tofu scrambles and non-dairy cheese.
- Add extra nutrition and a hint of flavor to popcorn, breads, stir-fries, and roasted vegetables and nuts.
Turmeric Side Effects
Turmeric and curcumin are generally safe. They're more likely to have side effects if you take lots of it at doses found in pills, capsules, or gummies. It can cause nausea, diarrhea, or stomach ulcers, especially in high doses or after long-term use.
If you're allergic to turmeric, it may cause:
- Belly pain
Who Shouldn't Take Turmeric
Turmeric is safe for most people. But you should be careful if you have certain health conditions, and it's always a good idea to check with your doctor before taking any supplement. Be extra careful with turmeric if you have:
- Kidney disease
- Bleeding disorders
- Immune disorders
If you're pregnant, you shouldn't use turmeric supplements. Children can eat normal amounts of turmeric in food. But given a lack of evidence about safety, they shouldn't use turmeric supplements unless your doctor recommends it. Don't take a lot of turmeric while you're breastfeeding either.
Since turmeric can potentially increase bleeding, you should also stop taking it at least 2 weeks before any surgery. If you take any medicines regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using turmeric supplements. They could interact with medicines such as:
- NSAID painkillers
- Diabetes drugs
- Blood pressure medicines
- Blood thinners
Turmeric supplements might also interact with supplements that decrease clotting including: