Environmental Nutrition

Turmeric is the spice that gives curry powder its sunny yellow hue and peppery flavor. Derived from the dried root of the Curcuma longa plant, turmeric plays an important role in Caribbean, Indian, North African, Indonesian and Middle Eastern cuisines. It also has enjoyed an illustrious career in Ayurveda (traditional East Indian medicine) to treat conditions like arthritis and abdominal ailments. And it's one of the most promising spices in health research.

Scientists are especially interested in turmeric's curcuminoid compounds -- in particular curcumin. Curcumin is nontoxic and possesses a variety of therapeutic properties, including analgesic and antiseptic, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. This news is exciting, given that antioxidants scavenge free radicals that cause cell damage in the body and promote diseases of aging, and that chronic inflammation is widely viewed as a root cause of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's disease (AD.)

Perhaps the folk healers were right about turmeric's power to treat gastrointestinal problems and arthritis. Studies have linked curcumin with maintaining remission of ulcerative cholitis, benefits in treatment of Crohn's disease, and treating symptoms of indigestion. When it comes to arthritis, preliminary research from 1980 found that curcumin was effective in improving joint swelling, morning stiffness, and walking time in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. And a 2010 study found anti-arthritic activity when turmeric was given to arthritic rats.

India, where turmeric is commonly consumed, has the lowest rates of colorectal cancer in the world. And in lab studies, turmeric has demonstrated suppression of various cancer cells. Currently, human evidence that turmeric is effective in treating cancer is lacking, but a clinical trial is underway to see if it can reduce precancerous polyps in adults.

One of the most exciting areas of turmeric research is in AD. The prevalence of AD among adults in India aged 70 to 79 is among the world's lowest -- 4.4 times lower than in the U.S. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that rodents fed curcumin had delayed accumulation of protein fragments called beta amyloids in their brains, a hallmark in the development of AD. Since then, a number of rodent studies have shown that curcumin can treat and protect against AD. However, a preliminary 2008 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology that investigated AD patients treated with curcumin found no significant improvements.

It's important to note that turmeric research is still in its infancy; much more investigation needs to occur before recommendations can be made to use turmeric for treatment or prevention of disease. Still, it doesn't hurt to enjoy its bold, beautiful flavor in your diet more often.


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