Turmeric is a common spice found in most kitchen cupboards these days that has received a lot of hype for its ‘health’ benefits. It is believed to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties as well as providing protection against cardiovascular conditions. But how true are these claims? Can it really help a plethora of conditions from Cancer and Diabetes to Acne and Psoriasis?
What you need to know
Turmeric is prepared from the root of a plant called Curcuma longa and is also used to colour foods and cosmetics. It’s active compound, curcumin, is what is believed to give turmeric its health-boosting properties. This makes up 3 -5 % of the whole plant and has been at the centre of numerous clinical trials since the early 1990’s. So what are the claims and what has the science told us so far?
The Evidence Behind the Claims
It has been suggested that there is a link between lower cancer rates and turmeric consumption in India but there is currently no evidence to support this claim. Some early laboratory and animal trials have produced some positive results in the treatment of cancer cells more human trials are required to substantiate this.
There is, however, some limited evidence that it reduces the side effects of radiation but not the cancer itself.
Chronic inflammation in the body can eventually lead to several diseases and conditions including some cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. A meta analysis of 9 small studies have suggested that curcumin can reduce cytokines, the substances that cause inflammation. The reductions observed, however, have been very moderate as it has been established that curcumin is not easily absorbed by the body. It is therefore difficult to know who would benefit most from such treatment and in what dosage.
Another small study did show curcumin to be as effective as ibuprofen in the treatment of joint arthritis but the authors concluded that the sample size was too small and although there was no bias involved, methodological issues led then to draw insufficient conclusions.
Curcumin is also believed to prevent insulin resistance which can lead to improvements in high blood sugar in diabetic patients but these trials have been conducted in animals which means no formal conclusions can be drawn.
One study involving overweight type 2 diabetes patients did show a marked reduction in blood sugar levels but their levels were still within the diabetic range so clinically the change was small.
Pre-clinical studies in rats have shown curcumin to positively treat coronary heart disease but these studies need to progress to clinical data in humans to have any validity.
Some very small clinical studies have shown curcumin reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing serum cholesterol but when these trials were looked at as a whole, the results were insignificant.
There has been some early research on humans that suggest oral and topical application of turmeric can have positive effects on skin conditions such as acne, alopecia, dermatitis, psoriasis and vitiligo amongst others. This research is currently limited but is a positive step towards suggesting that turmeric can promote skin health.
The Potential Dangers
Very high quantities of curcumin have been linked to diarrhoea, skin rashes, headaches, acid reflux and low blood sugar.
In addition, very high does can actually promote cell damage which has been seen to cause tumours in rats.
Curcumin does seem to show some encouraging effects in reducing inflammation along with the appearance of some skin condition in humans but the majority of research in to this ‘miracle’ spice has in fact been carried in laboratories or in animal experiments. These have further revealed that curcumin itself is an unstable component that is not easy for the human body to absorb.
To date there have in fact been no double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trials (the gold standard in research) carried out to support the therapeutic claims of curcumin but that does not mean it should end there. Turmeric is not just made up of curcumin; it contains hundreds of other plant chemicals that should also be considered. Isolating curcumin may have been the downfall of some of the studies carried out to date; looking at turmeric as a whole could be a potential way forward.
That is not to say that we should give up on using turmeric in our cooking for now, there could be something else within it that has therapeutic effects. However, until more thorough research has been carried out I think it is wise to stick to consuming it regularly as a spice within a healthy diet.