Turmeric and Curcumin: The Antioxidant Spice

Got heartburn? You might think your best bets for relief are milk or yogurt, but some studies suggest the spice turmeric might be able to ease your pain, too.

You’ll probably recognize the flavor of turmeric from your Indian or Middle Eastern take-out. A member of the ginger family, it’s native to tropical areas of Asia. Its rhizomes (or rootstocks) are dried and ground into an orange-yellow powder that can be used as a spice, food coloring, or dye. The orange-yellow powder is probably best known as what gives curry powder its yellow glow.

Even if curry dishes aren't your norm, you may be eating turmeric daily. It goes great in soups and stews, like this delicious, spicy lentil and garbanzo soup. In America, it's used as a coloring agent in mustard, cheese, and several other products.

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A Spice Used in Medicine

Turmeric also has been used for centuries in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. Usually mixed into ointments, it's a go-to for stomach and bowel problems, arthritis, and fatigue. The compound in turmeric thought to help with these conditions is curcumin. Curcumin powders can be made by chemically extracting curcumin from turmeric.

Early findings from laboratory and animal studies suggest that curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Those findings haven't been confirmed in people, though. Turmeric is available in liquid extract, capsules, and tinctures.

People Who Shouldn’t Take Supplements

If you want to try turmeric or curcumin for stomach or gastrointestinal issues, moderation is your best bet. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that large doses over long periods of time can cause diarrhea, stomach upset, and irritation. It also can interfere with medications that reduce stomach acid.

If you have gallstones or obstructions of your bile passages, check with your doctor before trying turmeric, the NIH warns. People with diabetes should also talk to their doctors before trying turmeric, as it can lower blood sugar levels. Taking it with diabetes medications could cause blood sugar levels to drop too low.

Turmeric can also act like a blood thinner. If you're taking blood-thinning medications, talk with your doctor before adding turmeric to your diet. Stop taking it at least two weeks before surgeries or tooth extractions, and warn your surgeon or dentist that you've been taking it.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can eat foods that contain turmeric in moderation, but shouldn't take turmeric or curcumin supplements. Children shouldn't be given the supplements either.

A Future in Cancer Treatment?

Curcumin is being studied as a possible treatment for conditions ranging from arthritis to obesity. According to the Arthritis Foundation, early research indicates curcumin can block some of the inflammatory enzymes that cause the pain, swelling, and stiffness of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Some of that research suggests it’s more effective at preventing the inflammation than reducing it.

There is also growing evidence for the spice’s potential to help fight and prevent cancer, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  A study published in 2011 found that curcumin might be able to slow the growth of squamous cell skin cancer in mice.

It’s also possible that curcumin can reduce blood triglyceride levels, according to the NIH. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. Higher levels can raise your risk of heart disease.

More research is needed to determine whether turmeric is a "wonder herb." If you want to check out its possible benefits yourself, talk to your doctor, follow dosing recommendations, and give it some time. Experts say it can take two or more weeks for any improvement in symptoms.