The Health Benefits of Turmeric (Curcumin)
When I recently ordered a latte in our neighborhood hangout Café on 27, the waitress asked me if I would like to try one with oat milk and turmeric. The yellow sprinkle of bitter spice onto the frothed oat milk made my latte not only delicious, but also made me wonder if ingesting a small amount of turmeric with my coffee, would really provide any health benefits.
“Turmeric not only provides the distinctive color and flavor of curry, but it is also considered an effective treatment …for a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms and diseases …”
Spices have long been used to add unique flavor and color to cuisines around the world. Indeed, most Indian and other Asian dishes would be unthinkable without their characteristic spices. In addition to their indispensable role in flavoring food, spices such as ginger, turmeric, fennel, mustard, cumin, and cardamom (all of which belong to the same plant family, the Apiaceae) have long been used in traditional Asian healing practices, in particular in Aryurvedic medicine. Turmeric not only provides the distinctive color and flavor of curry, but it is also considered an effective treatment in traditional Indian medicine for a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms and diseases, including asthma, allergies, cough, anorexia, and liver diseases. Similarly, ginger, which was exported from India to the Roman empire more than two thousand years ago, has been used to treat numerous ailments, from colds to nausea, arthritis, migraines, and hypertension. Indians and Chinese are believed to have produced ginger as a tonic root for over five thousand years; in fact, it was considered so medicinally valuable in the Middle Ages that a pound of ginger cost as much as a sheep!1
“…turmeric products racked up an estimated $328 million in sales in the US alone, a more than a seven-fold increase from a decade earlier.”
The popularity of these Asian herbs in the US has increased again through natural and complementary medicine, as well as a wealth of research published on their potential usefulness as “antioxidants” in the treatment of cancer, inflammatory conditions, depression, and chronic nausea. Largely due to aggressive marketing of health benefits in the treatment of a wide range of conditions, including high cholesterol, depression, premenstrual syndrome, colitis and allergies, turmeric is one of the fastest growing dietary supplements on the market. According to a report from Nutrition Business Journal, in 2018, turmeric products racked up an estimated $328 million in sales in the US alone, a more than a seven-fold increase from a decade earlier.2
“Curcurmin suppresses unhealthy microbes and stimulates the growth of beneficial ones.”
Turmeric contains bioactive compounds called curcuminoids – the most important being curcumin. When tested in a test tube on isolated cells, tissues or mouse models of disease, curcumin has well documented anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. However, curcumin is a very large molecule, too large to be absorbed from the small intestine. Before microbiome science had begun to identify the mechanisms by which Curcumin and other spices can exert their health promoting effects, supplement makers and scientists have struggled to increase the absorption of orally ingested turmeric, including the addition of piperine, the chemical found in black pepper. To answer Dawn MacKeen’s question in her New York Times article “Is there an optimum way for turmeric to be absorbed?”, the answer is yes; but as the intact molecule is too large, the absorption doesn’t happen in the upper part of the small intestine where most nutrients are absorbed, and therefore does not result in therapeutic concentrations in the systemic circulation. Instead, the molecule exerts its effects further downstream in the ileum, the end of the small intestine and in the large intestine where the majority of our gut microbes reside. There, curcumin suppresses unhealthy microbes, stimulates the growth of beneficial ones and is broken down by certain microbes into absorbable smaller compounds which are then distributed throughout our body. In a recent mouse study, researchers tested the potential protective effect of curcumin (as well as another herbal compound, berberine) in genetically obese mice. Supplemented with both, levels of the beneficial microbes Bifidobacterium spp. and Akkermansia spp. increased. Increases in the abundances of these taxa were correlated with improvement of gut barrier function, e.g., a reversal of the “leaky gut” of these animals, and with improvement of hepatic inflammation. (Worth noting is that the scientists also found berberine supplementation alone reduced food intake, body weight gain, hypertriglyceridemia and hepatic inflammatory and oxidative stress markers). So, the answer to the search of improved absorption, we only need to look at the microbial ecosystem in our gut, which is specialized in facilitation the absorption of these compounds.
“…low-level systemic inflammation as a consequence of a leaky gut plays a major role in almost every chronic, Western non-infectious disease …”
As discussed in detail in The Gut Immune Connection, there is growing evidence that low-level systemic inflammation as a consequence of a leaky gut plays a major role in almost every chronic, Western non-infectious disease including heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s, etc. Unfortunately, the vast majority of research into the mechanisms underlying the benefits of spices and another group of large, unabsorbable molecules, polyphenols, demonstrating “antioxidant” effects has been done in test tubes or in cultured cells, effects that could not be replicated in human studies. There are hundreds of related molecules contained in the leaves, roots, seeds, and fruits of the plants from which these spices come. For example, basil leaves contain the polyphenols catechins, quercetin, kaempferol, anthocyanins and tannins, to name just a few. Other spices with high polyphenol contents include clove, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, saffron, caraway, black pepper, oregano and rosemary.
In summary, it isn’t a coincidence that humans have been using spices for thousands of years, and that turmeric is more popular than ever. These medicines produced by nature for the health of plants not only taste great in our dishes and in our lattes, but they’re good for the well-being of our gut microbes, our gut health and may be beneficial in counteracting many of our most common chronic diseases.
E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is currently completing his master’s degree in Human Nutrition from Columbia University. Dylan is fascinated by the close interactions between nutrition, exercise and human health, especially with regard to the brain-gut-microbiome system – and regularly posts his content on his Instagram (@mayerwellness).