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A few days ago, a friend gushed about the amazing curative properties of turmeric.
If you’ve ever eaten Indian cuisine, you’ve most likely eaten turmeric. It's a yellowish-brown spice that comes from (not surprisingly) the turmeric plant - more precisely from the rhizome of the turmeric plant, the thick root-like portion of the stem that remains underground.
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But did you know that there are scientists all over the world researching the curative powers of turmeric? This isn’t just some hokey folk medicine, this is like, real science and stuff. But before you start pouring teaspoonfuls of turmeric into your morning smoothie, you might want to hear a little more about the current state of research.
In the Beginning...
Turmeric has been used in India and China for a long time for various illnesses, mostly for stomach and liver problems, as well as an antiseptic. Nobody is one hundred percent sure what the active ingredient in turmeric is, but most scientists believe it is curcumin, a type of polyphenol.
Before you turn your nose up at yet another plant-derived folk medicine being touted as a “wonder drug,” remember the history of aspirin, which The New York Times has called the 2,000-year-old wonder drug. When it was first discovered, aspirin was originally derived from the bark of a willow tree before German scientists managed to synthesize it in the lab.
But What Does it Do?
One of the oldest uses of turmeric was in the treatment of liver disease. Recent studies on rats have shown that curcumin does in fact help prevent liver injury and in some cases can even reverse liver damage.
Curcumin (when combined with a compound from olive oil) has even been shown to help combat some forms of arthritis in guinea pigs. Unfortunately, you might have noticed that all of these studies deal with rats, mice, and guinea pigs. There are a couple of issues related to studying turmeric’s (and curcumin’s) effects on humans. he Bad NewsFirst, there is a difference between how much turmeric you eat, and how much ends up floating around in your blood ready to fight off cancer and Alzheimer’s (this is called bioavailability). There is some evidence that using turmeric in cooking may actually increase its bioavailability. Another issue is that the amount of curcumin being used in these studies on rodents is considerably higher than the amount you’d get eating curry. While there is no evidence that curcumin is bad for you in the short term, it may have long term toxic effects if taken in excess. Another issue related to curcumin is that it interferes with the part of your metabolism that handles other drugs, which can cause unforeseen side effects. There have also been some studies showing that high doses of curcumin may increase the chances of lung cancer in some individuals. The final issue is that nobody knows what a “high dose” of curcumin is. Is a teaspoon every day for 5 years too much? Will 2 teaspoons a day cause long-term health issues? Is a teaspoon even enough to have any affect on your health? Is turmeric safe for everyone, or are there some genetic conditions which can render it harmful? At this point, there isn’t enough data to answer any of those questions.
So now you know more about the wonderful properties of the spice turmeric and what most people believe to be its most important chemical component, curcumin.While the jury is still out on the long term effects of curcumin and how much is too much, there is no denying the fact that India has a considerably lower rate of both colorectal cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to tell if this is due to diet, genetics, lifestyle, or a combination.
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