In case you missed it, lately there’s been a big brouhaha about curcumin – a natural compound found in the spice turmeric that is reputed to have powerful health benefits.
Curcumin has been the focus of a large number of studies purporting to show its effects on cancer, brain problems and other maladies. But when a researcher at the University of Minnesota, along with scientists from other schools, took a close look at these scientific papers, she decided there was less than meets the eye.
She and her colleagues concluded that the best studies she could find didn’t really prove there was much if any benefit from taking curcumin. Poor design was one of their main objections to the studies they analyzed.
But even though the research paper found fault with the studies it examined and cast doubt on the benefits of curcumin, the mainstream press was quick to sensationalize and distort their coverage. Time magazine screamed “Turmeric May Not be a Miracle Spice at All.” And Quartz claimed, “Forget what you’ve heard: Turmeric seems to have zero medicinal properties.”
Turmeric, which is a complicated conglomeration of many different biochemicals, was never even the subject of the Minnesota group’s work. As the researchers put it, the best way to use turmeric (and test its health benefits), is to use the whole spice, not isolated compounds taken from it.
They conclude, “…consideration of holistic approaches that take into account the chemical and PD/PK complexity of turmeric and its broad TxM (traditional medicine)/nutritional foundation appears to be a superior direction for future research in the turmeric domain.”1
In other words, the Minnesota researchers urged their fellow scientists to test turmeric in its original form, not to assume you can obtain therapeutic results when you isolate curcumin from turmeric.
Their work suggests that isolated curcumin extract is not very effective. But it didn’t settle the question of whether whole turmeric is beneficial.
There’s More to Turmeric Than Curcumin
When it comes to the benefits of turmeric, you have to keep in mind that in Ayurvedic Medicine (the traditional medical practice in India), turmeric is consumed as a whole herb, not a lab-concocted, isolated compound. In India, turmeric for use as a medicine is usually prepared as tea or in ghee (clarified butter).2
You also have to remember there are plenty of other compounds in turmeric that are great for health.
For example, a study in Germany shows that a natural substance in turmeric called aromatic turmerone has the potential to help prevent or even treat Alzheimer’s disease. In these tests, researchers found that this biochemical can boost the activity of stem cells in the brain and aid the regeneration of neurons.3
The German scientists point out that other tests of aromatic turmerone have shown it can also stop brain inflammation by hampering the harmful over-activity of microglia, immune cells that roam the brain.4
So no doubt there was more than just curcumin involved when researchers in China found they could improve working memory by adding one gram of whole turmeric to the breakfasts of people over the age of 60 (and this was a double-blind, placebo controlled study).5
In another placebo-controlled trial, researchers showed that giving curcumin along with pepper to people with type 2 diabetes helped fight oxidative stress and could possibly enhance heart health and fight against the complications of diabetes.6 The addition of pepper is believed to help the body’s absorption of curcumin.
Ancient Doctors Knew Something
Another fact in turmeric’s favor is its use in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. All that clinical, real-life experience has some value as evidence. According to these traditions, turmeric is good for fighting inflammation, purifying the blood, stimulating digestion, easing joint pain, detoxifying the liver and healing wounds on the skin.
So while researchers continue to argue over how best to study turmeric and the bioactive substances it contains, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put this venerable herb to work improving our health.
It’s known that turmeric takes a while to be effective – months, for some people. It’s not a quick fix as in “Take two and you’ll feel better in an hour.” It’s a mild anti-inflammatory, but it’s safe, and can be used day after day, week after week, year after year. If you do that, you’ll feel the effects of its gentle magic steal over you.
In alternative medicine, one of the hardest things is to persuade people to have patience, so used to instant results are we. You don’t heal by eating right for a week. You heal by eating right for years.
And one of the most common comments we get here at Green Valley is, “I didn’t think much about it, then I just noticed one day I didn’t have pain anymore.” Pain is a good thing to NOT have on your mind!