BY Christina Larmer
There’s more to turmeric than spicing up a curry. Research shows it has many benefits and may help ward off dementia and reduce your risk of cancer.
If you’re cooking a curry this evening, you might want to sprinkle in some extra turmeric. Research is showing what countries such as India and Sri Lanka have long known – that this yellow spice has more benefits than boosting food flavour. Used for more than 4000 years to treat a variety of ailments, curcumin – the active ingredient in turmeric – could potentially ward off dementia and prevent cancer.
According to the World Alzheimer’s Report 2009, 3.6 per cent of South Asians over the age of 60 suffer from dementia, compared with 6.4 per cent of Australasians and 7.2 per cent of Western Europeans. Similarly, the World Health Organization says that cancer rates in India are considerably lower than those in more developed countries such as the US.
But is it turmeric that’s having this effect? Cancer researcher Ralph W. Moss believes so. He says turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory, it inhibits the growth of new blood vessels in tumours and it’s a powerfulantioxidant.But before you start gulping it by the spoonful, Aloysa Hourigan, Nutrition Australia senior nutritionist, says it’s not that simple. “Curcumin is just one antioxidant, and it might have some function, but I don’t think there’s one super thing that’s going to fix everything.
Also, a lot of the studies have been done on animals and test tubes, so from a western medicine point of view the evidence is not strong enough. But it’s been used in Chinese and Indian medicine for a long time, so it may well have some benefit.” While more testing is needed, here are seven potential health reasons to start sprinkling away.
1. Wards off Alzheimer’s disease
Researchers believe that curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may be strong enough to break down the amyloid plaques in the brain that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. “If the blood vessels remain less clogged, then certain parts of the brain might be fed more easily with oxygen and that would keep the brain functioning better,” explains Hourigan. The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California is currently planning clinical human trials.
2. Helps to prevent cancer
In his book, The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth (Fair Winds), nutritionist Jonny Bowden says there are at least 30 studies showing that curcumin may have an anti-tumour effect, “either reducing the number or size of tumours or the percentage of animals who developed them”.
While more human research is needed, he points to a 2006 study showing that curcumin inhibited the growth of human colon cancer. A New Jersey study found that, when combined with vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, it may help treat and prevent prostate cancer.
There are also indications that it may help to prevent breast, skin and pancreatic cancer, childhood leukaemia and multiple myeloma. “While no-one is claiming that turmeric cures cancer, there is plenty of reason to believe it is a useful adjunct to a healthy diet,” says Bowden.
3. Reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes
Curcumin also has a positive effect on cholesterol, says Bowden, and animal studies have shown that it may help lower cholesterol and prevent the build-up of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in the blood vessels. It could therefore stop the build-up of plaque (atherosclerosis) that can block arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.
4. Combats inflammatory diseases
Turmeric’s natural anti-inflammatory qualities mean it may work as well as some anti-inflammatory medications, without the side effects. Early research shows it may help with inflammation of the eye (uveitis), inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis) and multiple sclerosis.
One study, using a formula which contained turmeric, showed it reduced the pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis, but it hasn’t been studied on its own yet.
5.Fights colds and flu
Preliminary studies show that turmeric may help reduce the severity of bacterial and viral infections.
6. Helps indigestion and weight loss
Curcumin stimulates the gallbladder and produces bile. Because bile helps digest fat, experts believe this improves digestion and may help control weight. At least one study found it treats indigestion, reducing symptoms of bloating and gas.
7. Assists diabetes sufferers
Turmeric may improve glucose control or insulin activity; in animal research it was shown to cause blood sugar levels to drop. If you add turmeric to your diet, Hourigan suggests monitoring your blood sugars. When combined with diabetes medication, it may cause levels to drop too low, resulting in hypoglycaemia.
How do i take it?
Nutrition Australia says turmeric can easily be added to your diet. “We encourage people to use a range of herbs and spices as they’re good sources of antioxidants, which may have protective effects for health,” says Hourigan.Turmeric’s roots and bulbs are generally boiled and dried to form powder. You can also grate it like ginger or take a supplement (powdered capsules, fluid extract or drops). Adults can take about one to three grams of the dried powdered root per day.