What is it?
Ground turmeric is a well-known kitchen staple and ingredient of tikka masala but it hides an amazing nutritional pearl – a substance called curcumin.
Turmeric is made by drying and then grinding into powder the root of Curcuma longa, a herbaceous plant which grows abundantly in the warm, wet climates of Southern Asia. Like its close relative, ginger, the root is made up of aromatic compounds and oils which give it its characteristic spicy taste and yellow colour.
Apart from curcumin, which represents around 3% of a teaspoon of turmeric powder, you’ll find other beneficial substances like bisdemethoxycurcumin, tumerone, atlantone, and zingiberone. Turmeric is also a source of manganese (for bone and skin health), iron (for cognitive function) and vitamin B6 (for energy release).
Is it good for post-exercise?
If your muscles tend to wilt after a demon circuits class, a dose of turmeric could do the trick. A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found reduced muscle pain and better recovery when 17 men took curcumin supplements before and after a heavy gym workout. It’s thought that anti-inflammatory chemicals in curcumin could be the reason. In another study in 10 men, curcumin boosted antioxidant levels in the blood after exercise which protected muscles from damage.
Curcumin is reputed to have anti-depressant effects. A study in 56 adults with major depression found that daily curcumin supplementation for 8 weeks reduced symptoms. Another trial reported significant reductions in anxiety when curcumin was taken for 30 days. The spice may work because it reduces brain inflammation which helps to boost levels of the natural ‘happy chemicals’, serotonin and dopamine. Curcumin can also support memory. A study in 60 healthy adults revealed sustained attention and better working memory when a curcumin supplement was taken for four weeks.
Controlling blood sugars, cholesterol and other blood fats is the route to great heart health, and turmeric seems to have a role to play. According to a study in 65 patients with raised glucose and cholesterol, 12 weeks of curcumin supplementation reduced ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by 12% and boosted so-called ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. Another study published in Diabetes Care found that curcumin stopped progression to type 2 diabetes in people who were at risk of the condition. None of the participants who took curcumin capsules for nine months went on to develop type 2 diabetes, while the condition was diagnosed in 16% of those who took the dummy pills.
Just like in your daily cuppa, the polyphenols in turmeric have potent anti-bacterial effects. This could promote good oral health and avoid bad breath. A study in 30 people found that a curcumin mouthwash was just as good as a standard antibacterial mouthwash in treating gum disease. To try this mouthwash at home, dissolve 10mg of curcumin extract in 100 ml of warm water and rinse daily.
The anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric may also help joint health. In a trial of curcumin versus a typical prescription drug for rheumatoid arthritis, patients taking curcumin with or without the drug had the clearest improvement in symptoms versus taking the drug alone.
How do I get it?
Add a teaspoon of turmeric to soups, stews, warm milk, rice puddings or curries. Or take a commercially available supplement. Consuming turmeric alongside fatty foods or oils may boost absorption of curcumin.
How much do I need?
The dose varies depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Studies on depression use 1g curcumin per day while heart health studies use 2g daily. For post-exercise effects, a range of 1 to 5g curcumin has been given. However, as curcumin makes up just 3% of turmeric, this would translate as seven teaspoons of turmeric for every 1g of curcumin, which would be fairly hard to achieve.