Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a well known and loved spice frequently used in the traditional medicine dispensary and kitchen of Indian and Asian cultures. The rhizome (or root) is the part used which contains the highest concentration of the active ingredient call curcumin. Curcumin makes up the yellow pigments which give turmeric the distinct yellow colour.

There have been many studies and clinical trials conducted on turmeric and in particular the actions of curcumin in the body. Curcumin has shown many promising health promoting actions, with the greatest areas of impact being the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticancer properties exhibited. It also appears to promote healthy liver and gallbladder function as well as improving cardiovascular health via lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, preventing oxidation of LDL (low density lipoprotein or unhealthy cholesterol) and inhibiting platelet aggregation – or in other words, curcumin has shown potential anti-atherosclerotic activity. Considering inflammation and oxidation are main contributors to degenerative disease and chronic illness, it worth looking deeper into the actions of this amazing plant.

Managing inflammation isn’t just a problem in conditions such as osteoarthritis, it’s a huge issue in the development and the tratment of chronic illness associated with systemic inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, MS, psoriasis, obesity and cancer. Evidence suggests that curcumin may inhibit the production of some of the pro-inflammatory chemicals which play a part in producing systemic inflammation which is associated with these chronic disease processes.

Oxidative damage to our cells can also contribute to disease processes occurring in the body such as Alzheimer’s disease. This disease can occur when there is a build-up of a substance called amyloid in the brain which oxidises into plaque and becomes part of an inflammatory cycle. Curcumin has been shown to cross the blood brain barrier and it appears to bind to amyloid, reduce plaque formation and hence reduce this  inflammatory and degenerative process in the brain. 

Not only is curcumin considered a powerful anti-inflammatory master switch and antioxidant, it has shown some anti-tumour activity as well. There are a number of proteins in the body which when activated can contribute to cancer progression. Some studies show that curcumin may reduce the activity of these proteins involved with cancer progression.

Such positive results from studies and clinical trials may inspire a quick trip to the supermarket to stock up on turmeric powder, however as with most herbal medicine, the quality of the product and the dosage is of primary importance. Turmeric powder used frequently in cooking and even added to smoothies and vegetable juices will contribute to health, however higher doses are required for the therapeutic activity shown in studies. Curcumin in it’s powder form is not very bioavailable in the body which simply means it isn’t absorbed and utilised at a cellular level very well. One of the issues is that curcumin has poor water solubility and only small amounts are absorbed, and therefore it needs to be combined with other substances to enhance it’s uptake and utilisation by the cells in the body. 

Although taking bio-available forms of curcumin doesn’t appear to have any major side effects, and it is well tolerated at high doses, there are some pre-cautions that need to be considered. Due to the anti-platelet effect it is advised to avoid taking curcumin if anti-coagulant or anti-platelet drugs such as warfarin are being consumed. It is also recommended to stop taking curcumin two weeks prior to surgery for the same reasons. Avoid taking high doses of curcumin if there are large gallstones present as it can increase gallbladder activity, which is a valuable action unless large gallstones are present, as stimulating the gall bladder may cause large stones to be released potentially obstructing the biliary ducts. Some animal studies suggest curcumin may interfere with the actions of some chemotherapy drugs so its advised to take it 48hrs away from chemotherapy treatments. 

If you suffer any condition associated with inflammation, want to reduce oxidative stress in the body, improve liver function, cardiovascular health, then taking bioactive turmeric may be beneficial for your health. It’s always worth a consultation with a qualified health professional to select the correct supplement and dosage for your specific requirements.