Turmeric – not your average herbal supplement

Turmeric – a magic herb?

Herbal supplements have been around as long as humans have gathered plants. In present day, as the popularity of natural herbs to treat illnesses increases, supplements can be falsely touted as “silver bullets”. For instance, turmeric the wonder herb can prevent or solve dementia, cure arthritis, and reverse aging!

Unfortunately, that previous sentence is false. Turmeric is not a magical plant that can cure everything wrong with one’s life. When added to one’s lifestyle, however, it has shown some promising qualities, some of which we will explore in this article!

If it’s not magic, then what is turmeric?

The spice that we know as turmeric comes from the plant Curcuma longa, in the family Zingiberaceae, that also contains ginger and cardamom. Turmeric is harvested from the branched, brownish-yellow rhizomes of C. longa, pictured below.

It is native to various countries in Southeast Asia, including India, which is the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of high-grade turmeric. Turmeric enjoys tropical climates with high humidity, sun exposure, and well drained soils, but can be grown indoors in pots as well! If you choose to grow it in a pot, you will need some patience as turmeric takes seven to nine months to reach maturity.

Turmeric is rich in fiber and a variety of essential minerals. However, what makes turmeric known for its health benefits is actually ‘curcumin’, the principle curcuminoid, which is 2-5% of the chemical components of turmeric. This is also what gives turmeric its yellow/orange color. There are a few other curcuminoids and essential oils present in turmeric that provide therapeutic effects, but the focus of research has been primarily curcumin.

Curcumin’s health benefits have been known by Indian cultures for thousands of years. The list of the benefits that Western science began exploring in the 1970s is extensive, and includes opportunities to treat HIV, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, dementia, mental health, and even viruses like influenza and Covid-19! These health benefits are all related to two traits of curcumin: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

How does curcumin work?

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant. This implies that it gathers free radicals when it is in a system. When an element has an extra electron buzzing around it, it has surplus energy, which leads to the formation of free radicals. Oxidation is required to release free radicals on oxygen. This has been related to accelerated aging and practically every chronic illness. The oxidation of the eye lens, for example, is the primary cause of cataracts.

Curcumin is also an anti-inflammatory agent. The inflammatory reaction occurs once a tissue is damaged. It delivers white blood cells and other biological substances to a wound to help it heal. However, when the inflammatory response becomes chronic, undesirable consequences arise. Inflammatory cells are known to produce free radicals, which cause oxidative stress.

Inflammation and oxidation are present in a wide range of diseases. "Why haven't we been looking at curcumin all this time?" you may be thinking. Unfortunately, when scientists first started testing turmeric, there were several concerns with bioavailability in the body, such as, poor water solubility, poor intestinal absorption, and quick disintegration. Because curcumin is hydrophobic, it will not bind to or mix with water (just like vegetable oil). To enhance bioavailability, scientists began adding nanoparticles and other lipids. Once that was accomplished, they began to see greater health advantages due to improved absorption and dosage. Turmeric's chemical makeup, like that of any plant-based food, is directly influenced by where the plant was grown, when it was harvested, and even how the curcumin was extracted. 

What sort of improvements does turmeric provide?

Turmeric, as previously said, is an outstanding herb. Turmeric has long been used in cosmetics; it nourishes the blood and skin, slowing the signs of aging, and is effective in treating skin disorders.

Turmeric is often used to flavor and color food, but it also aids digestion. Turmeric promotes the production of bile, which improves the body's capacity to digest fat. It also stimulates the synthesis of digestive enzymes such as lipase (for fats) and sucrase (for sugars). Turmeric has traditionally been used to treat those who have weak stomachs, poor digestion, or slow metabolisms.

There is a possibility that turmeric could be utilized to treat HIV or cancer! Turmeric has been proven to suppress HIV-1 integrase; an enzyme required for HIV viral replication! It also suppresses HIV gene expression. Turmeric suppresses cell cycle, causes apoptosis (planned cell death), and decreases cancer cell proliferation. Turmeric will not be able to replace chemotherapy or radiation, but it may be able to augment and shorten the process!

Turmeric has recently been studied in terms of memory and cognition. Dementia is a major global problem. Chronic inflammation in the brain can result in the accumulation of oxidized proteins, which is a cause of dementia. Curcumin's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant mechanisms have been found to diminish such buildups. Curcumin also affects important hormones such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. These, among other things, regulate mood, sleep, learning, and memory. Aside from memory loss, frequent symptoms of dementia include irritability, anger, insomnia, and wandering. Modulating the above-mentioned hormones may help to alleviate or manage additional symptoms that impair a patient's quality of life.

A turmeric-infused future?

Turmeric is not a magical silver bullet that can cure any disease. However, it shows great promise! Besides thousands of years of documented use (not to mention the likely undocumented years), there is now scientific evidence that may even convince doubters that turmeric is an herbal supplement worth using. As more research is completed on the possible benefits and uses of turmeric, the more that is found that it could treat! From skincare to dementia to cancer, the benefits of turmeric are far ranging, with virtually no negative side effects seen. Better late than never, science; the possibilities of how we can incorporate turmeric seem to be endless!

For more interesting articles on different aspects of plant sciences, keep checking this space.

By Stacy Berry | 26 July 2022

Stacy Berry was born and raised on a farm in Alberta, Canada. She graduated in 2016 from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, major in Crop Science. Stacy has mostly worked in municipal government (vegetation management), and primary agriculture production (including horses, cows, and bees). She currently works for Nutrien Ag Services and is excited to be writing for Lab Associates! She is an animal lover who enjoys reading good books, eating good food, travelling, nature, the outdoors, and spending time with friends.


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