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Turmeric—the humble spice with impressive health benefits

You’ve heard of turmeric. It’s the tasty spice that dyes your counters and fingernails yellow. It’s also the magical golden root recognized around the world for its supposed ability to heal just about anything.

So is turmeric a humble kitchen standby, medicinal powerhouse, or something in between?

Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine since 500 BCE. It’s also used in Chinese medicine as well as the cuisines of many Asian countries. Its health benefits have been widely studied, and the science adds up—turmeric’s active component, curcumin, has been shown to be beneficial for arthritis, metabolic syndrome, and inflammation-related illnesses, as well as improving mood and energy for healthy people.

So what’s the catch?

Curcumin can be hard for our bodies to absorb, so all these health benefits only apply if you take your turmeric with something that increases curcumin’s bioavailability (the degree to which it can be absorbed into your bloodstream).

But there’s a simple fix for this problem: a sprinkle of black pepper (or more specifically, its active ingredient, piperine) can increase your ability to absorb curcumin by up to 2000%.

What’s so good about turmeric?

Turmeric is anti-inflammatory

Inflammation is your body’s response to irritation, whether that’s an infection, an injury or an allergy. It’s a natural part of the healing process, but sometimes it sticks around when it’s not needed.

In autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease, the immune system attacks itself, causing harmful inflammation. There’s also increasing evidence that inflammation induces diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

In the body, curcumin has been shown to inhibit cytokines, the protein that causes inflammation. Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties have been widely studied, and it has yielded positive results in treating inflammatory conditions from asthma to post-workout muscle pain.

Turmeric has antioxidant properties

Our cells produce atoms called free radicals as part of their normal processes, but too many free radicals cause oxidative stress, which damages our cells and leads to aging, as well as a wide range of diseases. We can help our body fight oxidative stress by making sure we have plenty of antioxidants.

Fruits and vegetables are good sources of a variety of antioxidants that help protect a variety of body structures—which is why a diverse diet is the best way to cultivate whole-body health.

The exciting thing about curcumin is that it’s a powerful antioxidant that can target some of the biggest and baddest disease categories: cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Turmeric has anti-microbial properties

Curcumin is a natural antimicrobial agent. This is a big umbrella: it encompasses antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties.

  • Antibacterial: Curcumin has been shown to inhibit bacterial infections like staph, E. coli, and salmonella.

  • Antiviral: Curcumin has yielded positive results as part of a treatment for HIV, influenza, and HPV.

  • Antifungal: Curcumin has been used effectively to treat a range of Candida infections.

Can turmeric improve mood and energy?

In one study, a group of healthy adults aged 65–80 showed significant improvements in calmness, contentedness, and fatigue after taking curcumin for four weeks. Their performance in memory and attention-related tasks improved significantly in as little as an hour after taking the supplement.

And while we don’t totally understand how curcumin affects the brain, one 2008 study found that it affected mood-modulating neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in mice.

How do you take turmeric?

Eat a turmeric-rich diet

Turmeric might be a superfood, but it’s also delicious. Both turmeric root and powdered turmeric are easy to incorporate into your diet, and each is suited to different purposes. Cook’s Illustrated tested both side-by-side and concluded that flavor-wise turmeric powder is better for cooking and turmeric root is better for uncooked applications, like juices and smoothies.

Cook with turmeric root

The antioxidant properties of turmeric root have been tested in raw and cooked formulations, and however you prepare it, turmeric root is still an effective antioxidant to some degree. Studies show that raw turmeric has the most potent antioxidant effects, followed by boiled, roasted, then fried.

You can keep turmeric root fresh for up to four weeks by storing it in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Recipe ideas:

  • If you don’t want to add black pepper to your breakfast juice blend (understandable), a great alternative to increase bioavailability is to blend turmeric root with apples or berries. These fruits are high in the flavonoid quercetin, which is also shown to increase turmeric’s benefits.
  • Stir grated turmeric root into your salad, or add it to your vinaigrette. Just make sure you add black pepper to maximize its effects.

Season with turmeric powder

If you buy turmeric powder, make sure it’s organic since some turmeric powder has been found to be adulterated with lead.

Recipe ideas:

  • Turmeric makes a great addition to scrambled eggs. Just add ⅓ teaspoon of turmeric powder per egg, plus salt, pepper, and a splash of water, milk or cream.
  • You can pre-make a paste for turmeric lattes (a.k.a golden milk) by mixing one part black pepper to two parts each of ginger powder and ground cinnamon, three parts coconut oil, and twelve parts turmeric powder. Keep it in the refrigerator, and heat a spoonful with milk and honey or maple syrup.

Take turmeric supplements

If you take turmeric as a supplement, you’ll miss out on the flavor, but you’ll also probably be getting a higher and more effective dosage of curcumin.

Make sure you find a blend that combines turmeric with other ingredients to improve bioavailability. Good options are blends that include quercetin-rich goji berries or Gotu kola. Depending on your needs, you can find turmeric and quercetin formulations to address conditions as diverse as liver function, cellulite, and inflammation.

How do you get rid of turmeric stains?

If you stain your kitchen or clothes with turmeric, working fast will help remove it.

If you have an enzyme-based stain solution handy, apply it to the fresh turmeric stain and work it in before rinsing with cool water. Dish soap or laundry detergent can also help prevent the stain from setting.

If the stain is already set, try soaking the affected surface with white vinegar or a paste made from water and baking powder. Then wash, and reapply if necessary.

Stain still hanging around? If your surface or fabric is white, try hydrogen peroxide as a safer and gentler alternative to chlorine bleach. For colors, try color-safe oxygen bleach.

Cooking for integrated health: turmeric’s just the beginning

In Western countries, diet and medicine are often separate, but that isn’t the case in other parts of the world.

Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) medicine uses turmeric as one of many natural-food ingredients that can safeguard your health. In Ayurvedic cooking, you can find recipes and diets that, in concert with other treatments, can help address just about any health condition. If you like cooking (or if you’re trying to like cooking), it can be incredibly motivating to make a dish that guards you and your family against illness. Chances are, it’s tasty, too.

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