What’s the skinny on turmeric? I’ve got a friend with a bad immune system, and she swears by it. Turmeric tea, turmeric curries, turmeric honey… she even makes her own turmeric spice and grinds it up. She isn’t that much of a health nut otherwise (I spend a lot more time in the gym), but she claims it cured her allergies a few years ago and ever since she has been a fiend for the stuff. I roll my eyes at it sometimes, but sometimes I wonder: is my friend crazy, or is there a method to her madness?
Turmeric is probably one of the most popular health foods on the market. In addition to its use as a spice (it gives certain curries their yellow color), turmeric is favored as a dietary supplement by people all over the world. Turmeric has a long tradition of use in Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine. It has been used for over 2,500 years in India to treat pain, insomnia, blood clots, wound healing, and a host of other disorders. It has a sacred aspect in Indian culture as well: turmeric-dyed clothing and strings are used in wedding ceremonies, and tikala, the ceremonial forehead markings worn by especially observant Hindus, are sometimes made of turmeric paste. The religious and cultural significance of turmeric in Indian culture has helped popularize it in Western culture outside of the kitchen, and turmeric supplements often tout the sacred significance of the spice alongside its health benefits.
Let’s talk about the chemistry of turmeric for a second. According to Natural Healthy Concepts’ article on Turmeric, the edible part of the plant is full of beneficial chemicals. Perhaps the most famous, and the most active, chemical is called curcumin. Curcumin is the chemical that gives turmeric spice its yellow color. Curcumin is what gives any yellow curry its color. It is fat-soluble, and it is an antioxidant, which means that it removes oxidizing agents from living organisms. As your body breaks down toxins like smoke and alcohol, the molecular reactions produce what are called free radicals. Think of these as baseballs flying around a room. If you were to be hit by one it would hurt, right? An antioxidant acts like a baseball glove. It catches the free radicals so that, rather than smashing into your cells, they are held firm and harmless.
There are many processes that can create free radicals, and according to this website for canola seed suppliers in Australia and this page from the Cleveland Clinic, older oils or oils that have sat on the shelf for too long can contain free radicals, and free radicals can also appear in oil that has been overcooked. The ubiquity of free radicals is part of what makes antioxidants so important. Curcumin’s antioxidant properties are part of the reason turmeric is touted as the key to a long life. Turmeric actually has several antioxidants in it, as well a family of pigments called curcuminoids that all have antioxidant properties. What does it mean to dose with antioxidants, beyond the baseball metaphors? When your body is full of free radicals (a condition called oxidative stress), your cells are vulnerable to their damage, especially your DNA. Damaged DNA carries all sorts of risks with it, and when your DNA is damaged, cancer follows. But the scarier diseases notwithstanding, turmeric can help with day-to-day ailments like colds and headaches.
Is your friend crazy? Probably not, especially if she has a weak immune system and allergies. If she is taking it to supplement her diet, its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties can be a huge help in both the short term and the long term. Everybody’s body is a little bit different, so one body may not have exactly the same reaction as another body to a specific supplement, but when you’re down with a head cold or flu, turmeric can be a great natural remedy.