The genre Turmeric (in English Turmeric) belongs to the family of Zingiberaceae (the same as the Ginger he was born in Coriander) and includes about 80 known species. The species most used in cooking and phytotherapy is the Curcuma Longa or Domestic Turmeric.
Turmeric is a perennial herbaceous plant, with large yellow flowers that can reach a meter in height; it arises spontaneously in southern Asia, from India to Malaysia and prefers areas with a tropical climate and high rainfall, with temperatures between 20 and 35 ° C. The root is the part of the plant that is used and consists of a large cylindrical, branched and globose rhizome, also intensely yellow-orange and strongly aromatic.
This spice has been present in human history for at least 4000 years. It was used by the Assyrians to dye their fabrics.
The Indians had already identified its therapeutic properties and considered turmeric a magical spice as its yellow coloring power was in their opinion related to the sun. The intense yellow of turmeric is still used to dye the fabrics of Buddhist monks by hand and as an ingredient in the preparation of a famous blend of spices of Indian origin, the curry.
A very particular use of turmeric is present in some Indian folk traditions. The most famous case is the Bengali ceremony of "gaee holud”During the wedding preparations, in which the pigment is used, called Sindur, to color the body and hair of brides.
In the thirteenth century Marco Polo, in the stories of his travels to China, describes the Curcuma: "There is also a vegetable, which has all the properties of real saffron, as well as color, but which is not real saffron… (Curcuma) is highly regarded, and is an ingredient in all their dishes ”.
Although the date remains uncertain, it seems that the Arabs, specializing in the spice trade, introduced turmeric to Europe; they were the first to give it the name of "Kur Kum”, Which means“ saffron ”.
Since then the name has remained unchanged and its use has rapidly spread around the world. Due to the color very similar to saffron, for a long time it was considered a not very noble spice and was in fact nicknamed "saffron of the poor" or "Indian saffron": It has no relationship with saffron but shares the same coloring power, with a much lower price.
Dosage, uses in gastronomy and in the food industry
From the intense yellow rhizome of turmeric, boiled, dried and pulverized, a very fine powder is obtained, widely used in Indian and Asian gastronomy. The active ingredient is represented by curcumin, characterized by an earthy, bitter, spicy and very volatile flavor; on the contrary, the intensity of the color remains unchanged over time.
Turmeric, up to 8 g / day is not toxic to humans and the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified it as "GRAS", General Recognition And Safety, or "Generally Recognized Safe".
For a healthy use it is sufficient to introduce the spice in the daily diet. The recommended daily dose is between 3-5g, which corresponds to about 2 coffee spoons, to be used as a condiment on dishes, but also to prepare sauces, yogurt or drinks. In addition to being a flavor enhancer, turmeric is used as a food coloring and among the food additives codified by the European Union, turmeric is indicated with E100.
Composition and absorption in the body
Of the three main curcuminoids found in turmeric (curcumin, demethoxy curcumin and bis-demethoxy curcumin), curcumin, responsible for the yellow pigment, has pharmacological properties.
Curcumin is a biologically active polyphenolic compound, first isolated from turmeric rhizomes in 1815 by two German scientists, Vogel and Pelletier, who gave it its name still in use today. It appears as a powder with poor solubility in water, while it is soluble in oil, ethanol and acetic acid.
Curcumin is one of the most studied substances of plant origin for its antioxidant and chemopreventive properties, together with lycopene (tomatoes), genistein (soy), resveratrol (red wine), quercetin (onions, capers, many other vegetables) and epigallocatechin-3 gallate (green tea). Although turmeric alone is a potent medicinal spice, it possesses poor bioavailability due to its rapid metabolism in the liver and intestinal wall resulting in suboptimal absorption by the body.
To solve this problem, the association with a small amount of black pepper is recommended: the piperidine contained in the latter, in fact, is able to increase the bioavailability of curcumin. When black pepper is freshly ground, the essential oils of the pepper are released and are more bioavailable. Alternatively it is possible to dissolve turmeric in oil or green tea or in any fatty food.
Benefits of curcumin on our health
There turmeric possesses multiple beneficial properties, recognized by traditional medicine (not only by the alternative one); the evidence collected in preclinical (i.e. conducted on animals) and clinical (conducted on humans) studies have shown that curcumin acts and modulates numerous molecular targets and exerts various biological activities which can be listed as follows:
- Antioxidant and detoxifying action
- Anti-inflammatory and anti-pain activity
- It prevents bacterial infections and strengthens the immune system
- Anticoagulant / antiplatelet activity
- Antirheumatic activity
- Neuroprotective activity and improvement of cognitive functions
- Digestive and carminative properties
- Helps prevent and / or manage type 2 diabetes
- Contributes to the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs
- Cardioprotective activity
- Antitumor properties
The main beneficial properties of this spice are described below, validated through scientific studies.
Antioxidant and detoxifying activity
Some environmental factors can induce the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and nitrogen (RNS), or free radicals, responsible for oxidative stress: UV light and radiation, atmospheric pollutants such as ozone, cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and unfair lifestyle habits, exposure to solvents and heavy metals etc ...
However, at the right concentrations, ROS and RNS also produced by our organism perform important physiological functions, such as, for example, the maturation of cellular structures and the regulation of blood flow; they are also used by some cells of the immune system as weapons to fight and destroy cancer cells and infectious agents responsible for infections.
Problems therefore arise when there is no balance between the production and / or accumulation of free radicals and the antioxidant defenses put in place by the cells. Oxidative stress occurs in the presence of an imbalance in favor of ROS and RNS, with consequences that can contribute to the genesis and development of diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases and premature aging.
To combat oxidative stress, the body uses antioxidants, substances that can be produced by the body itself or can be taken through the diet or through the wide variety of supplements and nutritional supplements on the market.
To maintain a correct physiological balance, a correct proportion of free radicals and antioxidants is required. Curcumin is an antioxidant taken with the diet and acts as an effective scavenger of ROS and RNS.
In fact, the curcumin taken orally, adequately combined with piperine or solubilized in oily compounds, it can reach concentrations in the gastrointestinal tract sufficient to exert a protective effect in the mucosa against oxidative DNA damage. In addition to this direct antioxidant activity, curcumin induces the expression of antioxidant and detoxifying enzymes designed to protect cells from oxidative stress.
Anti-inflammatory and anti-pain activity
Numerous researches have highlighted turmeric's natural anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. The scientific journal Oncogene published the data of a study that evaluated and compared several compounds with anti-inflammatory activity: it was found that curcumin exerts greater therapeutic effects than aspirin and ibuprofen in pain control. This evidence is of particular importance as inflammation is the basis of almost all the pathological processes that afflict the human being.
Diseases such as cancer, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, hypercholesterolemia and chronic pain share a general state of inflammation.
The pain relieving activity of curcumin is particularly important in the treatment of severe burns. Typically, victims of severe burns are treated with opioid derivatives and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain. However, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, the US Army Institute of Surgical Research has indicated the use of curcumin in the treatment of pain following burns.
It prevents bacterial infections and strengthens the immune system
A study conducted by researchers at Oregon State University, funded by the National Institute of Health and published in the Journal of Nutrition Biochemistry, has shown that the turmeric it is able to strengthen the immune system by protecting our body from infections.
Curcumin appears to be able to increase levels of the CAMP protein (antimicrobial peptide cathelicidin) involved in the control of the immune response against attacks by viruses, bacteria and fungi.
According to the scientists, therefore, the introduction of turmeric in the everyday diet could be a valid help for the body in preventing infections, especially those affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
Further activity studies have focused on the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of turmeric in the treatment of some diseases of the oral cavity. In fact, the topical application of a curcumin-based gel is able to reduce gingival bleeding and the proliferation of periodontal bacteria following conventional periodontal therapy.
Mouthwashes containing curcumin have also been formulated which have proved to be as effective as those based on chlorhexidine in reducing inflammation in the case of periodontitis and gingivitis.
Anticoagulant / antiplatelet activity
For the prevention of blood clotting problems, medical intervention generally involves the prescription of drugs such as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), diclofenac, ibuprofen, warfarin (coumadin).
However, some people who have prolonged treatments with these drugs can experience serious consequences such as deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, which require discontinuation of therapy.
Other side effects are: bleeding, back pain, headache and dyspnoea. Turmeric, on the other hand, has no side effects (unless it is taken in excessive quantities) and some studies published in the 1980s had already shown that its intake exerted a better anticoagulant and antiplatelet effect in patients with deep vein thrombosis.
Given the anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin, a study was conducted, published in 2012 on Phytotherapy Research, on 45 patients with rheumatoid arthritis in order to compare the effects of curcumin with those of sodium diclofenac, commonly used for the treatment of arthritis but with side effects affecting the intestine and heart.
Patients who joined the study were assigned to 3 groups: a group on curcumin alone, a group with diclofenac alone and a group with the combination of the two compounds.
Patients taking curcumin alone showed a higher rate of symptom improvement than patients taking diclofenac alone. Furthermore, curcumin was shown to be safe as no adverse events were recorded, thus providing a first proof of safety and superiority in the treatment of patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.
However, in order to validate and confirm the results obtained, further clinical studies on a larger scale are needed, not only for rheumatoid arthritis but also for other arthritic conditions.
Neuro protective activity and improvement of cognitive functions
According to another study published in the journal Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the daily consumption of 1 g of turmeric at breakfast, it would improve the memory skills of the elderly. In particular, the study refers to patients suffering from or predisposed to develop type 2 diabetes as an association between cognitive decline and this pathology has been demonstrated.
Another study, published in Stem Cell Research and Therapy, related to the properties of curcumin and other substances present in turmeric (ar-tumerone, curlone and β-turmerone) to increase the self-repair of the brain, represents a huge step forward for regenerative medicine in identifying new substances capable of promote the differentiation of stem cells into neurons.
These substances appear to prevent injuries and other damage to the cerebral arteries, restore energy production by the cells and maintain the physiological levels of the antioxidant and protective enzymes of the brain, lowering the risk of stroke; they also seem to be able to prevent or limit the accumulation of β-amyloid protein, responsible for diseases such as Alzheimer's and some forms of senile dementia.
Thanks to these results, researchers are striving to find solutions in the near future to improve the quality of life of people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and many others.
Digestive and carminative properties
There turmeric it has been commonly and traditionally used since ancient times as a digestive and detoxifying tonic for the liver as, as a digestive, it helps to increase bile flow from the gallbladder to the intestine, a fundamental process for the degradation of dietary fats; as a liver detoxifier it acts by increasing the production and activity of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant.
Often, people with digestive disorders develop intolerances to conventional pharmacological treatments as the mucous membranes and bacterial flora are compromised; in that case the drugs could even worsen the condition.
In fact, for many patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBS irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), the corticosteroids prescribed on the one hand reduce the painful symptoms, but on the other hand they damage the intestinal lining with worsening of the state of health.
An in-depth analysis of curcumin's ability to relieve and manage symptoms of these conditions found that many patients stopped taking corticosteroids by taking turmeric which, with its anti-inflammatory activity, supported growth and repopulation. of the probiotic bacterial flora (the good bacteria).
Helps prevent and / or manage type 2 diabetes
In 2009, Auburn University published a study on Biochemistry and Biophysical Research Communications which demonstrated how the introduction of the turmeric in the daily diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes, contributing to the lowering of blood sugar and the inversion of insulin resistance. According to the results obtained, curcumin is about 400 times more potent than metformin (a drug used for diabetes) in activating an enzyme that improves insulin sensitivity.
Curcumin may also help prevent or delay some complications of diabetes, such as diabetic neuropathy and retinopathy (which leads to blindness over time).
Contributes to the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs
A study, published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, conducted at the Medical College of Bhavnagar in India, described an innovative study involving 60 volunteers diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), including bipolar disorder (or manic depression).
The Department of Pharmacology compared the effects, along with safety, of a turmeric extract (1000mg) and Fluoxetine (Prozac, 20mg) used in combination and individually for 6 weeks.
At the end of the study, not only was it found that patients tolerated curcumin well, but curcumin itself exerted effects comparable to fluoxetine in the management of depression, without having any side effects. According to the researchers, this was the first clinical evidence to show that curcumin can be used as an effective and safe therapy for treating patients with mild depression.
According to a study published inAmerican Journal of Cardiology, it seems that taking a curcumin capsule 1 g 4 times a day reduce heart attacks in patients who have undergone bypass surgery.
The researchers analyzed 121 patients who had undergone a bypass between 2009 and 2011. Half of them were treated with the curcumin capsule starting 3 days before the surgery and continuing for the next 5 days.
The other half took placebo-containing capsules in the same way. The researchers observed that only 13% of patients who had taken curcumin had a heart attack, compared to 30% of the placebo group, thus demonstrating that curcumin reduced the likelihood of heart attack by 65%, thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect that they can limiting the extent of heart damage.
According to what has been published by global authorities such as Cancer Research UK, curcumin appears to be able to induce apoptosis (i.e. programmed cell death) of cancer cells, thus preventing the growth and spread of the tumor through the bloodstream (a mechanism that leads to metastasis formation).
To verify the anticancer activity of curcumin, several studies have been carried out in vitro on cancer cell cultures and the best results were seen on breast, intestinal, stomach and melanoma cancer cells.
A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute also found that curcumin is able to counteract the chemo resistance of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) cells, a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer in which cells develop resistance to chemotherapy, rendering it ineffective.
In fact, from the results obtained, it seems that curcumin re-sensitizes cancer cells to respond to chemotherapy, even if the exact mechanism by which this process occurs is still under study. The author of the study stated that botanicals, such as curcumin extracted from turmeric, have the potential to restore proper gene expression in patients, but without the inherent toxicity of common chemotherapy agents used in oncology.
The benefits are not over
People with autoimmune conditions usually such as psoriasis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and some forms of chronic pain, treated with corticosteroids, can benefit from the use of turmeric. The advantage of curcumin lies precisely in its ability to exert an action similar to corticosteroids without having the same side effects.
The side effects of corticosteroids are diverse and not indifferent and, as listed by the National Health Services (NHS) of the United Kingdom, include: acne, asthma, risk of cancer (following prolonged use), slow healing, predisposition to diabetes, hypertension , tachycardia, tendency to weight gain, insomnia, renal and thyroid dysfunction, mood swings, muscle weakness, nausea, increased susceptibility to infections, slowed growth in children, capillary fragility.
Another research, published on Biofactor, has shown that curcumin can help you lose weight thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, suppressing the inflammatory processes typical of obesity.
Women with PMS can also control symptoms by supplementing their diet with turmeric. PMS occurs before menstruation in about 90% of women of reproductive age and pre-menopause and is characterized by emotional (anxiety and irritability), behavioral (fatigue and insomnia) and physical (headache, breast tenderness, cramps) symptoms. .
A recent study showed that taking 0.2g of curcumin daily for 10 days during three consecutive menstrual cycles significantly reduced the intensity of PMS symptoms.
For people in good health, turmeric has no particular contraindications and its intake is considered risk-free; the important thing is to avoid excesses and not to exceed the recommended doses.
However, taking turmeric is contraindicated in people suffering from biliary tract occlusion as curcumin stimulates the gallbladder to produce bile, causing painful colic and worsening the condition. In this case it is advisable to take turmeric in the form of supplements and only after consulting with your doctor.
As already described above, curcumin thins the blood therefore people in post-surgery, or with coagulation defects, or in therapy with anticoagulant drugs must be careful when they decide to take it; could worsen their health by exposing themselves to the risk of bleeding. In the case of people with jaundice, gastric ulcer or liver failure, the use of turmeric, curry and preparations containing curcumin is not recommended.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as children under 2 years of age, should also avoid the use of turmeric. Although curcumin has gastroprotective and digestive effects, excessive doses can cause gastric problems, triggering indigestion, nausea, stomach acid and diarrhea. If such disturbances appear, stop taking the spice immediately.
Turmeric for the health of our animals
There turmeric it is a spice with multiple therapeutic uses and can be used for the health care not only of humans but also of pets, in particular dogs and cats.
The administration of turmeric in the food of animals is a natural and effective remedy, without side effects that is used as: purifying and detoxifying; antibacterial and anthelmintic; antiallergic; anti-inflammatory and painkiller for arthritic, gastrointestinal, oral cavity and teeth diseases; immunomodulator; antitumor; protective and strengthening of cartilages; hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic; healing in case of wounds.
The recommended dosage is really low and must be absolutely respected: for a dog it is equal to about 50-250 mg 3 times / day (a tip of a teaspoon) while for the cat 50 mg / day is enough. Do not exceed in order not to cause irritation of the gastrointestinal tract in the animal. It is sufficient to mix turmeric in food, mixing it with a little olive or coconut oil to increase its bioavailability and facilitate its absorption, just like for us humans. Also for animals there are various preparations on the market, with different formulations, for veterinary use. The contraindications are the same observed for the human being.
There turmeric it represents a complete, effective and low-cost natural remedy, with multiple healing and beneficial properties on health, therefore it is worth integrating it into the diet given the wide versatility of this spice.