Feeling under the weather from stress or seasonal allergies? If you’re looking for an easy way to strengthen your body’s natural defenses, you might find the answer in your spice rack. Turmeric, the bright yellow, peppery spice used in curry powder and mustard, has been known for centuries as an immune system booster.
The spice is ground and dried from the turmeric root, a herb related to ginger that typically grows in the tropical climates of Southeast Asia and is packed with antioxidants.
Though turmeric is best known as a seasoning staple in Indian and Chinese dishes, Eastern cultures have used the root for than 4,000 years to fight a variety of ailments, including pain, fatigue, respiratory issues, rheumatism and skin problems.
The medicinal value of this hardy, golden spice has recently begun gaining attention in the Western world, with teas, juices, extracts and supplements made from ground turmeric root becoming a common sight on the shelves of health food and organic grocery stores. Scientists today can point to more than 300 useful compounds in turmeric, including beta-carotene, flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, iron, potassium, niacin, and zinc. But the chemical that gives the turmeric root its superfood status, along with its orangey-yellow hue, is the polyphenol curcumin, a bioactive pigment with antioxidants and other beneficial properties.
- Protect cells from deterioration. Curcumin can neutralize free radicals formed when oxygen is inhaled into the body, hindering these highly reactive molecules from hijacking healthy tissues and setting off dangerous chain reactions. It has also been shown to help rev up the activity of antioxidants in the body.
- Promote healthy immune responses. Curcumin can block molecules that mistakenly cause white blood cells to attack healthy tissues and organs. It’s also been shown to relieve swelling, tenderness and irritation in joints as effectively as over-the-counter drugs.
- Fight off harmful bacteria. Curcumin is useful for disinfecting cuts and burns, which can promote faster healing and pain relief, and inhibiting the growth of microorganisms that can develop into bacterial, viral and fungal infections, including those resistant to drugs.
- Modify how immune cells function and communicate. Curcumin can support a healthy immune system by keeping immune cells in the body balanced so they function properly while also regulating how genes are expressed.
Harnessing Turmeric’s Goodness
Many of the turmeric-based products on the market today make bold promises about what the spice can do, but more human trials are needed to understand how turmeric works and how much is needed to make a difference. The National Standard Research Collaboration graded turmeric as a “C”—on a scale of A to F—for the strength and amount of evidence supporting the many claims about its potential health benefits.
One challenge of relying on turmeric for medicinal purposes is that curcumin is not easily absorbed from the digestive system into the bloodstream, and it can be rapidly metabolized and excreted from the body. You may be able to absorb the nutrient better by mixing a teaspoon or two of turmeric with a dash of black pepper or eating it with a healthy fat such as avocado, an egg, a splash of olive oil or a dish with salmon or lentils.
Turmeric is safe, particularly when used as an ingredient in food. But some people can have side effects, such as acid reflux, an upset stomach and nausea, if they consume too much of the spice. High doses of turmeric can interact adversely with medications or change how they are metabolized in your body, so it’s best to ask your doctor for advice before trying it as a herbal supplement. Medical experts discourage taking turmeric medicinally if you are pregnant, have an iron deficiency, struggle with gallstones or kidney stones, or take medication for diabetes or high blood pressure.
Though much of the buzz about turmeric has focused on curcumin specifically, research suggests that the spice may work best when enjoyed in raw form with all its nutrients consumed. Cooking with turmeric a few times a week can be a healthy addition to your regimen – especially when paired with a healthy diet and exercise – and liven up meals without using excess salt, sugar and butter. And using turmeric a little more often during flu season or when allergies or stress strike can’t hurt. So go ahead and sprinkle some on your next meal—you may be pleasantly surprised!