Turmeric is a vibrant yellow spice traditionally used in Indian cooking. Don’t let its fairly neutral flavour fool you – turmeric is one of my favourite spices and I add it to many dishes due to its potent health benefits.
Curcumin (part of the curcuminoid family of ployphenolic compounds) is the main ‘active ingredient’ in turmeric, responsible for its powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. Apart from directly neutralising free radicals curcumin also enhances anti-oxidant enzyme activity within the body to combat oxidative damage (Suryanarayana et al 2007).
Alzheimer’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder characterised by the presence of plaques and tangles within the brain. The disorder is progressive and results in a decline in memory and cognitive function. It is thought that oxidative stress and inflammation are two major contributing factors to the development and progression of the disease (Butterfield et al 2002).
It is curcrumin’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are believed to exert its neuroprotective effects.
Firstly, curcurmin is able to cross the blood-brain barrier (i.e. able to access brain cells) (Mishra & Palanivelu 2008), with animal studies showing curcumin to reduce brain levels of oxidised proteins (Lim et al 2001) as well as enhance the clearance of plaques via macrophages (white blood cells) (Zhang et al 2006).
Secondly, curcumin also increases the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (kind of like a growth hormone for the brain) (Wang et al 2008), with low levels of this factor associated with Alzheimer’s Disease (Tapia-Arancibia et al 2008), as well as depression (Hurley et al 2013).
Interestingly, India has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s Disease in the world (Fratiglioni et al 1998).
Arthritis is another condition associated with an imbalance between the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory pathways of the body. There are two main types, being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Both types are characterised by a destruction of cartilage in the joints resulting in pain and loss of joint mobility.
Numerous studies have implicated turmeric in the inhibition of several key inflammatory molecules in cartilage cells (chondrocytes), including interleukins, prostaglandins (note that aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs target prostaglandins) and nitric oxide (Chwan-Li et al 2012). It has been shown to decrease cartilage cell death at the joint (Shakibaei et al 2011).
Human trials have shown curcumin to produce similar results to pain relief as ibuprofen (Kuptniratsaikul et al 2009) as well as improving joint function and inflammatory status (Belcaro et al 2010) among suffers of osteoarthritis. Similar results have been seen among rheumatoid arthritis sufferers (Chandran & Goel 2012).
How to Use Turmeric
Apart from the obvious inclusion in curries and other Indian dishes, turmeric can be added to a variety of meals due to its neutral flavour (it may give the dish a bright yellow hue though!).
- add turmeric to soups and stews
- mix it with olive oil and brush onto corn cobs instead of butter and salt
- stir into scrambled eggs before serving (‘golden eggs’ anyone?)
- sprinkle over vegies (along with olive oil, salt, pepper and any other spices or fresh herbs) before roasting
- mix with other spices to use as popcorn seasoning (drizzle freshly popped popcorn with olive oil to help the spices stick)
- add to a tropical banana and mango smoothie (can also be added to any other type of smoothie but it won’t discolour smoothies that are already orange)
For maximum benefits, make sure you consume turmeric in the presence of black pepper which contains a compound called piperine. Piperine has been shown to increase turmeric’s bioavailability (how easily it is absorbed by the body) by up to 2000% (Shoba et al 1998). This won’t be too difficult when using in a curry or other savoury dish.
Curcumin is also a fat soluble nutrient, so best to also ensure your meal contains a source of healthy fat to aid absorption (e.g. olive oil used during cooking or avocado in a salad).
Stay tuned for a tasty recipe featuring turmeric I’ll be sharing soon.
Belcaro et al (2010), ‘Product-evaluation registry of Meriva, a curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex, for the complementary management of osteoarthritis’, Panminerva Medica, 52(2): 55-62.
Butterfield et al (2002), ‘Amyloid β-peptide and amyloid pathology are central to the oxidative stress and inflammatory cascades under which Alzheimer’s disease brain exists’, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 4(3): 193-201.
Chandran & Goel (2012), ‘A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis’, Phytotherapy Research, 26(11): 1719-1725.
Chwan-Li et al (2012), ‘Dietary polyphenols and mechanisms of osteoarthritis’, Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 23(11): 1367-1377.
Fratiglioni et al (1999), ‘Worldwide prevalence and incidence of dementia’, Drugs and Aging, 15(1): 365-375.
Hurley et al (2013), ‘Antidepressant-like effects of curcumin in WKY rat model of depression is associated with an increase in hippocampal BDNF’, Behavioural Brain Research, 239(1): 27-30.
Kuptniratsaikul et al (2009), ‘Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts in patients with knee osteoarthritis’, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(8): 891-897.
Lim et al (2001), ‘The curry spice curcumin reduces oxidative damage and amyloid pathology in an Alzheimer transgenic mouse’, Journal of Neuroscience, 21(21): 8370-8377.
Mishra & Palanivelu (2008), ‘The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview’, Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 11(1): 13-19.
Shakibaei et al (2011), ‘Curcumin synergizes with resveratrol to stimulate the MAPK signalling pathway in human articular chondrocytes in vitro, Genes & Nutrition, 6(1): 171-179.
Shoba et al (1998), ‘Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animal and human volunteers’, Planta medica, 64(4): 353-356.
Suryanarayana et al (2007), ‘Effect of turmeric and curcumin on oxidative stress and antioxidant enzymes in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rat’, Medical Science Monitor, 13(12): BR286-292.
Tapia-Arancibia et al (2008), ‘New insights into brain BDNF function in normal aging and Alzheimer disease’, Brain Research Reviews, 59(1): 201-220.
Wang et al (2008), ‘Curcumin protects against glutamate excitotoxicity in rat cerebral cortical neurons by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor level and activating TrkB’, Brain Research, 1210(1): 84-91.
Zhang et al (2006), ‘Curcuminoids enhance amyloid-beta uptake by macrophages of Alzheimer’s disease patients’, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 10(1):1-7.