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The real health benefits of turmeric

Turmeric is touted as able to help prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease. But what does the actual science have to say about these claims?

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Turmeric has long been well loved for its taste and colour. The orange root has a mild, ginger-like flavour which makes it perfect for curries and stews. But turmeric’s health effects are what’s driving a new surge in its popularity.

The key claim is that the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, reduces inflammation, which is thought to play a key role in chronic diseases. Turmeric is touted as being able to prevent cancer, lower the risk of diabetes, improve digestion and help your heart.

Can adding a tablespoon of the golden spice to your morning smoothie really make you healthier? We look at the evidence to find out.

Does turmeric reduce inflammation?
Maybe. Some studies have shown it to have anti-inflammatory effects, but the research in general isn’t very strong. “The majority of these are animal studies,” says Tristaca Curley, a registered dietitian in Kelowna, B.C. Still, she says, based on those studies, “turmeric appears to be a potent anti-inflammatory, with evidence of its benefit in overall inflammation, as well as inflammation in the respiratory system, joints and GI.”

But there’s a major catch with turmeric: It’s really difficult for your body to absorb, and it’s not a very stable molecule. While there is some evidence that supplements work for certain things, it’s really unlikely that adding the spice to your food will have any effect. A recent major analysis of the research explains it well: “Curcumin is best typified as a missile that continually blows up on the launch pad… never reaching its intended target.”

Does turmeric fight arthritis?
All signs point to yes. Multiple studies have found that it reduces pain related to arthritis. There’s less research into how effective it is against rheumatoid arthritis, but one study for osteoarthritis found that turmeric supplements can control knee pain as well as ibuprofen does.

Does turmeric improve digestion?
We really don’t know yet. There is limited, but, positive research: Some smaller studies have shown that turmeric can help people suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. And one pilot study — which didn’t compare it against placebos, and asked patients to self-report their symptoms — also found that it might help IBS.

Can turmeric help keep your heart healthy?
Quite possibly. One study found that turmeric supplements helped lower total cholesterol, and both LDL cholesterol and VLDJ cholesterol (which are both bad for you). But the study was in overweight adults who had abnormally high lipid rates in their blood. Another study found that it lowered lipids in people with metabolic syndrome. And other studies have found that it may reduce the number of heart attacks patients have after bypass surgery.

Can turmeric reduce your risk of cancer?
Maybe. In countries where people eat 100–200 mg of curcumin a day there are lower rates of cancer, though it’s difficult to tell if there is a cause-and-effect relationship. A small study of 25 people found that people who took turmeric supplements were less likely to have precancerous cells progress into cancer. But researchers have been disappointed by how turmeric performed in people who already have cancer. “There is some evidence of its role as an antioxidant, which could mean it decreases cancer’s onset and progression, but I think that’s where the science ends for now,” says Curley.

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