Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme may be most famous for their uses as flavorings (and musical inspiration), but herbs and spices do much, much more than kick our food up a notch. Many common plants that we use to flavor and season—coriander and cardamom, basil and bay, cayenne and caraway, saffron and sassafras—actually have properties that do far more than tantalize our taste buds. Turmeric, a peppery spice belonging to the ginger family that makes frequent appearances in earthy Indian and Southeast Asian cooking, is renowned for its myriad benefits beyond the stove top. For more than four thousand years, it’s been used in cosmetics, textiles, and medicines. In India, women rub bright yellow turmeric powder on their faces and bodies to achieve a golden glow. It’s a common coloring agent in mustard, cheese, and butter. And thanks to a host of new studies and clinical observations, scientists are discovering that turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, with some astounding effects:
- Breast Cancer: Studies at the University of Texas found that curcumin (the active compound in turmeric) inhibited the growth of melanoma and slowed the spread of breast cancer.
- Alzheimers: Since turmeric is an important component of curry, some doctors theorize that increased consumption of the spice is one reason why the rate of Alzheimer’s disease is so low in India—about one-quarter that of the United States.
- Osteoarthritis: Research in Italy determined that osteoarthritis sufferers who supplemented their medication with a turmeric-based compound saw a 58 percent decrease in pain and stiffness.
- Ulcerative Colitis: According to the University of Maryland, turmeric helped patients with ulcerative colitis remain in remission.
- Blood Sugar: Animal studies have found that turmeric caused test subjects’ blood sugar and cholesterol levels to drop.
- Eye Health: In patients with the eye disease uveitis, treatment with curcumin was as effective as standard steroid treatment in reducing the inflammation.
- Digestion: In Chinese and ayurvedic medicine, turmeric has been used to aid digestion, cleanse the liver, and even regulate the menstrual cycle.
- Cancer Treatment: Research at the University of South Dakota determined that cancer cells that were exposed to curcumin were later more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation.
- Autoimmune Disease:Turmeric may stall the progress of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. In countries such as India and China, where turmeric consumption is high, these diseases are very rare. Tests at Vanderbilt University Medical Center determined that when mice with the disease were injected with a dose of curcumin equivalent to a moderate human dose, their symptoms went away.
- Skin Disorders: In many traditional medicines, a paste made from turmeric powder is applied to the skin in order to soothe and heal discomfort from eczema, psoriasis, and allergies.
- Weight Loss: Turmeric is a thermogenic spice, which can help with weight loss. Spicy plants (like ginger, cayenne, and peppers) incite the body to boost metabolism and thereby burn calories.
If you’re not a curry lover, fear not—most health-food stores sell turmeric powder in capsule form. Loose turmeric powder or liquid forms of the spice can be included in earthy soups and sauces, steeped like a tea, or added to milk or rice.
Of course, no responsible doctor suggests discontinuing a prescribed course of medication in favor of a turmeric-only regimen. Always employ natural or complementary methods in conjunction with a doctor’s planned course of treatment, and always discuss any additional nutritional supplements with your own physician before taking them.
More studies are needed to confirm whether turmeric really is a wonder spice, but much anecdotal evidence points to what traditional medicine has suggested for years: that when ingested regularly, turmeric can keep the doctor—as well as a wide variety of other problems—far, far away.