Getting To The Root Of Inflammation With Turmeric

November 3, 2016 Debbie Bowman

Traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is the orange-colored spice that looks somewhat like ginger in its whole form, only it is smaller and darker and shaped like little gnarled fingers.  But don’t let turmeric’s appearance fool you, as this strange looking root is arguably the most powerful herb on the planet as well as the most prolifically studied.  In fact, over 6,000 peer reviewed articles have been published on the amazing health benefits of turmeric, citing its anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour and anti-oxidant properties.  In this article we will focus on the health benefits of turmeric in combating inflammation. 

While most of us associate inflammation with pain, inflammation can actually be a good thing.  Specifically, inflammation is the body's natural response to injury or infection.  In fact, we need some level of inflammation to stay healthy.  However, when inflammation persists it can change from a healing response to a damaging condition.  Chronic inflammation lies at the heart of virtually all diseases associated with aging. In fact, people with inflammatory conditions experience accelerated aging that affects every tissue and organ in their bodies.  Chronic inflammation is also the root cause of many serious illnesses - including heart disease, many cancers, and even Alzheimer's disease.  

When inflammation causes redness, swelling and pain, the most commonly used form of treatment is non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), like ibuprofen, or analgesics, like Tylenol.  However, the regular use of these types of drugs is linked to damage of the liver and kidneys, as well as gastrointestinal harm and cardiovascular problems.  Turmeric, on the other hand, is clinically proven to provide safe and natural pain relief. 

Turmeric contains more than two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds.  And unlike pharmaceuticals, turmeric acts through multiple pathways and on numerous targets to reduce the body’s inflammatory response.  This is important, as scientists are now recognizing that broad spectrum therapies like turmeric are vastly superior to single-targeted therapies, such as NSAIDS.  For example, turmeric’s potent anti-oxidant properties, its ability to enhance your liver’s detoxifying capacity, and its ability to slow cell death, in addition to turmeric’s ability to block inflammatory compounds, all help to effectively reduce inflammation and enhance one’s health.  

A discussion of turmeric can sometimes be confusing, as you’ll sometimes hear people talking about curcumin, and other times you will read or hear about turmeric.  Here is an explanation of how these two terms are related.  Curcumin is the pigment that gives turmeric root its orange colour and is the bioactive component that has the anti-inflammatory properties ascribed to turmeric root.  Curcumin accounts for only 2-5% of turmeric root’s content, so large amounts of turmeric powder are required to obtain an effective and substantial dose of curcumin. 

You’ll also probably hear that curcumin on its own is not very well absorbed, and this is true.  To increase absorption, either the curcumin will be changed in the lab, i.e. micronized - meaning the particles have been reduced to a small particle size (10 microns) allowing for greater transport through veins and capillaries - or other things will be added, such as pepper and/or oil.  Interestingly, new research now suggests that another component of the turmeric root, called turmerones, enhances the absorption of curcumin.  Turmerones are generally lost in the process of extraction and purification of curcumin, so when purchasing supplements it is best to look for whole turmeric root extracts or micronized curcumin products that also contain turmerones.   

Though turmeric is extremely safe to consume, as with most herbs there are some instances when it is wise to avoid it.  For example, turmeric increases bile production and can cause the gallbladder to contract, so if you are suffering from gallbladder disease it could increase symptoms of gallstones. (However, if you do not have gallstones, turmeric can prevent their formation.)  Turmeric should also be avoided if one is pregnant, as turmeric supplements can stimulate the uterus.  (Turmeric spice in cooking is fine though - just no supplements.)  Lastly, because the active compound in turmeric can sometimes slow blood clotting, avoid taking it at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery, and do not mix with blood thinners like warfarin (Coumadin) and clopidogrel (Plavix).