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The Promising Benefits of Turmeric

Columnist: By Rajina Ranadive, M.D.
July, 2017 Issue

By Rajina Ranadive, M.D.
All articles by columnist

Turmeric is probably the most powerful herb on the planet to treat and prevent many of the diseases that commonly affects us. There is a long history of its use in Ayurvedic medicine (a holistic, whole-body healing system) to treat inflammatory disorders, indigestion, throat infections, the common cold and liver ailments. It’s also used topically to cleanse wounds and treat skin conditions.

I get asked about turmeric so often that I decided to do my own review of the research. There are more than 6,000 articles about the benefits of turmeric. This is what we know so far. Turmeric is a root that belongs to the ginger family and is native to Southern Asia. It’s the main component of curry powder, and it’s often found in curries in South Asian and Persian cooking. However, it’s also used as dye or coloring agent for food and cosmetics. One of its main constituents is curcumin, which has properties that can decrease swelling and inflammation. It can be consumed as a root grated into soups, stews or curry dishes, taken in powder form or by capsule or tablet. It can also be made into a tea by boiling the root.

 A natural anti-inflammatory

The anti-inflammatory properties should help treat autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, colitis (inflammation of the inner lining of the colon), diabetes and cancer. So far, there are only animal studies that support the use of turmeric in these conditions. There are insufficient clinical trials in humans at this time to make this a routine recommendation. But there are some preliminary human studies reported by the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in which turmeric may be beneficial.

For example, there is a benefit to using turmeric after bypass surgery to reduce the incidence of heart attacks that occur following surgery. Another very promising area is in controlling knee pain in patients who have osteoarthritis. This is the type of arthritis that happens when tissues at the edges of the joints have worn down and your doctor says, “You have bone on bone.” The pain relief from turmeric is expected to be almost similar to ibuprofen. Currently, curcumin is being used topically to reduce the skin irritation that happens after radiation treatment for breast cancer. Researchers are also looking into how to incorporate curcumin treatment in other cancers such as prostate and colon cancer. Early studies at the Mayo Clinic show that it may prevent or slow the spread of cancer and may even make chemotherapy more effective.

Benefits and side effects

Early studies indicate many promising benefits for using turmeric, and there is much anecdotal evidence of how well turmeric has worked for individual patients. Many of my patients have noticed an improvement in their joint pains, especially fingers and knees after taking this supplement regularly. Diabetic patients report an improvement in their blood sugar readings when they take turmeric consistently.

If you’re interested in adding turmeric into your diet to treat inflammation, reduce pain or as a preventative measure to disease, be aware of the potential side effects. Early studies show that patients with hormone sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer or uterine fibroids should use turmeric cautiously. In theory, curcumin may act like estrogen; however, research also shows that it could reduce the effects of estrogen. Turmeric could also lower testosterone levels and decrease sperm movement, which could lead to infertility. If you’re iron deficient, turmeric may also prevent iron absorption. Turmeric may slow blood clotting and cause more bleeding during and after surgery. (Be sure to stop all turmeric products two weeks before surgery.) If you’re a diabetic and on medications, turmeric may also decrease blood sugar; however, some diabetics use turmeric to lower their blood sugar.

Until we have more information about how turmeric behaves, use turmeric supplements with caution. Despite the promising benefits of this powerful herb, more studies are needed to understand how it can be used in conjunction with western medicine. In the meantime, if you’re in good general health, turmeric supplements taken in reasonable amounts is likely safe, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Turmeric has been used in cooking for centuries and is also considered safe by the NIH. I use turmeric in curries, marinades and even sautéed vegetables. I also add pepper to the turmeric, which helps improve its absorption in the body.

Rajina Ranadive, M.D., is a board certified internal medicine physician with the Annadel Medical Group. She is also the medical director of the Petaluma Post-Acute Rehab. She can be reached at (707) 763-0802.


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