The familiar squiggle of bright yellow mustard that runs down a ballpark frank gets its color from turmeric, a bright yellow spice and cousin of ginger used in many Indian dishes. But it's not just color that makes this spice shine: Turmeric has long been used for everything from curing digestive problems to relieving pain Herbal medicines for the management of irritable bowel syndrome: a comprehensive review. Rahimi, R., Abdollahi, M. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2012; 18(7): 589-600..
Root It and Boot It — Why It’s Super
Turmeric, which is made from the root of the curcuma longa plant, gets its super powers from an antioxidant called curcumin. (No, it's not related to cumin!) Traditional Indian medicine — Ayurveda (that's sanskrit for "science of life") — has used the spice for its medicinal powers for thousands of years to cure inflammation-based conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disorders to arthritis and tendonitis Herbal medicines for the management of irritable bowel syndrome: a comprehensive review. Rahimi, R., Abdollahi, M. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2012; 18(7): 589-600.. Chronic inflammation (no real flames involved, thankfully) is responsible for many serious illnesses, including heart disease and some cancers, so adding anti-inflammatory foods (like turmeric!) can help relieve the pain, swelling, and redness that may come with inflammation Curcuma as a functional food in the control of cancer and inflammation. Schaffer, M., Schaffer, P.M., Zidan, J., et. al. Institute of Oncology, Ziv Medical Center, Faculty of Medicine, Zefat, Israel. Journal of Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 2011; 14(6): 588-97.. Plus, it may help fight infections and help treat digestive problems Herbal medicines for the management of irritable bowel syndrome: a comprehensive review. Rahimi, R., Abdollahi, M. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2012; 18(7): 589-600..
Even more modern studies have found this magical compound can prevent the growth of cancer cells by decreasing swelling and inflammation Curcuma as a functional food in the control of cancer and inflammation. Schaffer, M., Schaffer, P.M., Zidan, J., et. al. Institute of Oncology, Ziv Medical Center, Faculty of Medicine, Zefat, Israel. Journal of Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 2011; 14(6): 588-97. Anticancer potential of curcumin: preclinical and clinical studies. Aggarwal, B.B., Kumar, A., Bharti, A.C. Cytokine Research Section, Department of Bioimmunotherapy, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas. Journal of Anticancer Research, 2003; 23(1A): 363-98. Curcumin suppresses growth and chemoresistance of human glioblastoma cells via AP-1 and NFkappaB transcription factors. Dhandapani, K.M., Mahesh, V.B., Brann, D.W. Department of Neurosurgery, Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Georgia. Journal of Neurochemistry, 2007; 102(2): 522-38.. Some research suggests turmeric's antioxidant powers may also help slow cancer growth and, for those already suffering, make chemotherapy more effective and help protect the body's healthy cells from radiation therapy damage Targeting pioneering factor and hormone receptor cooperative pathways to suppress tumor progression. Shah, S., Prasad, S., Kundsen, K.E. Department of Cancer Biology, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA. Cancer Research, 2012 Mar 1;72(5):1248-59. Effects of phytochemicals on ionization radiation-mediated carcinogenesis and cancer Therapy. Nambiar, D., Rajamani, P., Singh, R.P. Cancer Biology Laboratory, School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Journal of Mutation Research, 2011; 728(3): 139-57.. Aside from its antioxidants, tumeric's anti-estrogen compounds can help fight the growth of breast tissue tumors thought to be caused by estrogenic compounds found in food, pesticides, and other chemicals The inhibition of the estrogenic effects of pesticides and environmental chemicals by curcumin and isoflavonoids. Verma, S.P., Goldin, B.R., Lin, P.S. Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts. Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, 1998; 106(12): 807-12.. But for the time being, more research is needed to actually confirm any of these benefits.
While the spice is typically used in its powder form, turmeric oil has some benefits of its own, working as an effective antifungal Antifungal activity of Curcuma longa grown in Thailand. Wuthi-udomlert, M., Grisanapan, W., Luanratana, O., et. al. Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 2000; 31(1): 178-82.. And some holistic medicine advocates believe tumeric oil (sold in health food stores) can also help relieve anxiety and stress through aromatherapy and rev up sex drive when added to food. (Time to get things heated up!).
Mellow Yellow — Your Action Plan
In its bright yellow powder form, turmeric transfers that vibrant yellow tone to the foods it flavors. With an earthy taste (but not super spicy), turmeric adds a tang to curries and bean and rice dishes. But besides dinnertime, it can also be used as a natural dye for Easter eggs or baked goods. Pair it with black pepper to pump up curcumin’s antioxidant benefits Piperine as an adjuvant increases the efficacy of curcumin in mitigating benzo(a)pyrene toxicity. Sehgal, A., Kumar, M., Jain, M., et. al. Penjab University, Chandigarh, India. Journal of Human and Experimental Toxicology, 2011.. If the plain yellow stuff is nowhere to be found, try curry powder — a blend of turmeric and other Indian spices like coriander, fenugreek (we'd never heard of it either), and cumin — as a stand-in.
And heat doesn't break curcumin down, which means it retains its beneficial effects after it hits the skillet. Even better news, heating curcumin actually increases its bioavailability (or the body's ability to absorb it) Improving the solubility and pharmacological efficacy of curcumin by heat treatment. Kurien, B.T., Singh, A., Matsumoto, H., et al. Arthritis and immunology Program, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Assay and Drug Development Technologies, 2007; 5(4): 567-76..
Though it can take the heat, turmeric can be used out of the kitchen. Apply a pinch to minor cuts to help stop the bleeding and to help disinfect. Or make a mask out of the powder, some lemon juice, and honey for clear skin. Turmeric paste, a mixture of powder and water, can also take care of pesky pimples Formulation and comparative evaluation of poly herbal anti-acne face wash gels. Rasheed, A., Avinash Kumar Reddy, G., Mohanalakshmi, S., et. al. Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Sree Vidyanikethan College of Pharmacy, Andhra Pradesh, India. Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology, 2011; 49(8); 771-4..
See Also: Greatist's Full Collection of Superfoods!
Our Favorite Turmeric Recipes from Around the Web:
Breakfast: Breakfast Porridge with Turmeric and Ginger
Lunch: Tandoori Tofu
Side Dish: Oven Roasted Cauliflower with Turmeric and Ginger
Appetizer: Spanish Style Shrimp with Yellow Rice
Dinner: Caribbean Turkey Burgers