The first time I tried adding turmeric to my tea, I couldn’t believe how yellow it was. It looked like the pee of a severely dehydrated person.
After seeing turmeric being added as a health booster in smoothies and tonics at my local health-food store starting a few years ago, and then as a main ingredient in several recipes for everything from cakes to cocktails recently, I started adding a liberal dash of the seasoning from the bottle on my spice rack to my teas in the morning. We all love looking for cure-alls in both our medicine and kitchen cabinets, and as far as health trends go, adding turmeric to my diet was easy to do–aside from a bit of a grit as it goes down and the saturated color I still find slightly off-putting. But we also tend to hyperbolize the health benefits of the dietary darling du jour, which is why, before hopping on the turmeric bandwagon entirely, I decided to separate the fad from the facts.
A native plant from India and part of the ginger root family, turmeric was discovered thousands of years ago and used first as a dyeing agent and later as a seasoning. A quick Google search returned over 17 million online articles extolling its abilities to do everything from reduce inflammation to combat cancer. To get to the root of this health trend, I reached out to both a registered dietitian nutritionist and a doctor of Ayurveda—a system of natural healing that originated in India millennia ago—to figure out just how good turmeric really is for you. While the consensus is that turmeric is a natural antioxidant that has the ability to do a body good, establishing just how good it is has created a gray area in the health industry that contains more than 50 shades.
Before turmeric worked its way into Western medicine, it was “used for the last 5,000 years in the ancient system of healing, Ayurveda,” says Vaidya Chauhan, an Ayurvedic doctor with degrees in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (G.A.M.S.) from the Dayanand Ayurvedic college in Jalandhar, Punjab and a Doctorate of Naturopathy from the Ministry of Ayurvedic and Naturopathy in New Delhi, India. “This herb is known as a queen of the kitchen in India.”
“It’s medicinal potential was documented in Sushrut Samhita, a canonical Ayurvedic text dating back to 250 BC. In Ayurveda, turmeric was used internally as a blood purifier and for so many diseases and also externally in the prevention and treatment of various types of acute as well as chronic diseases. In Ayurveda turmeric is known to promote immune system healthy digestive system, enhances brain function, balances the effects of skin flora, acts as an antioxidant.”
Dr. Chauhan works as a Ayurvedic consultant at Lucky Lotus yoga studio in Fort Greene. He says it’s a bioactive component in turmeric called curcumin that makes it so potent. “Curcumin is a rich source of bitter, astringent and pungent properties in special molecular structure which makes turmeric a treasure house of healing properties. In Ayurveda it is said that if one wants to enjoy a long life, then they should make it a habit to drink Golden Milk (8 ounces cow milk, 5 grams organic turmeric and 2-5 grams organic trikatu boiled for 5-10 minutes before drinking).”
You can also get the benefits of turmeric by adding the spice to smoothies, teas and curries, on top of vegetables or in breads he says.
“The turmeric can be used as a curative treatment and as a preventative measurement in various types of ailments: all kinds of osteoarthritis, different types of cancer, especially blood cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, dementia, skin problems such as psoriasis and eczema,” says Dr. Chauhan.
Here is where Eastern and Western medicines go their separate ways.
Cara Anselmo, a RDN here in NYC who specializes in plant-based diets and breast cancer, is not so quick to sing turmeric’s praises when it comes to cancer.
“It’s often touted as having ‘anti-cancer’ properties, but that’s such a nebulous phrase, and a really complex area, so it ends up sounding like a catch-phrase to me,” she says. “I would like to see more actual evidence for all of these possible benefits in real, in vivo, human trials.” (Most of the studies on turmeric at this point have been conducted on animals, mainly rodents, she says.)
Anselmo agrees that turmeric does have promising anti-inflammatory properties, and like Dr. Chauhan, she thinks the spice could be helpful in treating osteoarthritis, as well as certain gastrointestinal disorders and depression.
In terms of how to go about incorporating more turmeric into your diet, Anselmo says there is no golden rule when it comes to this golden root. She advocates for an everything-in-moderation mentality when it comes to diet and nutrition in general.
“I think pretty much all spices, herbs, and other plant foods have health benefits, and that choosing a variety of them is key,” she says. “One thing that is important about turmeric is that curcumin, one of the main bioactive components, is poorly absorbed in our GI systems. Interestingly, piperine, which is found in black pepper, is one compound that seems to enhance absorption. All the more reason to include a variety of spices and herbs in your curry. I do believe plant foods have synergistic effects in this way.”
Anselmo encourages people to add turmeric to pasta dishes, as a flavoring in rice and swirled in hummus, as well as on sautéed greens and healthy drinks. When it comes to throwing around terms like superfood–a word she would like to see retired–in conjunction with the seasoning (or any dietary supplement), her advice is to air on the side of caution.
“Due to the lack of regulation with dietary supplements, you never really know what you are getting,” she says. “It’s important to consider possible drug nutrient interactions. For instance, turmeric can decrease the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs and possibly potentiate the effects of others. Not something you want to play around with. It also has blood thinning effects, so if taken prior to surgery, or in someone who also takes other anticoagulants like aspirin or fish oil or garlic extract, it could be a problem.”
Her best advice?
“I am a fan of diversifying one’s diet rather than singling out a given food or nutrient as the end all and be all.”