Is turmeric as wonderful as it seems? Ask Science looks at the science behind turmeric's active ingredient: curcumin. Click to listen or read.
A few days ago, a friend gushed about the amazing curative properties of turmeric.
If you’ve ever eaten Indian cuisine, you’ve most likely eaten turmeric. It's a yellowish-brown spice that comes from (not surprisingly) the turmeric plant - more precisely from the rhizome of the turmeric plant, the thick root-like portion of the stem that remains underground.
But did you know that there are scientists all over the world researching the curative powers of turmeric? This isn’t just some hokey folk medicine, this is like, real science and stuff. But before you start pouring teaspoonfuls of turmeric into your morning smoothie, you might want to hear a little more about the current state of research.
In the Beginning...
Turmeric has been used in India and China for a long time for various illnesses, mostly for stomach and liver problems, as well as an antiseptic. Nobody is one hundred percent sure what the active ingredient in turmeric is, but most scientists believe it is curcumin, a type of polyphenol.
Before you turn your nose up at yet another plant-derived folk medicine being touted as a “wonder drug,” remember the history of aspirin, which The New York Times has called the 2,000-year-old wonder drug. When it was first discovered, aspirin was originally derived from the bark of a willow tree before German scientists managed to synthesize it in the lab.
But What Does it Do?
One of the oldest uses of turmeric was in the treatment of liver disease. Recent studies on rats have shown that curcumin does in fact help prevent liver injury and in some cases can even reverse liver damage.
Another promising aspect of curcumin is in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, scientists in the UCLA department of neurology are carrying out a clinical trial to see how well curcumin helps to prevent Alzheimer’s. Curcumin has also been shown to help prevent depression in mice.
Curcumin (when combined with a compound from olive oil) has even been shown to help combat some forms of arthritis in guinea pigs.