Curcuma longa, or turmeric as it is more commonly known, has been used for over 2,500 years in India for its powerful healing properties. It was frequently used in folklore medicine to treat conditions such as skin diseases, digestive issues, rheumatic pains, coughs, and even to increase breast milk production. However, here in Canada, it is not the first herb people reach for to spice up their everyday cooking. Besides adding a yellowish colour to food, many people are not aware of what this herb can do, especially in terms of health benefits.
The active constituent of turmeric is known as curcumin, which is shown to have a wide range of therapeutic actions. First, it has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, which has proven useful in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. In several studies, curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects are shown to be comparable to the potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone, as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents such as Motrin. Unlike the drugs, which are associated with toxic side effects (ulcer formation, decreased white blood cell count, intestinal bleeding), curcumin is generally a safe herb without any toxicity when used in the recommended amounts.
Curcumin is also known for its antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Research has shown that curcumin can reduce the invasion and subsequent metastasis of cancer cells by inhibiting transcription factor NF-kB (nuclear factor -light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells), which is known to play a role in angiogenesis (the forming of new blood vessels in order for a cancerous tumour to grow and metastasize).
The relationship between antioxidants and cancer prevention has been extensively studied over the past decades. Curcumin’s role in cancer prevention is largely due to its antioxidant actions, which enable it to protect cells from free radical damage. Oxygen radicals and other types of reactive oxygen molecules have been experimentally shown to disrupt many functions in living cells, largely due to their ability to damage cellular DNA. It is currently thought that damage to cells by free radicals may lead to cancer, and studies have also shown that decreased levels of antioxidants are associated with an increased risk of developing cancer.
Another benefit of turmeric is that it can help prevent oxidation of cholesterol in the body, which means it can protect against cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that oxidized cholesterol is what damages blood vessel walls and contributes to the plaque formation that can lead to heart attack or stroke. Thus, by preventing oxidation of cholesterol, curcumin can reduce the progression of heart disease.
As well, many studies are now being done to determine the effect that turmeric may have on Alzheimer’s disease, and so far the results have been very positive.
The production of beta amyloid plaques is known to play a role in the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers have found that curcumin inhibits amyloid plaque formation and even dissolves amyloid fibrils more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. They also found that curcumin crosses the blood-brain barrier and prevents amyloid fragments from clumping together into plaques. Studies in mice have also found that curcumin may be able to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by interrupting the destruction of the myelin sheath that protects nerves in the body.
The health benefits of turmeric are numerous. Even though most studies used standardized extracts of curcumin, turmeric as a spice is still very beneficial, and will add an exotic touch to your meals.
COOKING WITH TURMERIC
Turmeric does not have to be used only in curries. Try adding it to some sautéed vegetables such as cauliflower, or mixing it into salad dressings to create a golden yellow hue. Keep in mind that turmeric is better absorbed when mixed with a little black pepper.
Turmeric tea has been used for hundreds of years and is very easy to make. Just bring 4 cups of water to a boil, reduce heat, add a teaspoon of ground turmeric, and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Then strain mixture into a mug, add some honey and lemon, and enjoy!
Contraindications: Turmeric should not be used by people with gallstones or bile obstruction. Though turmeric is often used by pregnant women, it is important to consult with your naturopathic doctor before doing so, as turmeric can be a uterine stimulant.
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