What spice has been on earth for about 4,000 years and is used in medicine, food and religious ceremonies? It’s turmeric. Throughout time, it has been used as a salve, pungent flavoring, and treasured gift. In ancient medicine and still today, turmeric may offer health benefits. Let’s break down the facts about this intriguing herb.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric, a plant related to ginger, is a major component in curry powder and other South Asian cuisine. It grows as a root, which can be dried and ground into a powder which has a distinctive yellow color. It is also called Indian saffron and jiang huang.
In addition to a spice for cooking, turmeric can be found as a dietary or herbal supplement. It is also sometimes used in beauty products, sunscreen and other health-related products.
Does turmeric offer any health benefits?
Turmeric contains curcuminoids. Curcuminoids are polypehnols, a type of phytochemical. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring plant chemicals which may influence chemical processes inside the body in helpful ways. Curcumin, a type of curcuminoid, is the subject of most turmeric research.
Studies suggest that turmeric may reduce inflammation and act as an antioxidant which could be helpful in the prevention and management of some diseases such as arthritis.
Turmeric is also being studied for anti-cancer properties. Turmeric is being studied for prevention and/or treatment of prostate, colon, stomach, pancreatic, and skin cancers. Turmeric is also being investigated as a way to decrease the side effects of radiation therapy.
Most of the research done on turmeric and cancer consist of lab or animal studies. Research in humans is limited to a few, small clinical trials. More research is needed to understand the risks and benefits of turmeric as related to cancer. Researchers have not determined an appropriate dose or method of administration for turmeric. Some research suggests that turmeric may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs so it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking turmeric or any other supplements.
Is turmeric safe for cancer patients?
As a spice, turmeric is generally safe for use in cooking in small quantities. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) includes turmeric in the list of spices that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
As a dietary or herbal supplement, turmeric in larger quantities may not be safe. Turmeric can inhibit the action of some chemotherapy drugs including camptothecin, mechlorethamine, doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide.
Do not take turmeric if you are taking blood thinners such as warfarin as turmeric may increase the risk of bleeding.
Some people taking turmeric supplements have reported digestive issues such as diarrhea, nausea and discomfort. Turmeric supplements may also increase the risk of kidney stones.
What’s the bottom line?
As a spice, turmeric can add aromatic flavors and golden yellow hues to dishes when cooking. The use of turmeric is already widespread in Indian and Asian cuisine. It’s used in curries, side dishes, teas, rice and even some desserts.
More research is needed to understand the potential health benefits of turmeric for people with cancer. Supplements are not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. Some supplements may be unsafe for people in cancer treatment. Turmeric is not a substitute for cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Talk to your doctor and registered dietitian about your nutritional needs during cancer treatment and before taking any supplements, including turmeric. Supplements may interfere with other medications.
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American Institute of Cancer Research. The Spices of Cancer Prevention. AICR’s Cancer Research Update. August 21, 2013.
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National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Turmeric. Published September 2016. Updated November 27. 2018.
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U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Updated September 6, 2019.
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