Food as Medicine

Turmeric: What You Need to Know

The use of turmeric dates back nearly 4,000 years to the Vedic culture in India, where it was used as a culinary spice and had some religious significance. It probably reached China by 700 ad, East Africa by 800 AD, West Africa by 1200 AD, and Jamaica in the 18th century.

The name turmeric derives from the Latin word terra merita (meritorious earth), referring to the color of ground turmeric, which resembles a mineral pigment. It is known as terre merite in French and simply as “yellow root” in many languages. In many cultures, its name is based on the Latin word curcuma.

Background

  • Turmeric, a plant in the ginger family, is native to Southeast Asia and is grown commercially in that region, primarily in India. Its rhizome (underground stem) is used as a culinary spice and traditional medicine.
  • Historically, turmeric was used in Ayurveda and other traditional Indian medical systems, as well as Eastern Asian medical systems such as traditional Chinese medicine. In India, it was traditionally used for disorders of the skin, upper respiratory tract, joints, and digestive system.
  • Today, turmeric is promoted as a dietary supplement for a variety of conditions, including arthritis, digestive disorders, respiratory infections, allergies, liver disease, depression, and many others.
  • Turmeric is a common spice and a major ingredient in curry powder. Curcumin is a major component of turmeric, and the activities of turmeric are commonly attributed to curcuminoids (curcumin and closely related substances). Curcumin gives turmeric its yellow color.
  • Turmeric dietary supplements are made from the dried rhizome and typically contain a mixture of curcuminoids. Turmeric is also made into a paste for skin conditions.

How Much Do We Know?

  • Much research has been done on substances from turmeric, but their health effects remain uncertain.

What Have We Learned?

  • Turmeric and curcumin have a variety of interesting biological activities, but they’re challenging to study because curcumin is unstable (it easily changes into other substances) and has low bioavailability (not much of it reaches the bloodstream) when it’s taken orally. In addition, curcumin products may differ in composition or contain more substances than expected, which makes the results of research on these products difficult to understand and compare. Because the actions of turmeric and its components in people are complex and not well understood, no clear conclusions have been reached about whether these substances have benefits for health conditions.
  • NCCIH is funding research to determine whether and how curcuminoids may be converted in bone tissue into substances that may have effects on bone diseases.

What Do We Know About Safety?

  • Turmeric and conventionally formulated curcumin products are probably safe when taken orally or applied to the skin in the recommended amounts.
  • Efforts have been made to develop curcumin products with increased bioavailability, and many modified products are already on the market. Improving bioavailability might lead to increases in harmful effects as well as desirable ones.
  • Turmeric may be unsafe for use during pregnancy in amounts greater than those commonly found in food. Little is known about whether it’s safe to use turmeric in amounts greater than those commonly found in food while breastfeeding.

Keep in Mind

  • Take charge of your health—talk with your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Together, you can make shared, well-informed decisions.

This story was originally published in the National Center for Complimentary and Integrated Health (NCCIH).

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