If you’ve ever eaten chicken curry or cooked with curry powder, you’ve likely tasted ground turmeric root or rhizome, a slightly bitter and nutritious spice that doubles as a free radical scavenging herb with active compounds and antioxidant properties that have long been praised in the natural health world.
What is Turmeric Root?
Turmeric, also known as Curcuma longa, is a perennial plant in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family that can grow up to 6 feet high and is native to Southeast Asia. The Zingiberaceae family includes flowering plants, mostly aromatic perennial herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, and cardamom, which have tuberous rhizomes (underground stems with roots and nodes) that are often used to color condiments, used as a spice in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, used in textile dyes, used in religious ceremonies, or used medicinally. (1)
Turmeric Root vs. Rhizome
The Curcuma longa plant itself has large green leaves, trumpet-shaped, yellow flowers, and yellowish-brown rhizomes. It is also sometimes referred to as Indian saffron, or yellow root. The word “turmeric” comes from the Latin word “terra merita” (meaning meritorious earth), referring to its unique pigment. In Sanskrit, turmeric has 53 different names, including “haldi,” a word derived from the northern Indian Sanskrit word “haridra.” According to Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects (2nd edition), India produces nearly all of the world’s turmeric crop and consumes 80% of it. (2)
Turmeric root and rhizome are the most commonly used parts of the plant for food or medicine. Those parts of the plant can be eaten raw, or cleaned, cured, boiled, dried, and ground into a fine powder for cooking or for use in nutritional supplements.
Turmeric rhizome is the thick orange horizontal stem of the plant, found underground in a cluster with thin roots shooting out from underneath its various nodes. The rhizome is the food storage center of the plant, which is packed with nutrients and used to grow new plants. The root system provides the plant with water, nutrients, and a sturdy attachment to the soil. Turmeric root can also be used for its essential nutrients and minerals in dietary supplements. (3)
Not only is it a delicious spice, but turmeric root and rhizome are popular ingredients in herbal supplements meant to support optimal health.
How It Works
The turmeric root and rhizome contain nutrients and bioactive compounds that are believed to support optimal health. According to Herbal Medicine, the main component of turmeric root is a volatile oil, containing turmerone, in addition to nutritional pigments called curcuminoids.
Curcuminoids are fat-soluble, biologically active pigments found in turmeric. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane), the most bioactive type of curcuminoid, is a bright yellow-orange compound with antioxidant properties. Other curcuminoids found in turmeric include demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. (4)
Curcuminoids are also polyphenols. Polyphenols are active substances found in many medicinal plants. These micronutrients have antioxidant properties that play a role in helping to prevent various diseases associated with oxidative stress by supporting the activity of enzymes and cell receptors. Polyphenols are found naturally in the diet or consumed through dietary supplementation. Their potential health benefits are based on the amount consumed and their bioavailability. (5)
The therapeutic properties of curcumin, specifically, are vast. Curcumin’s antioxidant properties help protect the healthy development of cells and tissues during the normal aging process and help support a healthy immune system. Curcumin also helps maintain histamine levels already in the normal range, promotes production of cortisone by the adrenal glands, protects the liver from toxins, promotes a healthy response to internal challenges (especially in the cardiovascular system), and slows platelets from forming blood clots, which promotes healthy blood circulation. Curcumin is also relied upon for its supportive response to occasional pain related to joint swelling and irritation, allowing for temporary ease of mobility and joint comfort during daily tasks and physical activity. (6)
Brief History of Turmeric
Historically, turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, since around 500 BC. Ayurveda is a system of holistic medicine developed by the sages of India long before modern medicine. It focuses on the science of life (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge) and relies on mainly plant-based formulations. Its two main principles are honoring the connection between the mind and body (and keeping them balanced through meditation and self-awareness), and the belief that the mind has the power to heal and transform the body. (7)
Ayurveda values consuming a full spectrum of foods that resemble the colors of the rainbow to get diverse nutrients the body need to function optimally. It also suggests getting restful sleep, living in tune with nature, and living in tune with your body through positive choices and physical fitness.
In the Sushruta Samhita (Suśruta's Compendium, an ancient Ayurvedic medical treatise written in Sanskrit, dating back to 600 BC, Suśruta, the “Father of Plastic Surgery,” in India, describes medicinal plants and recommends turmeric ointment to help the body recover after food poisoning. It is also used to support respiratory health, purify blood, support healthy-looking skin, promote healthy digestion, temporarily relieve joint pain, and much more. (8, 9)
In Hindu spiritualism, turmeric has a sacred connection to the sun, and its bright yellow-orange color plays an important role in the coloring of religious robes. During traditional Hindu weddings, a string necklace (called a mangala sutra) is dyed yellow with turmeric paste and tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. (10)
According to Herbal Medicine, turmeric most likely reached China by 700 AD (where it was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine), East Africa by 800 AD, and West Africa by 1200 AD. In 1280, Marco Polo described turmeric as exhibiting similar qualities to that of saffron. South Asian countries use it to cleanse wounds and support skin healing. In Pakistan, it is used for gastrointestinal support. (11)
In Biblical times, turmeric root and rhizome were used in perfume and as a spice. In the Middle Ages, the plant was called Indian saffron due to its orange-yellow color. (12)
As a medicinal herb, turmeric has been used to support breast milk production, respiratory health, normal digestion, liver health, skin health, healthy vision, and temporary pain relief. Native tribes in the Pacific even used turmeric dust during ceremonial dances and to support regular bowel movements and healthy-looking skin. (13)
Today, turmeric is a common spice and a major ingredient in curry powder, alongside cumin and chili powder. In addition, the primary active ingredients in turmeric, curcuminoids, are yellow and used to color foods such as mustard, butter, and cheese, as well as some cosmetics.
Turmeric is also a popular ingredient in dietary supplements to support many health issues. It is used as an herbal supplement in many different forms, including liquid extracts, herbal teas, vegetable-based capsules, softgels, tablets, tinctures, powdered drink mixes, and more. (14)
Potential Health Benefits of Turmeric
The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) reports about studies that have taken place on the potential health benefits of various forms of turmeric. Turmeric root and the rhizome are most commonly parts of the plant to be used medicinally. The consensus seems to be that turmeric supplementation may support the health of the following bodily systems: (15)
- Blood Circulation
- Cellular, Skin, and Tissue
- Digestive System
- Immune System
- Respiratory System
Healthy Blood Circulation
The body normally forms blood clots to stop wounds from bleeding. Sometimes blood clots can also be caused by poor diet and poor health, which clogs the arteries and may put people at risk for a stroke or a heart attack. Anticoagulants (also called “blood thinners,” even though they don't actually make the blood thinner) help to prevent blood clots, supporting blood circulation. (16)
It is believed that curcumin may serve as a natural anticoagulant by hindering platelets from forming blood clots. One study reported that the daily consumption of curcumin and its derivative, bisdemethoxycurcumin (BDMC), helped to maintain anticoagulant status by interrupting the process involved in the formation of blood clots. (17)
Curcumin, the most active antioxidant in turmeric root, has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, although there is some confusion as to whether oral supplements or injections work best for this purpose. (18)
Curcumin has also been linked to supporting brain function in a study on aging rats, which found that curcumin supplementation enhanced memory and neuroprotective properties. However, human clinical studies are needed to understand this concept. (19)
Another study suggests that curcumin may help prevent a buildup of protein tangles called Amyloid plaques, which may contribute to age-related brain diseases. (20)
Cellular, Skin, Tissue, and Immune System Health
Many of curcumin’s potential health benefits are attributed to its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons that can damage DNA, cells, and tissues in the body.
Even though, according to the Pharmacognosy Review, “a balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for proper physiological function, if free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them, a condition known as oxidative stress ensues. … [But] antioxidants can assist in coping with this oxidative stress.” (21)
Oxidative stress may be caused by exposure to environmental toxins, pollution, a poor diet, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and other factors, including inflammatory processes in the body. Oxidative stress and chronic inflammation are believed to reduce cellular antioxidant capacity and are deemed a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. (22)
Oxidative stress in tissue cells may trigger an inflammatory response by the NF-κB nuclear signaling pathway. (23) It is believed that curcumin may inhibit the molecules known to play major roles in inflammation, including NF-κB, by inhibiting their activation. (24)
Curcumin has also been shown to inhibit an inflammatory response from cytokines, chemokines, adhesion molecules, growth factors, and enzymes, while also promoting the activity of phase II detoxification enzymes. (25)
According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, “Curcumin has been shown to block many reactions in which NF-κB plays a major role. … The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of curcumin have been well documented. How these inhibitory responses are modulated by curcumin is not understood.” (26)
While the specifics are complex, it is believed that curcumin from turmeric helps to block free radicals directly, and then stimulates the body's own antioxidant enzyme mechanisms to support a healthy immune system by supporting glutamate-cysteine ligase (GCL), the rate-limiting enzyme in the synthesis of glutathione, an antioxidant that helps cells adapt to stress. (27)
A few studies suggest that curcumin may inhibit the growth of tumors in laboratory rats. (28, 29) A different study published in the Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences found that turmeric root powder and mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS) are satisfactory alternatives to antibiotics in broiler chicken feed (the food given to chickens bred for human consumption). (30)
When it comes to human trials, a clinical study on 44 male smokers with lesions in the colon found that the subjects who took 4 grams of curcumin per day for 30 days reduced their number of lesions by 40%. (31)
Digestive System Health
According to Herbal Medicine, turmeric root can be incorporated into meals with rice and beans to support digestion without unwanted side effects such as gas or bloating. It is also considered a cholagogue, stimulating bile production to support the body’s ability to digest fats.
There is some evidence that orally administered curcumin may even help protect intestinal mucosa in the gastrointestinal tract against oxidative DNA damage. However, due to its limited oral bioavailability, curcumin concentrations in plasma or tissue are likely to be much lower than other fat-soluble antioxidants, such as vitamin E. (32)
As the human body ages, it has less function in its vascular endothelium (the lining of blood vessels). When this lining is compromised, it may lead to an inability to regulate blood pressure and increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. Curcumin is believed to support healthy function of the vascular endothelium, which could support heart health.
A study on postmenopausal women found that oral curcumin supplementation, in conjunction with an exercise regimen, helped to improve vascular endothelium function. (33) Another study found that for patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, taking 4 grams of curcumin per day before and after surgery gave the group a 65% decreased risk of experiencing a heart attack. (34)
In a study of patients with an autoimmune disease causing chronic inflammation of the joints and other areas of the body, patients receiving oral supplementation of curcumin (500 mg) and diclofenac sodium (50 mg) – alone or in a combination – reported reduction in joint tenderness and swelling. (35)
Another clinical study on the bioavailability of curcuminoids investigated the effects of a patented formulation, BCM-95®CG (Biocurcumax™) – a highly-absorbent, synergistic blend of curcumin and turmeric essential oil derived from 100% pure turmeric (with no additional ingredients or cofactors) – on a human volunteer group. The results of the study indicated that the bioavailability of BCM-95®CG was 6.93 higher than normal curcumin formulas, meaning that it was absorbed earlier and retained longer in the body, offering support for temporary pain relief. (36)
Terry Naturally is a popular and trusted brand that produces CuraMed pain reliever products containing BCM-95. You can find the CuraMed product line on Natural Healthy Concepts. (37)
Turmeric can also be used as a poultice (cloth with herbs soaked in hot water) for use as a topical compress to help relieve joint pain or muscle strains.
In a controlled study of 60 patients with symptoms of depression, 1 gram of daily curcumin supplementation led to positive improvements in mood. (38)
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of healthy adults with a mean age of 68.5 years investigated if oral curcumin supplementation could improve their ability to cope with mental stress. Results showed a significant reduction in mental fatigue and higher levels of calmness and positive mood. (39)
These results may be attributed to curcumin supporting healthy function of the “feel good” brain neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. (40) For instance, in a study on mice, curcumin produced more serotonin in both the frontal cortex and hippocampus. (41)
In a separate double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 70 women with a variety of physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms during their menstrual cycle, taking 0.2 g of curcumin for 10 days for three consecutive menstrual cycles significantly reduced the severity of their symptoms. (42)
Inhalation of turmeric volatile oil has been found to support respiratory tract health by relieving symptoms such as coughing and excess sputum (saliva and mucus in the respiratory tract as a result of infection) – also sometimes called phlegm. (43)
Turmeric Dosage Recommendations for Adults*
- Cut root: 1.5 to 3 g per day
- Dried, powdered root: 1 to 3 g per day
- Standardized powder (curcumin): 400 to 600 mg, 3 times per day
- Fluid extract (1:1) 30 to 90 drops a day
- Tincture (1:2): 15 to 30 drops, 4 times per day
- *According to the UMMC
Turmeric supplements have not been studied in children, so there is no recommended pediatric dose.
The turmeric plant usually only contains about 3% curcumin content, so to get the recommended daily dosage of curcumin, try taking a dietary supplement of turmeric root and rhizome that contains significant amounts of curcumin.
How to Shop for Turmeric
Curcumin has a relatively low bioavailability, which means it is poorly absorbed and rapidly metabolized and eliminated by the body, so it is generally regarded as safe. Be sure to look for supplements with bioperine (also called piperine), which supports the absorption (bioavailability) of curcumin by 2,000%. Or, shop for products with BCM-95, a 100% pure formula with a bioavailability 6.93 higher than normal curcumin formulas.
You can shop for turmeric and curcumin supplements in most health food or supplement stores, including Natural Healthy Concepts. However, you should always take herbal supplements with care. Turmeric may not be safe for pregnant women or people taking certain medications. Talk to your healthcare provider before introducing turmeric into your diet.