What the heck is turmeric?
3/2/2020 by Denise Dupras, MD
You may have it in your spice rack or enjoy it in South Asian meals. But can turmeric, an ancient golden-yellow spice, be good for you? These FAQs can answer some of your questions about turmeric's health benefits.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is the root of a plant similar to ginger. It's been used in cooking since 600 B.C. for its color and flavor and as an ingredient in curries and mustard. But it's also long been used for medicinal purposes. Turmeric naturally contains curcumin, which has been found to be an antioxidant, as well as an anti-inflammatory.
Turmeric is widely promoted for relief of joint pain and mobility and also reported to have benefits for digestion, depression, immunity, heart disease, memory and cognition. It's available in multiple forms: capsules, tablets, powder, softgels and gummies.
Turmeric isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA in any form for any use). As a dietary supplement, there's no guarantee of the potency or amount of turmeric in any product, unless it's been verified by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), which will appear on the label.
Does it work?
There's limited data in small studies showing it's effective in providing some improvement in joint pain, anxiety, depression, and decreases in triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides. Researchers are delving into the effect of curcumin on cancer because of its anti-inflammatory properties; other areas of research are diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease.
What are the risks?
Turmeric can cause nausea and diarrhea in higher doses and prevent absorption of iron, leading to anemia. It also increases the risk of bleeding. Curcumin interacts with enzymes important in drug metabolism and can interact with drugs you're taking. Some products add black pepper to improve absorption, which contains another compound that interferes with metabolism.
What's the bottom line?
It's way too early to declare turmeric a wonder drug.
- There's very limited data supporting the extensive claims of health benefits of turmeric.
- Research continues to explore what, if any, benefits can be gained from turmeric or curcumin.
- There are clear risks, and some serious, including unintended drug interactions.
Since it's unclear how turmeric may react with medications and affect existing conditions, be sure to talk with your health care provider before consuming turmeric to alleviate a health problem or disease.
If you'd like more information on turmeric, you can check out these articles and a video from Mayo Clinic:
- Home Remedies: Are there health benefits of turmeric?
- Mayo Clinic Q and A: Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties may relieve arthritis pain
- Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
- Mayo Clinic Minute: Are there health benefits to taking turmeric?
Dr. Denise Dupras is a general internist in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson's Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). She completed her MD-PhD at Mayo Medical School and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.