Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

What the heck is turmeric?

3/14/2022 by Denise Dupras, M.D., Ph.D.


You may have it in your spice rack or enjoy it in some of your favorite meals. But can turmeric, an ancient golden-yellow spice, be good for you? 

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 and anti-inflammatory. It is widely promoted to treat joint pain and improve mobility, and it's reported to have benefits for digestion, depression, immunity, heart disease, memory and cognition. Turmeric is available in capsules, tablets, powder, softgels and gummies. 

The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved turmeric in any form for any use. As a dietary supplement, the potency or amount of turmeric in any product cannot be guaranteed, unless it's been verified by U.S. Pharmacopeia. If it has been verified by U.S. Pharmacopeia, this will appear on the label. 

Does turmeric work?

Limited data in small studies show its effectiveness in providing some improvement in joint pain, anxiety and depression, and decreasing triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein, or LDL or "bad," cholesterol. 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 too early to declare turmeric a wonder drug. That's because limited data support the claimed health benefits of turmeric. Research continues to explore what if any benefits can be gained from turmeric or curcumin. Also, turmeric comes with clear risks — 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 professional 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:

Denise Dupras, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Community Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Care. She completed her medical and doctoral degrees at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, and her residency in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.