Long a mainstay of South Asian cooking, turmeric adds zing to curries and other dishes. But it has also been used in Eastern cultures for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. More recently, turmeric has caught the attention of Western researchers who have been studying the herb and its potential health benefits.
“One thing is pretty clear, turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory,” says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., director of research, Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine. And because it appears to help reduce chronic inflammation in the body, it may have the potential to mitigate a range of conditions, from autoimmune diseases to arthritis and possibly even some types of cancer.
Studies have shown that turmeric also has strong antioxidant effects. “Oxidative stress is very linked to inflammation,” D’Adamo says. And while it’s hard to say which comes first — the oxidative stress or the inflammation — turmeric may help alleviate both.
It’s important to note that most studies of the herb actually involve high doses of curcumin extract, a substance that is found in turmeric. “It’s not feasible for anyone to consume the 8 to 10 grams of turmeric that would give you the equivalent amounts of curcumin extract used in research,” says D’Adamo. But the good news is that you don’t necessarily need to. “There are definitely some health promoting effects at the amounts used in normal cooking,” he says, meaning about a gram or so (equivalent to 1/5 of teaspoon) a day.
How to use it? Curries are the obvious choice, not only because the flavor of turmeric enhances the dish, but also because the other ingredients can actually boost the health benefits of the herb. “Curcumin is fat-soluble, so when it’s eaten with a source of fat, such as coconut milk, the body absorbs it better,” D’Adamo says. And while you’re at the spice rack, consider sprinkling some black pepper into the pot as well. The two spices apparently have a synergistic effect. According to D’Adamo, “black pepper has been shown to increase the absorption of curcumin by 2,000 percent.”