Used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, the healing powers of turmeric have now gained mainstream awareness. Turmeric and curcumin, the most active constituent of the spice, have been the subject of thousands of studies, revealing the following:
- Curcumin exhibits potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal activities .
- Curcumin acts as an immune modulator, conferring beneficial effects in arthritis, allergy, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes  and may be beneficial in preventing and/or treating over six hundred health conditions .
- Turmeric has been found to be comparable to fourteen various drugs and medications -without adverse side effects, even at doses up to 8,000 mg per day [4, 5, 6, 7] (approximately one tablespoon). For example, turmeric was found to be as effective as a particular type of cholesterol medication, corticosteroids (steroid medications), blood thinner, and even antidepressants such as Prozac .
Despite turmeric’s healthful reputation, few Westerners integrate this ‘Spice for Life’ into their diet beyond the occasional curry dish. Following are some tips, considerations and a recipe to bring turmeric into your natural pharmacy and pantry.
Curcumin or Turmeric?
Curcumin may get the media spotlight, but it is just 5% of turmeric’s weight and just one of its more than 300 phytochemicals, including various phenolic compounds, known as curcuminoids. Many studies prove the various curcuminoids work synergistically together and certain combinations of curcuminoids produce more biological action than any curcuminoid used alone . Not surprisingly, many practitioners recommend using whole turmeric for cooking as well as supplementation for health purposes. This reflects integrative medicine’s belief that whole plants are usually a better choice than isolates; a trust in ‘nature’s wisdom’.
A preference for whole turmeric may also be due to the well documented low bioavailability of curcumin. It doesn’t like to stick around. When consumed, most of curcumin goes directly into the gastrointestinal tract and is expelled into the intestinal wall. Then, the the liver rapidly metabolizes it, readying it for rapid elimination. As a result, an hour after consumption, very little remains in the bloodstream [5, 8].
In contrast, turmeric stays in the digestive tract much longer than curcumin alone. Further, the natural oils found in turmeric root and turmeric powder enhance curcumin’s bioavailability seven to eightfold in humans . The whole, may in fact, be greater than the sum of its parts. However, curcumin may have a more rapid and dramatic effect for certain therapeutic applications .
So, how can the low bioavailability of curcumin, as an isolate or as part of turmeric, be improved? A big answer is in your spice cabinet: black pepper. Piperine, the compound that gives pepper its pungent flavor, inhibits drug metabolism. Specifically, piperine inhibits the liver’s biotransformation of fat-soluble compounds into water-soluble compounds for excretion.
Research shows that just a quarter teaspoon of black pepper can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%! But, even a quarter teaspoon might be a challenge for some people’s palates. Fortunately, as little as 1/20th of a teaspoon of black pepper can significantly boost curcumin levels [11,12]. However, piperine should be used with caution by those on prescription medications. This same ability to inhibit curcumin metabolism, could also alter clearance of prescriptions drugs. Another way to improve bioavailability is to prepare curcumin or turmeric with fat, as is done in curries.
As is the case with so many herbs and spices, turmeric should be used with caution. Individuals with gallstones should only take turmeric under the direction of their doctor. And, because turmeric slows blood-clotting, it should not be taken by those with clotting disorders or before surgery. Also, since turmeric is included in Ayurvedic formulas for birth control, women trying to become pregnant or are pregnant should limit their consumption of the spice to the amount used in cooking. Finally, excessive use of turmeric should also be avoided in people with congestive heart failure.
TURMERIC ANTI-INFLAMMATION DRINK
This turmeric recipe creates a true tonic. Definitions of the term range from ‘a medicine that invigorates or strengthens’ to ‘anything invigorating physically, mentally, or morally’. Both are apt descriptions for this drink.
The recipe features a flavor profile which counteracts the bitterness of the turmeric, which many find off-putting. More importantly, it uses all three ways to get the most from the spice.
- Using the whole spice, turmeric
- Including black pepper to boost bioavailability
- The optional addition of coconut milk for fat-solubility.
With its bright color, dynamic blend of flavors and energizing botanicals, this turmeric drink can serve as a therapeutic tonic or a post-workout recovery drink. To use in lieu of typical turmeric supplement protocols, drink one 1/2 cup serving three times daily. Yield: 7-8 Servings
- 3 cups coconut water (or filtered water)
- 1/2 cup fresh ginger slices or 1/4 cup ginger juice (one 2-inch knob)
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice
- 6 fresh mint sprigs
- 1 tablespoon dried turmeric (or one 3-inch knob juiced or 3 tablespoons grated)
- 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/8th teaspoon sea salt
- 1/8th teaspoon black pepper (or cayenne)
- 2 teaspoon raw honey (optional)
- 1/4 cup full-fat organic coconut milk (optional)
This Turmeric Anti-Inflammation Drink recipe works with or without a juicer and with either fresh or powdered turmeric. A blender can also be used to process the roots with a small amount of the filtered or coconut water. Combine all the ingredients in a sealable, BPA-free 750 ml (at least 3 cups) container, such as a Nalgene bottle. Add more filtered water or coconut water (including the optional coconut milk) to the top and refrigerate overnight. When ready to drink, strain out the large particles and serve over ice.
A WORD ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS:
I am often asked for recommendations for turmeric supplements. I have not used turmeric supplements myself. So, I asked my functional medicine RD colleagues and they provided the following suggestions.
- Meriva from Thorne Research
- Longvida from Douglas Labs
- Also, look for products which include CurQfen as the active curcumin ingredient in both professional and retail products.
 Safety and anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin: a component of tumeric (Curcuma longa). J Altern Complement Med. 2003 Feb;9(1):161-8.
 “Spicing up” of the immune system by curcumin. J Clin Immunol. 2007 Jan;27(1):19-35. Epub 2007 Jan 9.
 600 Reasons Turmeric May Be the World’s Most Important Herb
 Curcumin: the Indian solid gold. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:1-75.
 Natural Products and Molecular Therapy, First International Conference. New York, NY: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1056, 2005.
 Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemoprotective agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anti-cancer Res. 2001; July-Aug 21:2895-2900.
 Is Turmeric As Effective As Fourteen Other Drugs? Sacred Plant’s Ingredient, Curcumin, Holds Key To Health Benefits? Medical Daily.
 Bioavailability of Curcumin: Problems and Promises Mol Pharmaceutics Vol. 4, NO. 6, 807-818
 Dietary turmeric potentially reduces the risk of cancer. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2011;12(12):3169-73.
 Turmeric Health Benefits: Have a Happy New Year With Turmeric. Andrew Weil, MD
 Why You Should Always Eat Pepper with Turmeric. Michael Greger, MD
 Biochemical Basis of Enhanced Drug Bioavailability by Peperine: Evidence that Peperine is a Potent Inhbitor of Drug Metabolism. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. Vol. 232, No. 1
Boosting the Bioavailability of Curcumin (Video) – Michael Greger, MD
Three Reasons to Eat Turmeric – Andrew Weil. MD
Turmeric Research Summary – Green Med Info
Recommended Brands of Turmeric – The Ethnoherbalist
Originally published on 11.25.14, revised on 9.18.15