You might call it yellow journalism! Turmeric, the saffron-colored spice most of us know through curries and other Asian foods, is all over the news. It’s claimed to be a treatment for conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease to depression. It’s been touted as a painkiller, and you can even add it to your face cream for a golden glow.
What should you believe about this subtropical perennial of the ginger family? According to Pat Bassett, owner of Bassett Health Foods, people are interested: “It’s a wonderful product because it’s a food and people relate to it. A lot of people come in [to buy it] because they’ve heard from friends and relatives how well it works.”
The professional medical field has taken note. The potential of turmeric is a subject familiar to Mounir Elkhatib MD, a Toledo internal medicine specialist, who notes, turmeric has a long pedigree in Asian medicine.
“In India in particular, it’s used to treat gastrointestinal problems, skin cancer and especially arthritis.” he says. Evidence seems strong for the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric, and Dr. Elkhatib is one of many doctors who combine turmeric with prescription drugs to treat certain conditions.
“I’ve had some wonderful results using turmeric to treat Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition causing inflammation of the thyroid,” he says.
Western medical research on turmeric is focused on curcumin, an active substance within the plant’s chemistry. Although research is in its infancy, scientists are exploring whether curcumin might help fight two much-feared diseases: cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Elkhatib explains: “Early laboratory evidence seems to show that curcumin can inhibit cancer cell growth. As well, the substance may increase apoptosis: the spontaneous cell death of cancer cells.”
If borne out by more studies, he says, curcumin might eventually be accepted as a supportive therapy for some forms of cancer, either in treating active cases or preventing the disease.
Asian diet staple
As for Alzheimer’s, the low incidence of the disease in India has been noted by researchers. Among the variables in lifestyles, turmeric stands out, raising the idea that daily consumption is preventive. Too early to say for certain, Dr. Elkhatib says, “And remember, in Asia, turmeric is a daily food, with small doses every day over a lifetime.”
So is it time to add turmeric to your diet? Online medical sites note that turmeric extract is generally considered safe when used according to directions. Most healthy adults can take 400 to 600 mg of extract three times per day or as directed on the product label.
Don’t expect instant results, Bassett says. “It’s not a drug. You need to load your body, which can take from one day to a week, but gradually the inflammation is not there.
“And don’t run out, otherwise you’ll need to load your body again.”
Dr. Elkhatib offers some cautions. “Turmeric is a natural substance, but natural does not always mean safe,” he says.
“Remember that there are biological ingredients capable of interfering with prescription medications. So it’s very important to tell your physician what you are doing. Otherwise you could undermine his or her work.”