3 Ways Turmeric Might Help Your Health — And One Way It Definitely Can't

If you haven't gotten on the turmeric bandwagon yet, it's about time. The warm, bright orange spice has been traditionally used in India's Ayurvedic medicine system for centuries, but recently, it's become more common in recipes in the United States and beyond. The active ingredient in turmeric is a chemical called curcumin, and science has increasingly showed that curcumin has some serious health benefits. According to a review of science in 2007, curcumin can do a ton of things for your health; it's been shown to be an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal substance, and has some seriously interesting benefits aside from that, too.

But, as with all supplements and adaptogens, it's important to realize that just because an active chemical in a food has good effects, that doesn't mean that eating loads of it will help you be healthier. The chemical itself may do good work, but it's not a given that it will be absorbed into the digestive system in a useful way, or that other aspects of a person's lifestyle might adversely affect them. Curcumin is a very interesting substance and turmeric has a lot of it to recommend it — but that isn't the end of the story.

It Can Help Your Mood

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When curcumin is isolated from turmeric, it can be consumed in supplement form — and when it comes to mood, it seems that those supplements could be a pretty good bet, provided you're not on any other forms of anti-depressant or mood-altering medication. A study of elderly adults in 2018 found that taking twice-daily supplement of curcumin, marketed as Theracurmin, reduced the amount of plaque build-up in their brains and improved their memory, attention and mood.

It's not really clear why this is, but scientists think it may be because curcumin is anti-inflammatory, or because it might clear away some of the "amyloid" plaque on the brain, which is one of the major causes of dementia and Alzheimer's. It's not clear whether curcumin would work on young adults, but it's worth keeping in mind that as you get older, turmeric-derived supplements could help you stay sharp and happy.

It Can Boost Brain Regeneration

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There's another substance in turmeric that's proved very interesting to scientists: aromatic turmerone. In turmeric, turmerones help curcumin deliver its excellent effects, but scientists often just use curcumin on its own in tests. But a 2014 study found that aromatic turmerone, on its own, increased neural stem cell production in rats, both when they were in the womb and when they were born.

This matters because neural stem cells are the force behind the brain's ability to produce new cells, and they mean the brain can "regenerate" and heal after injury. And doses of the aromatic turmerone also increased the size of various brain regions in the rats, including their hippocampus. It's not clear if this happens in people who eat turmeric regularly, but it's pretty cool.

It Can Reduce The Size Of A Stroke

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A study in 2008 found something rather perplexing but good: in patients who are physically experiencing a stroke, a dose of curcumin actually reduces the size of the blood clot itself, reducing symptoms and lowering the need for surgery to remove it. And research in 2017 showed that not only does curcumin seem to lower the risk of stroke overall, it also helps people recover after they've had a hemorrhagic stroke and reduces long-lasting brain damage. Again, this isn't a matter of turmeric-rich diets, but of intravenous curcumin being hooked up to stroke patients as soon as possible.

...But It Can't Prevent Cancer On Its Own

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If you hang around health blogs, you've likely heard about the "cancer-busting" properties of turmeric. And there's certainly evidence that turmeric, as part of regional vegetarian Indian diets heavy in other antioxidant spices, may have a role in lowering bowel cancer rates. But studies that show actual cancer-busting properties — one in 2017 showed an effect on prostate cancer growth in particular — are using isolated curcumin that isn't being digested. In other words, if you really want to maximize turmeric's cancer-fighting effects, food isn't the way to do it. Medication is.

That's been confirmed by a new study in 2018, which identified exactly what curcumin does to fight cancer cells. It interferes with cell proliferation, one of the big biological mechanisms of cancer — but the scientists explained in a press release that not only is turmeric on its own not sufficiently powerful, curcumin has issues too. It's "expelled from the body quite fast", they say, and "needs to be modified to enter the blood stream and stay in the body long enough to target the cancer." Turmeric-rich diets won't hurt cancer patients, but they're also a long way from proving to be a magic bullet. So don't believe the hype that all you need to fight cancer is a spice; it's just one in a wide arsenal of medications and techniques, and it's not likely to replace chemo any time soon.

So enjoy your moon milk, your curry, and any other food you like; it isn't going to revolutionize your lifestyle, or be a single magic bullet to cure all that ails you. But, at the same time, if you enjoy the taste, it certainly can't hurt.