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Spice It Up! Boosting Your Health with Spices and Herbs (Part 4)
November 9, 2009
If you like curry dishes, no doubt you’re familiar with the bright yellow or orange color of the sauce. This vivid color is due to turmeric, a spice that comes from the rhizome, or underground stem (similar to ginger!), of the Curcuma longa plant. Turmeric has been used for more than 5,000 years for food, medicine, religious purposes, and as a dye. It’s native to Southeast Asia, and currently is grown in a number of countries, including India, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti, and Jamaica.
Turmeric is always used as a ground-up powder. It used to be called Indian saffron because its color is similar to that of saffron. However, turmeric shouldn’t be substituted in recipes that call for saffron. And in case you think you’ve never eaten turmeric before, chances are you have if you’ve ever used yellow mustard — turmeric is what gives mustard its bright yellow color! Turmeric is sometimes used to color cheese and butter, too. The substance responsible for turmeric’s yellow color is called curcumin.
Inflammation. Curcumin might just give prescription and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines a run for their money — and with fewer side effects such as ulcers and decreased white blood cell count.
Arthritis. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin may help relieve the symptoms of arthritis. In fact, studies have shown that people who have arthritis who eat turmeric on a regular basis have fewer symptoms, such as joint swelling, stiffness, and shortened walking time. Curcumin is an antioxidant, which may also explain how it exerts its effects.
Inflammatory bowel disease. Mice given a substance that normally causes ulcerative colitis were protected from the condition when given curcumin: They lost less weight and their intestines showed decreased signs of the disease compared to mice who were not given curcumin. People with ulcerative colitis who were given curcumin had a longer remission period compared to people who were given a placebo (inactive treatment).
Cancer. It’s thought that curcumin’s antioxidant properties may help protect against DNA damage that leads to cancer. Curcumin may also prevent the development of blood vessels that are necessary to promote the growth of tumors. In animal studies, curcumin works to prevent or kill prostate, breast, colon, and skin cancer cells, but these findings have yet to be duplicated in humans. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to study the possible anticancer effects of this compound in humans.
Heart disease. Curcumin seems to increase the number of LDL-receptors in the body, which means the liver is able to clear more LDL (“bad”) cholesterol from the body, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. One small study showed that curcumin increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which is even better news!
Alzheimer disease. Curcumin seems to slow the progression of Alzheimer disease in mice by preventing the buildup of amyloid plaque, a key sign of Alzheimer. It also seems to dissolve existing amyloid plaque. And studies looking at humans who eat curry dishes a few times per week have a lower risk of dementia. Human studies are underway (but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to include more curry in your eating plan!).
How to Use Turmeric
A little turmeric goes a long way, so use it sparingly!
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