5 Tips for Taking Turmeric

Turmeric is an ancient spice with a centuries-old reputation for fighting a variety of everyday ailments, but its medicinal prowess is new to many in the Western world who have only recently begun exploring its potential health benefits. The bright yellow, peppery spice - the key ingredient in curry powder and mustard - is one of the hottest new herbs used in everything from dishes at trendy restaurants to teas, juices and other products sold in specialty grocery stores.

Ground and dried from the turmeric root, which grows primarily in South Asia, turmeric is closely related to ginger and boasts a high concentration of antioxidants. Scientists have found hundreds of useful compounds in turmeric, including beta-carotene, flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, iron, potassium, niacin, and zinc. But the chemical that makes it stand out is the polyphenol curcumin, which gives turmeric its golden hue and most beneficial properties.

Turmeric is frequently used in Indian and Asian dishes as a savory condiment, but Eastern cultures have long prized the herb for than just its taste. Practitioners of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have used turmeric for more than 4,000 years as a tonic for pain, fatigue, rheumatism, indigestion, breathing problems and other common ills, says the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Studies over the past decade generally support the positive biological effects of turmeric, though experts agree that more research is needed to understand exactly how it works and the extent to which it can help the body. The strongest case for turmeric comes from research that shows how curcumin can support immune health by fighting corrosion of cells and tissues and inhibiting the activity and development of enzymes that cause immune cells to attack healthy tissues. Other studies have shown promising evidence for its ability to relieve swelling, tenderness and irritation in joints as well as over-the-counter drugs.

Curious to see if turmeric might work for you? Whether you plan to incorporate more of the spice into your diet or try it as a supplement, here are five tips to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t go overboard - A little turmeric goes a long way! The flavor can be intense, so all you need is one or two teaspoons of the dried spice or a piece of the root equal to the size of your pinky fingernail. Adults with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis seeking temporary pain relief are encouraged to take 400–600 milligrams of turmeric several times a day, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Turmeric does stain, so watch your countertops, kitchen utensils and clothes when cooking with it! Most people tolerate turmeric well, but some can be more sensitive to it than others. That’s why it’s best to start with small doses and work your way up. If turmeric upsets your stomach or causes diarrhea, acid reflux or other side effects, stop taking it for several days or try it again at a lower dosage. If you’re taking medications or other supplements, talk to your doctor before adding it to the mix. Avoid it completely if you’re pregnant, take blood thinners, or have an iron deficiency, gallstones or kidney stones, or an upcoming surgery.
  2. Get the right mix - One of the drawbacks of turmeric is that its most active ingredient, curcumin, is not easily absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream, and the body typically eliminates it rapidly. Research shows that pepperline - the key ingredient in black pepper - enhances absorption of curcumin. Turmeric is also fat soluble, so pairing it with a fat such as olive or coconut oil can also help obtain more of its nutrients. Add a dash of black pepper or a healthy fat to your turmeric dish to make the most of its goodness. According to Ayurvedic tradition, heating turmeric in ghee, or clarified butter, helps magnify its healthy properties. You can mix this up in advance and store in the fridge for an easy addition to soup or rice dishes. When taking supplements, check the label for pepperline, phytosomes or other substances that make the curcumin in turmeric easier to absorb.
  3. Invest in quality - Not all turmeric is created equally. When buying the dried spice, it’s best to stick with an organic brand to ensure it’s free from contaminants such as pesticides. The fresh root, which has become more widely available in grocery stores, has a cleaner, brighter taste, but it takes more of the root to equal the concentration of the dried powder. Supplements should contain few inactive ingredients and fillers and a sufficient amount of curcuminoids - the family of compounds that include curcumin. Look for products standardized to 95 percent curcuminoids. Curcuminoids give turmeric its distinctive color and scent, so choose brightly colored roots or aromatic powder when buying it at the grocery store. Experts suggest about 500 to 1,000 milligrams of curcuminoids per day to get the most from turmeric.
  4. Don’t expect miracles - Turmeric is known as the “spice of life” in India for its versatility, and many studies are exploring how it might support everything from arthritis relief to brain health. But more research is needed to understand how it works and how much is needed to make a difference. The National Standard Research Collaboration graded turmeric as a “C” - on a scale of A to F - for the strength and amount of evidence supporting claims about its potential health benefits. While studies show that turmeric may help bring temporary relief from pain and other inflammatory issues in the body, it’s no cure-all and works best when paired with healthy habits like a balanced diet and exercise. It also acts more subtly than drugs, which means that positive results from taking turmeric may be more gradual. While it’s easier than ever to find turmeric-infused foods on grocery store shelves, watch for those with added sugars and preservatives that cancel out the healthy properties of the spice.
  5. Try it different ways - Though taking turmeric supplements helps ensure you get a daily dose of its most active ingredients, some experts say that cooking and flavoring food with turmeric allows you to absorb more of the antioxidants and nutrients it offers. The fresh root keeps for up to two weeks when refrigerated and makes a tasty addition to juices, smoothies, and tea. Both the root and the ground spice add a warm, savory flavor to eggs, roasted veggies, lentils, salad dressings, soups, and rice and meat dishes. Golden milk - turmeric mixed with milk, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and honey - is a favorite drink in Eastern cultures for soothing sore throats. You can even mix turmeric with coconut oil, ground ginger, salt or lime juice for a paste to apply to achy, irritated joints.

Consult with your doctor if you still aren’t sure if a turmeric supplement is right for your health needs. This is especially true if trying to give turmeric to children. If you’re ready to try turmeric, you can start by adding it to your favorite recipe, but this may not provide optimal results.

A turmeric supplement with a standardized extract of curcuminoids with help you to discover if turmeric offers the potential medicinal benefits you want. While physical changes to health may not be readily apparent, it’s possible that the turmeric is providing support in less obvious ways.

When using any supplement, it is important to take notes and observe your health. If after consulting with a health professional you may try increasing your dose. Alternatively, too much turmeric or any amount may have undesirable effects. In either case, always follow manufacturer guidelines and seek professional help when looking for ways to reach your health goals.