If you are reading this and are at all health oriented you are no doubt aware of Turmeric: the bright yellow anti-inflammatory superfood whose healing powers are now legendary and almost uncontested among wellness advocates and beauty seekers alike.
As the complete laundry list of benefits of Turmeric continue to be compiled, we are still learning about its health potential and that of its active ingredient, Curcumin. Curcumin is but one of the three known curcuminoids present in turmeric, the other two being desmethoxycurcumin and bis-desmethoxycurcumin.
Ok enough five syllable words in succession.
Here is a sample list of only some of the purported benefits of turmeric and specifically, curcumin:
- Natural anti-inflammatory
- Natural antibiotic
- Natural analgesic
- Accelerates wound healing
- Improves digestion
- Blood purifier
- Skin tonic
- Lowers cholesterol
- Helps to prevent cancer
- Prevents progression of Alzheimer’s
- Reduces side effects of chemotherapy
- Fights depression
If pharmaceutical companies could replicate even a fraction of these benefits in the form of a single drug they would have a cash cow on their hands. Yes, curcumin seems to do everything except wash your dishes.
So great… fantastic. Let’s all take heaps and heaps of turmeric and live forever.
Not so simple.
One of the major issues with turmeric that is not always discussed (despite its superstar supplement status) is the fact that curcumin has a very low bioavailability. What does this mean? It means that once ingested, measurable concentrations of curcumin in the blood, urine, or tissues remains very low no matter how much is consumed. In other words once taken orally, curcumin does not seem to stay in circulation for very long. And anything with poor bioavailability will therefore not be very effective in terms of health benefits.
But why should this be? According to research by Whalstrom and Blennow on the topic, curcumin is indeed rapidly excreted by the body. In one study where 1 kg of curcumin was given to rats, 75% ended up excreted via the feces and only trace amounts were found in the urine.
It’s almost as though the human body doesn’t really like curcumin or its related compounds and wants to get rid of it.
Exactly. When curcumin is consumed, a potent detoxifying enzyme called Superoxide dismutase is released. This happens usually under conditions of physiological stress. So you might think oh, stress- that’s bad. Well this is actually the good kind of stress, like that which occurs when you exercise or use a sauna. It produces cellular stress that in turn leads to all kinds of positive effects including the release of said super enzymes and other anti-inflammatory compounds called cytokines. This overall effect is known as Hormesis and is one of the theories as to why curcumin has such profoundly healing effect on the body.
But do not despair, health seeker. There are ways to increase the bioavailability of curcuminoids so that the benefits may be reaped. Adding even one or all of the following steps to your curcumin consumption will help ensure that you do not get cheated out of the benefits from this potent superfood.
- Black pepper: Adding black pepper when taking turmeric increases its bioavailability by 2000%. The active essential oils are best found in freshly ground black pepper. In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is thought to increase the absorption and positive effects of most spices and tonics and is frequently used for this reason. Very little is required, as little as 1/20th of a teaspoon can significantly boost levels.
- Adding healthy fat: It is also the case in Ayurvedic practice that adding a healthy fat such as coconut oil or ghee greatly assists in the absorption and retention of curcuminoids in the body. Fat acts as a sort of carrier for curcumin, which is more fat than water soluble. This is yet another excuse to increase the amount of good fat consumption, the benefits of which are well documented.
- Adding heat: The power of turmeric is activated when it is heated. Add it to your vegetable sauté, to your chili con carne, to your popcorn butter. A little heat is good and further increases the bioavailability of curcumin.