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The health benefits of turmeric

By
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Free curry on the NHS? Not quite, but Britain's favourite dish, chicken tikka masala, could be good for your health.

The ingredient that gives it a distinctive yellow colour is turmeric, a spice with many potential health benefits.

What is turmeric?

Turmeric is the root stalk of a tropical plant that's part of the ginger family. One of the main components of the spice is a substance called curcumin which has potentially healing properties.

You can buy fresh turmeric in Chinese and Indian supermarkets. It's widely available in a dried powder form in supermarkets. The spice is used in lots of Asian dishes, mustards and pickles.

It's also available in supplements at chemists and health food shops.

Turmeric has been used for many thousands of years in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for conditions including heartburn, diarrhoea, stomach bloating, colds, fibromyalgia and depression. Followers of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine also sometimes apply turmeric to the skin for ringworm and infected wounds as it's said to have anti-bacterial properties.

In more recent years there have been some studies carried out on the effects of curcumin. However, there is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for health conditions because too few clinical trials have been carried out so far.

Word of warning

While turmeric has a long history of health giving properties and there have been many hundreds of studies into its effects on a wide variety of ailments it can't be regarded as a magic cure.

It's worth bearing in mind that most of these are preliminary studies that were performed in a laboratory, and not in humans. Much more research is needed into the possible benefits. So it's still too early to say whether or not turmeric has definite health benefits.

So what does the research find?

Cancer

A study in 2009 in Ireland found that curcumin killed off oesophageal cancer cells in the laboratory. The researchers found that curcumin started to destroy the cancer cells within 24 hours and the cells also began to digest themselves.

Liver damage

Researchers in Austria and the US in 2010 suggested that curcumin may help in the fight against liver damage. It seems to delay the onset of cirrhosis. They say their work builds on previous research which has indicated that it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which may be helpful in combating disease.

Diabetes

A small study in Thailand in 2012 found it may help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. It found that over 9 months a daily dose of a supplement containing curcumin, seemed to prevent new cases of type 2 diabetes among certain people at risk. However, more research is needed.

Alzheimer's disease and dementia

There are numerous studies into the effect of curcumin on
Alzheimer's disease and dementia. An Indian study in 2008 suggested that curcumin can block the formation of the beta-amyloid plaques that get in the way of brain function in Alzheimer's disease. More research is needed before these possible benefits are translated into a clinical setting.

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