Turmeric has long been a staple in Asian cuisine, and in recent years it has earned an international reputation as a cure-all. That isn’t true, but there may be some validity to the notion that turmeric can improve your health, according to a review published in October 2017 in the journal Foods. In the paper, researchers cite several studies that illustrate how this trendy spice may play a role in treating health conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, allergies, depression, multiple sclerosis, and even diabetes — an irreversible disease marked by high blood sugar levels the body can’t bring down on its own. More research is needed before healthcare providers widely prescribe turmeric for disease prevention or treatment, but existing studies suggest there’s something to the health claims.
How Curcumin’s Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Effects May Boost Health
The likely driver of turmeric’s potential health benefits is curcumin, the primary active chemical in this yellow-orange spice. “Curcumin is what has mostly been studied because of its important signaling pathways. It acts mostly in two areas: It's an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory,” says Marina Chaparro, RDN, MPH, a certified diabetes educator and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to an article published in January 2015 in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry, antioxidants help fight against free radicals, which are molecules produced by behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fried food, or being exposed to air pollution or pesticides, and which cause oxidative damage. These behaviors, according to a blog article from Huntington's Outreach Project for Education at Stanford University, trigger cell dysfunction and may increase your risk for chronic diseases including diabetes. The cool thing about antioxidants is that they scavenge those harmful free radicals and render them nontoxic to cells, helping stave off disease.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response when fighting an illness or injury, and symptoms of inflammation can include pain, swelling, and redness, notes an article published by InformedHealth.org. Researchers believe inflammation and oxidative damage are closely related in their ability to contribute to disease risk, as noted in a review published in January 2016 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. An article in EMBO Reports makes the case that inflammation is the underlying state of just about every disease, from autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis to metabolic ones such as obesity, and even infectious diseases like the common cold. The potential to stunt or treat chronic conditions is why agents that block inflammation are so fascinating to scientists.
TYPE 2 DIABETES:
When Combined With Metformin or Diet and Exercise, Turmeric May Help With Blood Sugar Management
Type 2 diabetes is just one disease tied to inflammation and oxidative stress, notes a review in Nature Reviews Immunology. In particular, oxidative stress likely plays a role in insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes that affects insulin secretion and leads to uncontrolled blood sugar, the authors write.
Because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, turmeric supplements may help with blood sugar management in people with type 2 diabetes. (You can also rest assured that turmeric is low-carb, so adding it to your plate or supplements regimen won’t throw your blood sugar levels out of whack.)
A review of mice research published in November 2014 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine cites studies that suggest curcumin may help lower A1C — a two- to three-month blood sugar average — insulin sensitivity, and fasting blood sugar, in addition to preventing weight gain.
Clinical trials on humans that have analyzed curcumin’s effect on diabetes management are more limited. But a study published in April 2015 in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry found that human participants who supplemented their Glucophage (metformin) — a diabetes medication that helps lower blood sugar — with turmeric did lower their blood sugar, inflammation, and levels of oxidative stress.
In another human study — this one a randomized controlled trial that was published in 2012 in Diabetes Care — a supplement of 250 milligrams of curcumin daily was associated with a delay in participants progressing from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes. Researchers studied 240 people for nine months and reported that at the end of the study, 16.4 percent of people in the placebo group developed type 2 diabetes, versus 0 percent in the curcumin-supplemented group. Participants didn’t report any side effects except for mild stomachaches.