Turmeric is a powerful spice with an impressive list of uses and benefits. It’s known for its antioxidant content and ability to work as an anti-inflammatory. Many cuisines around the world prize this common culinary spice, and with good reason. Like many herbs and spices its appeal goes beyond appearance and taste. Turmeric has an impressive profile of benefits for health, many of them well documented by science.
What’s So Great About Turmeric?
In short… a lot!
The spice we refer to as turmeric is actually the dried and ground rhizome of the turmeric root, a plant in the same family as ginger. Native to India and southwest Asia, culinary traditions around the world now use and prize it for its earthy flavor, intense yellow color. (It was once called “Indian Saffron” for this reason.)
Natural and folk medicine has relied on turmeric’s healing properties for centuries, and now even modern medicine recognizes its health benefits.
What makes turmeric so unique? It’s not just its bright yellow color and ability to stain pretty much anything (seriously, handle with care!). Turmeric’s benefits seem to come from a powerful compound it contains called curcumin.
Curcumin: Turmeric’s Secret Weapon
The benefits attributed to turmeric are often the result of the curcuminoids it contains. The most common curcuminoid is curcumin, which is now available as a supplement and in many remedies.
Curcumin is well-studied for its health benefits. Studies suggest that curcumin halts an enzyme that may be responsible for turning environmental toxins into carcinogens in the body. (This is one reason turmeric has long been a folk remedy for helping protect the body from the affects of smoking or chewing tobacco.)
Curcumin may also improve digestion of fats and sugars and help alleviate inflammation in the digestive system. It is even used in the mouth to help alleviate gum problems!
Are Turmeric and Curcumin the Same?
In short, yes and no. Curcumin is the compound contained in turmeric, while the root itself is the bright yellow spice in whole form. In other words, all turmeric contains curcumin but this only makes up about 3% of its weight and it contains many other beneficial compounds as well. Many people take curcumin supplements or turmeric extracts for their more concentrated antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects, since they are more potent than turmeric powder.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
An increasing number of studies credit turmeric — largely due to its active ingredient curcumin — as a credible treatment for a wide variety of health care complaints. Many studies indicate curcumin’s ability to:
- Fight inflammation with anti-inflammatory compounds
- Combat free radicals
- Protect against heart disease in various ways
- Help rheumatoid arthritis
- Boost brain function and possibly help prevent Alzheimer’s disease
- Help fight diabetes and cancer
- Protect the liver from oxidative stress and disease
- Prevent hypertension (high blood pressure) in studies on animals
- Possibly help with depression
While more study is needed is some of these areas, curcumin is fast becoming more widely known and less of a fringe alternative treatment.
How Black Pepper Makes Turmeric More Effective
If you’ve researched this ancient spice at all, you may have seen that many supplements and recommendations also include black pepper as well. Black pepper contains piperine, which has been shown to dramatically increase the absorption and effects of turmeric.
Personally, when I use this spice for cooking or natural beauty recipes, I make sure to add a little black pepper as well for this reason.
Cautions About Turmeric Use
Turmeric is generally considered safe for use in medicinal amounts, but it is important to talk to a doctor before using this or any substance medicinally as it can interact with several medications. Turmeric may interfere with proper blood clotting, and long-term use or high doses may lead to gastrointestinal upset.
Practical Uses and Recipes for Turmeric
There are entire websites and books (as well as one of my podcasts) dedicated to the use of “superfoods” like turmeric for medicinal use. Personally, I think all of these substances are the most beneficial when they are a small part of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle. Rather than taking large quantities of any supplement or spice, I work small amounts into my daily life in these ways:
1. Turmeric Tea aka Golden Milk
The name is slightly misleading, but this “tea” is a blend of some kind of milk (including almond milk or coconut milk), spices, and optional sweetener. Currently, I enjoy this with homemade pecan milk for a deep, earthy flavor. We drink these often during winter months as a satisfying warm beverage and to help ward off illness. See the full recipe here.
TIP: Using a fat-soluble base like milk or pecan milk increases the absorption of the turmeric. The addition of a pinch of black pepper increases the absorption of the turmeric. I also like to add some liquid vanilla stevia instead of other sweeteners for a slight sweetness without the sugar.
2. Turmeric Broth
If the Golden Milk drink above isn’t your thing or if you prefer a more savory warm drink, turmeric broth is a great alternative. Instead of a milk or milk alternative, the base of this drink is broth. (Here’s how to make your own).
TIP: This is also a great base for soups or stews. To make a 5-minute nutrient-packed egg drop soup, crack four raw eggs into the broth above as it is simmering while whisking rapidly.
3. Soothing Face Mask
Turmeric can also be used on skin! One of my favorite ways to use it is in a face mask. You can add 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder to any face mask recipe you love.
My favorite recipe: Mix 2 tablespoons of unsweetened yogurt with 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric and 1 teaspoon of honey for a soothing and cooling face mask. I leave it on for about 5 minutes and wash off. I also make this antioxidant face scrub with turmeric when my skin needs a reboot.
TIP: I’ve never had problems with turmeric-containing beauty products staining skin, but use an old towel just in case.
4. Curry Powder
This vibrant and earthy spice already has a reputation as a staple in many cuisines and I love cooking with it! One of my favorite ways to incorporate small amounts of this power spice is by making a homemade curry powder. This uses a host of powerful spices and provides awesome flavor to many dishes.
5. Sunrise Smoothie
Not all smoothies have to taste like a pina colada. One of my favorite smoothies has a hint of sweet nestled among earthy spices.
To Make: Blend 1 cup of pecan/almond/coconut milk with 1/2 cup frozen pineapple, the juice of one lemon and one orange, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, a tiny pinch of black pepper, and about a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger root. Add a natural sweetener like stevia if desired. It’s summertime in a glass! And seriously good for you.
6. Potent Poultice
Try this spice externally in poultices to sooth skin and reduce inflammation. It is often used in lotions or preparations for skin with eczema or psoriasis for this reason. I’ve personally used this when I’ve twisted an ankle or broken a toe. (There is nothing doctors can really do for a toe anyway).
What I did: I made a thick paste of castor oil, turmeric, and a small amount of black pepper and rubbed over the inflamed area (in this case, my broken toe). I wrapped with a waterproof wrap and a bandage and left on the toe for a few hours. It didn’t help the bone (of course) but seemed to calm some of the inflammation and reduced my pain. This does stain slightly so I wouldn’t recommend it in visible areas. Any staining will fade after a few days.
7. Acne Gel
Just like in the face mask above, the anti-inflammatory properties of this unique spice makes it beneficial to help cool and stop acne. I make a paste of honey and turmeric (2 parts honey to 1 part turmeric) and dab on to spot treat. Also try these natural ways to fight acne.
8. Tooth Whitener
I was skeptical about putting turmeric on my teeth since it has such a propensity to stain. I’ve seen firsthand though how putting black charcoal in my teeth whitens them, so I was willing to give it a try. Whitening teeth with turmeric worked for my friend Heather as well. Here’s how she used it to whiten teeth.
9. Itch Remedy
I’ve found that a thin paste of aloe vera gel and turmeric can help calm itchy or burned skin. I’ve used this on bites, poison ivy, and even eczema with good results. Fair warning… it is messy! For kids, I let them use this right before bathing while they are in the tub to keep the mess down. It only takes a few minutes to help cut the itch/pain so I read them a book and let them finger paint the turmeric salve on themselves.
10. As a Plain ol’ Spice
Sure, we can think of creative ways to use it, but this simple spice is great when added alone to many dishes. I like to add it to eggs, roasted veggies, meats, and soups for a wonderful flavor. I even add it to my homemade chicken soup to make it extra healing.
11. Spice Up Your Soap
If you make your own soap, add turmeric for color and for skin benefits. If you don’t make your own soap, you should give it a try! It’s a lot easier than you’d think (here’s a super simple cold process recipe). This spice makes a beautiful colored soap that can be especially helpful for soothing irritated skin.
12. Golden Honey for a Sore Throat
Have trouble getting kids to like this potent spice? It is such a great remedy and can help soothe a sore throat, but kids don’t love the taste. My solution? Neon yellow cough syrup (at least that is what my kids call it). I add 3 tablespoons of powdered turmeric to an 8 ounce mason jar of honey (about 1 cup of honey). By definition, this is actually an electuary, but my kids just think of it as a brightly colored honey that helps their throats feel better. This can be made ahead of time and stored for a very long time since both ingredients are shelf-stable.
Turmeric: What to Avoid
This powerful root has many benefits, but also a few important cautions. As I mentioned, it is very important to talk to a doctor before using it as a remedy for those who have any medical condition or who are pregnant or nursing. Culinary use is generally considered safe.
Some folklore info suggests that it was used as a birth control and it should not be taken by women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant (though using it in cooking is fine). When used externally, it will give the skin a light yellow hue for a little while after use and this can easily be washed off.
Sources disagree about using turmeric in hair. Some say that it helps improve hair and stop dandruff, while others swear it is a natural way to remove hair. I haven’t found strong enough evidence for the potential benefits in hair to make me brave enough to try it though.
Where to Buy Turmeric
There can be a tremendous difference among different brands of turmeric. I purchase turmeric in powdered form here as it is a great value and I am extremely impressed with its quality. You may also be able to find high-quality turmeric locally, just look for organic with bright yellow orange color and no added ingredients.
If you don’t enjoy the taste of turmeric and are looking for a turmeric supplement in a concentrated dose, this one is free of additives and has the additional benefit of turmeric essential oil for better absorption. I also use and love this PuraThrive brand.
Do you cook with turmeric? Ever used it for other uses? Please share below!
1. Ng QX, Koh SSH, Chan HW, Ho CYX. Clinical Use of Curcumin in Depression: A Meta-Analysis. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2017;18(6):503-508.
2. Kukongviriyapan U, Pannangpetch P, Kukongviriyapan V, Donpunha W, Sompamit K, Surawattanawan P. Curcumin Protects against Cadmium-Induced Vascular Dysfunction, Hypertension and Tissue Cadmium Accumulation in Mice. Nutrients. 2014;6(3):1194-1208. doi:10.3390/nu6031194.
3. Ringman JM, Frautschy SA, Cole GM, Masterman DL, Cummings JL. A potential role of the curry spice curcumin in Alzheimer’s disease. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2005;2(2):131-6.
4. Lee HY, Kim SW, Lee GH, et al. Turmeric extract and its active compound, curcumin, protect against chronic CCl4-induced liver damage by enhancing antioxidation. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016;16(1):316.
5. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website, https://nccih.nih.gov/health/turmeric/ataglance.htm#hed4