Turmeric, the yellow spice often used in curries, has gained quite a reputation during the coronavirus pandemic because of its immunity-boosting quality. India’s Union Health Ministry and other Ayurvedic practitioners recommended consuming some amount of turmeric daily for better post-COVID management.
India is the largest producer of turmeric and makes up for 70-75 per cent of the world’s total production. The domestic and international demand for the spice rose worldwide during the pandemic. According to reports, sales from turmeric were expected to go up by 25-30 per cent in 2020-21.
As the world tries to get hold of the yellow spice, let’s take a look at the vast spectrum of health benefits and some common myths linked to turmeric or haldi.
Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric is a product of Curcuma longa, a plant belonging to the ginger family. Turmeric’s medicinal properties are usually derived from a compound called curcumin. Several studies have found that curcumin, which is the yellow pigment in turmeric, has a wide range of health properties.
“Curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties and it can increase free radical scavenging capacity of the body. In females, curcumin can help to relieve menstrual cramps, as it has antispasmodic properties. It aids weight loss, by increasing leptin levels and lowering triglyceride levels,” Geeta Shenoy, a renowned dietitian and nutritionist told FIT.
However, according to a report in the National Institute of Health, studying curcumin has not been easy because of its unstable nature (curcumin easily changes into other substances) and low bioavailability (compound does not reach the bloodstream).
Turmeric is actually only about three per cent curcumin. Furthermore, curcumin is very hard for our bodies to absorb and we only absorb 25 per cent of what we consume.
“When curcumin is given in pre-cancer treatment, because of its protective roles, it prepares the cells for any stress that may be caused due to Doxorubicin (anti-cancer drug),” said Dr Aditi Jain, who has studied the effects of curcumin against drug-induced cardiotoxicity.
"Curcumin holds great potential for developing cardio-oncological therapeutic interventions," her study concludes.
Turmeric a Miracle Cure?
Despite the numerous health benefits, turmeric is not a cure for COVID-19, as suggested by several viral posts made since the beginning of the pandemic.
Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri claimed on Twitter that consumption of turmeric and lemon helps ‘fight’ coronavirus. He went on to claim that homemade rasam, a south Indian dish, is also very useful and effective against COVID-19. FIT did a fact-check on the claim that you can read here.
Information and Broadcasting ministry formed a Twitter handle called @COVIDNewsByMIB to counter wrong or misleading information about COVID-19. They too debunked the claim in a tweet.
Similarly, turmeric is also credited with helping in the treatment of Alzheimer's. However, studies show that it is curcumin that has proven benefits in treating Alzheimer’s, not turmeric in itself.
In order to get the required amount of curcumin (as per the study), one will have to increase the consumption of turmeric exponentially, because of its low bioavailability, leading to possible side effects.
Turmeric contains high amounts of oxalates and creates problems during pregnancy, people with gall bladder diseases, people on blood-thinning medications and those having kidney stones, said Shenoy.
“People consuming turmeric for the therapeutic or prophylactic purpose should not take more than 1/2 to 1tsp on daily basis, in divided dosage,” she adds.
Similar claims have been made about treating cancer. We received a claim on our fact-checking tipline which said, "Turmeric kills cancer. Turmeric fights cancer and prevents it from growing. Turmeric is anticancer. If you drink turmeric water three days a week, you will always be safe from cancer in future.(Translation)"
The post was shared on Twitter and Facebook too.
A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences (IJMS) researched the various anti-cancer properties of curcumin. According to the study, curcumin’s antitumor activity was seen in different kinds of cancer as it has the capability to target multiple cancer cell lines.
But the study also notes that the “anticancer application of curcumin has been limited mainly due to its low water solubility, which results in low cellular uptake and poor oral bioavailability, as well as low chemical stability.”
There is no evidence to prove that it can singularly cure or treat cancer without employing any other treatment.
Turmeric and Asian Culture
Five years ago, turmeric latte took the internet by storm. The “golden milk” became the unofficial drink of 2016 with Google reporting a 56 per cent increase in searches relating to turmeric in just November 2015 to January 2016.
While the west was late in realising the several benefits of the yellow spice, several Asian countries have had turmeric as a part of their culture since ages. Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine have used turmeric as a bitter digestive and a carminative. Unani practitioners use turmeric to expel phlegm and to improve blood circulation.
The spice also has some religious significance. Excerpts from a book titled Herbal Medicine by Iris FF Benzie and Sissi Wachtel-Galor tell us that the use of turmeric dates back nearly 4000 years to the Vedic culture in India. In Hinduism, turmeric is considered auspicious and sacred. It is also believed that the spice can protect against evil spirits. In Buddhism too, turmeric is supposed to symbolic of purity and prosperity.
Ever since the discussion about turmeric’s health benefits have caught steam, developed countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom have shown an increase in demand for Indian turmeric.
According to the studies, curcumin is beneficial for health and should be included in our diets. So, we can continue to enjoy the golden lattes or haldi doodh, but we shouldn’t rely on them as a way to ward off coronavirus, cancer or other diseases. We must also consult a doctor before increasing the quantities of turmeric in our diets so as to avoid its side effects.