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For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes. Today, individuals add this bright yellow powder to smoothies, curry dishes, and Thai food, believing it will help decrease joint pain, lower blood pressure, prevent against illness, and reduce chronic pain.
Recently, scientists started wondering what exactly makes turmeric so powerful. The answer might lie in an ingredient you’ve never heard of: curcumin.
Are Turmeric and Curcumin the Same Thing?
Short answer: No.
Curcumin is the active ingredient found in the spice turmeric. And while you may picture turmeric as the bright orange powder that sits on your spice rack, turmeric is actually a root.
Turmeric root comes from the Curcuma longa plant (which belongs to the same family as ginger root) and is dried and ground before being sold as turmeric powder.
Turmeric is common in Indian cooking, giving curry its bright yellow color. Turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes in parts of Asia for centuries, although no one ever quite understood what gave it its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits (1).
Today, naturopaths in the United States and Canada recommend adding teaspoons of turmeric in smoothies, elixirs, and even lattes, praising its health benefits. Pure turmeric is used as a natural alternative to dietary supplements to treat inflammation, arthritis, cancer, and a host of other conditions (2).
Many researchers believe curcumin is responsible for the healing properties in turmeric. After all, it is the active ingredient within the spice. So far, studies show curcumin might help treat different cancers, colitis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (2).
Can You Get the Full Benefits of Curcumin Just by Eating Turmeric?
Although curcumin is the main compound in turmeric, the quantity is not that high. The curcumin content of turmeric only accounts for roughly 3 percent of the spice, by weight (3). Other Indian and Asian spice blends, like curry powder, contain even less.
Most studies researching curcumin and its benefits use incredibly high doses (often as high as 1 gram) of the compound (1). It would be almost impossible to consume the same amount through food, even if you were adding a teaspoon of turmeric to every dish you prepare.
The Best Way to Consume Curcumin Is Through Supplements
Curcumin is sold as curcumin powder, curcumin extract, and curcumin capsules. Even with supplements, you will need to do a little extra work to get the full benefits of curcumin.
Curcumin has low bioavailability, meaning your body struggles to absorb it. There are a few simple things you can do to help your body better absorb and metabolize it.
If you’re using turmeric in cooking, sprinkle the dish with black pepper. Pepper contains a compound called piperine, which has been shown to increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2,000 percent (1). The best curcumin supplements contain piperine, helping to increase its absorption in your bloodstream.
You should also consume curcumin with foods containing a dose of healthy fatty acids (like coconut oil or ghee) to increase its absorption.
The Health Benefits of Curcumin
Curcumin is used as a healing agent all over the world, in different forms. Curries in India, tea in Japan, beverages in Korea, and cosmetics in Thailand all contain curcumin (or turmeric). Even in the United States, curcumin supplements have been “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration (1).
Below, you’ll see how curcumin benefits your health, according to science.
It Works as an Antioxidant
Curcumin has been shown to contain antioxidant properties, helping to improve markers of oxidative stress (4). Oxidative damage is often blamed for speeding up the aging process and various diseases.
Antioxidants help fight these negative effects by blocking free radicals (molecules with unpaired electrons). Curcumin fights these free radicals in two different ways. First, it acts as an antioxidant itself. Second, it appears to increase the effectiveness of other antioxidants in your body (5).
It Helps Lower Inflammation
Turmeric has long been praised as an anti-inflammatory, helping to fight against rheumatoid arthritis, soreness, tendonitis, and other conditions. Therefore, it only makes sense that curcumin would have a similar effect.
Chronic inflammation is painful, tiresome, and can lead to a number of other conditions including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even depression.
In a number of studies, the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin supplements helped reduce the negative side effects related to metabolic syndrome, osteoarthritis, and other diseases (6, 7). These studies showed curcumin helped improve joint health, lessen chronic pain, and improve the patients’ overall quality of life.
It Could Help Improve Brain Health
Amyoloid plaque is a sticky buildup of protein that accumulates outside nerve cells. While it’s not entirely understood, a buildup of amyoloid plaque appears to damage neurons, leading to a variety of degenerative medical conditions like Alzheimer’s (8).
In a study focused on healthy individuals, supplementing with curcumin decreased amyloid plaque. This showed that curcumin supplements might slow down the aging process (and deterioration) of the brain (9).
It Might Prevent Against Cancer
Some studies show that curcumin supplementation can help prevent against certain types of cancer. Research showed curcumin slowed the growth of cancer cells and stopped the cancer from spreading (10).
Anti-cancer properties is another overlap between curcumin and turmeric. In some clinical trials, turmeric supplements slowed the progress of different cancers, particularly breast cancer. However, it’s still unclear if curcumin, or another compound inside turmeric, is to thank (11).
How to Get More Curcumin in Your Diet
Turmeric has been used as a natural healing agent around the world for thousands of years. Recently, scientists became increasingly interested in curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, wondering if it’s the reason turmeric is so beneficial.
Curcumin can be consumed through supplements or through turmeric-containing foods, like curry dishes. However, your body struggles to absorb curcumin on its own, so it’s best to eat it with a fat source and black pepper, which aids in absorption.
For an immune-boosting, inflammation-fighting meal or beverage, consider combining turmeric or curcumin capsules with bone broth. You could add turmeric to soups and stews, or add curcumin supplements to your favorite morning bone broth smoothie. Get more ideas in the recipe section of this site.
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