Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a yellow coloured, culinary spice most famous as an ingredient in fine Indian and Pakistani curries, yellow mustard, and many Persian and Thai dishes. The spice comes from the turmeric root, which belongs to the same family as ginger.
It’s believed that Indians have been eating turmeric in foods for thousands of years, as the textbooks of Ayurvedic medicine mention it all throughout time. For example, evidence shows that turmeric plants were cultivated by Harappan civilization in 3000 B.C. Analyses of ancient pots discovered near New Delhi have uncovered residue from turmeric, garlic and ginger that dates back as early as 2500 BC.
Today, India’s production of turmeric accounts for over 90% of the worldwide total. Approximately 30 varieties have been recognized in the turmeric family, with some popular varieties in India being ‘Alleppey Finger’, ‘Erode and Salem turmeric’, ‘Rajapore’ and ‘Sangli turmeric’, and ‘Nizamabad Bulb’.
Turmeric is used in more than just curry, it can also be found in canned beverages, ice-cream, yoghurts, yellow cakes, biscuits, sweets, cake icings, baked products, dairy products, popcorn-colour, cereals, and sauces. Turmeric also has special cultural significance; in India, during a wedding ceremony, turmeric paste is applied over the bride and groom’s bodies, especially the face and arms. Turmeric-based pastes are used by many people to beautify and enrich skin complexion.
The Indians are in love with turmeric, especially in food…
…and there’s one other fact that might interest you. While the Indian population is often just as overweight and diabetic as more developed countries (among the middle classes at least), the rates of many types of cancer are substantially lower.
Prostate cancer is 23 times more common in American men than Indian men. Americans get between 10 to 11 times more colorectal cancer, 9 times more endometrial cancer, 8 and 14 times the rate of melanoma, 7 to 17 times more lung cancer, 7 to 8 times more bladder cancer, 9 to 12 times more kidney cancer, and 5 times more breast cancer.
In a recent study titled “Dietary turmeric potentially reduces the risk of cancer”, scientists concluded that among other dietary factors, turmeric was the main saviour in keeping Indians cancer-free. Turmeric has gained a big reputation among women who use its anti-estrogenic properties as an aid to beat breast cancer, while this study found that turmeric effectively destroys lung cancer cells.
Turmeric is possibly the healthiest food spice yet discovered on the face of the planet. Furthermore, when consumed, it has a staggering variety of benefits against acne.
Turmeric boosts antioxidants thanks to curcumin
Firstly, you need to understand the vast importance of curcumin. Rather than any basic vitamins and minerals, almost all the power of turmeric is attributed to its vast array of phytonutrients and minor plant compounds. The most important sets of compounds are curcuminoids and the volatile oil. Volatile oil consists of many aromatic compounds with two, tumerone and ar-tumerone, having decent medicinal powers.
Curcuminoids, which are natural antioxidants that impart the yellow colour to turmeric powder, mainly consist of monodemethoxycurcumin, bisdemethoxycurcumin, and most importantly, curcumin.
Curcumin is the main active medicinal compound of turmeric and is responsible for the lion’s share of its benefits. Curcumin accounts for 3-6% of turmeric by weight, and has been studied far more in recent years than turmeric itself.
There’s a booming curcumin supplement industry and curcumin may affect up to 700 genes in the body, over a third of that of vitamin D, which affects up to 2000 genes. Curcumin reportedly exhibits over 150 potentially therapeutic activities.
Curcumin has tons of benefits for acne patients and the first is in increasing antioxidant supplies, not just by being an antioxidant itself, but by triggering your body to manufacture more glutathione:
- This review from 2008 analysed whether curcumin could treat glutathione depletion and the answer was that it could: “These data suggest that curcumin has potential therapeutic value for neurodegenerative diseases involving GSH depletion-mediated oxidative stress”. That’s great news, since acne is a disease involving GSH (glutathione) depletion. Apparently, curcumin increased both glutathione levels and decreased rates of protein oxidation, suggesting that curcumin protects against free radicals.
- This 1992 study was even more impressive. Scientists fed mice 250mg of curcumin per day for 15 days, and at the end of study, glutathione levels in the liver had shot up by 80%.
- This 2001 study on rats fed them a supplement of over 90% curcumin and observed that their liver glutathione levels increased by 16% compared to rats who didn’t receive it. Furthermore, levels of molondiandehyde in the colon fell by 36%. Malondialdehyde is a biomarker used to assess bodily levels of lipid peroxides, the worst type of free radicals for acne patients.
- This study found that when exposing rats to the toxic heavy metal mercury, often found in seafood and dental fillings, their levels of glutathione fell. However, supplementation with curcumin was able to prevent this decrease. Curcumin also lowered levels of lipid peroxides and many other free radicals. Here, yet another study found that curcumin stimulated glutathione production in the body.
Getting more glutathione is a strategy I recommend for most acne patients, since antioxidants prevent blocked pores and inflammation and glutathione is one of the main antioxidants. Also, a study found that skin samples from acne patients have on average, 20% less glutathione than their clear-skinned counterparts.
Not only do turmeric and curcumin increase glutathione, but they deliver a double whammy of acne-fighting power by providing tons of antioxidants themselves. Curcumin has its own antioxidant functioning, and turmeric’s overall score on the ORAC scale for measuring antioxidants is a massive 127,068. Turmeric contains compounds such as the other two curcuminoids, tumerone and ar-tumerone. The ORAC score is huge; a handful of blueberries scores 4669 and a plateful of broccoli scores 1510, and as you may know from “superfood” stories in the media, they’re great sources of antioxidants themselves.
Turmeric itself begins life as a root (see picture above) and is then boiled for about 30–45 minutes. It is then dried in hot ovens, after which the turmeric is ground into a deep-orange-yellow powder.
Since all the moisture is evaporated in the oven and the spare plant matter is removed during production, turmeric powder is an extremely concentrated form of the nutrients originally found in the root. The strong woody flavour of turmeric is an indication of the massive antioxidant count since different antioxidant profiles provide the varying flavours in plant foods.
This study analysed turmeric itself rather than curcumin; after a high daily intake among of curcumin among 30 volunteers aged 40-90 for 60 days, there was far less oxidation of both HDL and LDL cholesterol and less lipid peroxidation overall. In layman’s terms, there was less oxidation of fat-based tissues, and apparently “the effect was quite striking”, especially in those who had high levels of lipid peroxides in their blood to begin with.
That’s excellent news for treating acne. Water soluble antioxidants are important, but what we acne-prone people especially need is fat soluble ones because it is oxidative damage to the oil (sebum) on your face that leads to blocked pores and acne. Turmeric seems to preferentially protect against lipid peroxides (fat-based free radicals), again according to this study and this study.
In short, eating turmeric is a great way to hoover up free radicals and prevent them from inflaming your acne and blocking your pores.
Turmeric rivals pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs
While I believe that the glutathione-increasing power of turmeric has somehow been criminally overlooked by the health community at large, there’s no doubt that it’s most famous power is excellent for acne too. Turmeric, or more specifically, curcumin, has been shown to reduce chronic inflammation as effectively as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSIADs).
You can see this in curcumin’s massive ability to treat vanquish arthritis in the elderly. This study fed 45 rheumatoid arthritis patients either curcumin (500 mg) or the drug diclofenac sodium (50 mg), or a combination. The scientists said that “interestingly, the curcumin group showed the highest percentage of improvement in overall Disease Activity Scores and these scores were significantly better than the patients in the diclofenac sodium group”. Curcumin also had no side effects.
While arthritis and acne manifest themselves very differently, they share an important characteristic: they are mainly caused by a chronically overactive and out of control immune system, or chronic inflammation, In the case of arthritis, the inflammatory chemicals are chipping away at bones and joints; with acne, they’re bombarding p.acnes bacteria until the surrounding pore swells up.
Tons of studies have confirmed curcumin’s effect to lower inflammation directly. In this recent 2014 study, researchers enrolled 117 patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome in an experiment to determine curcumin’s effects on inflammation. Half of the patients took a daily gram of curcumin powder for eight weeks while the other half received a placebo pill.
At the end of the study, the curcumin group had lower levels of c-reative protein, the main biomarker of chronic inflammation, along with two other inflammatory biomarkers. The placebo group had increased inflammation after the eight weeks. The scientists also reviewed eight previous studies on curcumin and concluded that curcumin led to reductions in CRP levels.
The overall conclusion? “Short-term supplementation with curcuminoid-piperine combination significantly improves oxidative and inflammatory status in patients with MetS. Curcuminoids could be regarded as natural, safe and effective CRP-lowering agents.” In other words, turmeric can lower inflammation excellently.
The specific mechanism is very interesting; rather than tackling lone inflammatory chemicals behind acne like interleukin-6 or iL-8, turmeric downregulates the entire inflammatory process at a molecular level by lowering Nf-Kappab activity (study, study). That’s a master molecule that controls the production of a vast swathe of different inflammatory chemicals, which doctors themselves frequently target with pharmaceutical drugs.
It doesn’t end there for turmeric and curcumin; while boosting antioxidants and lowering inflammation are the main benefits for acne, turmeric can affect more factors behind acne than nearly any other food.
This study found that curcumin could inhibit the secretion of cortisol, the main stress hormone in humans which causes acne via digestive problems, delayed wound healing and insulin resistance. Turmeric contains decent trace minerals such as 26% of the RDA for manganese, 3% for magnesium, and 3% for vitamin C.
This study found that curcumin had potent antidepressant activity; feeding mice curcumin increased levels of the “happiness hormone” serotonin, which should further counteract stress hormones like cortisol. The study on glutathione above also found that curcumin had a strong defensive effect against the heavy metal mercury, which can cause acne via higher insulin levels and inflammation.
An emerging area of interest is turmeric’s effect on insulin resistance. One study conducted on prediabetic volunteers (people who are dangerously close to developing T2D in the near future) analysed the effect of curcumin in delaying the development of diabetes. Two random groups of patients of 35 years or older were treated with either curcumin or a placebo. They were asked to consume 6 capsules a day for 9 months and various blood statistics such as insulin levels were measured, both before the treatment and at intervals of 3, 6 and 9 months of the treatment.
The results were outstanding. After nine months, none of those taking curcumin developed diabetes but 16.4% of the placebo group did. The curcumin was 100% effective at preventing Type 2 diabetes.
Those treated with curcumin had greatly improved functioning of insulin receptor cells. That helps acne greatly, because when cell are more receptive to insulin, your body doesn’t need as much to do the same work of storing energy. Your blood levels of insulin can drop, and because insulin stimulates your sebaceous glands to produce more sebum, your skin gets less oily and clears up. Improving insulin sensitivity should be a key goal of all acne patients, and other studies like this Japanese study have confirmed turmeric’s power to accomplish that.
Turmeric also improves brain health
Eating turmeric won’t just give you amazing skin, it will enhance other areas of your health. It won’t just prevent diseases, like cancer, turmeric may also supercharge your brainpower and mental abilities by increasing neuron generation.
Throughout much of the twentieth century it was believed that once your brain had finished developing by about age 25, your neurons were done multiplying. They could no longer regenerate and if you abused them through alcohol or drugs or poor eating, your mind was basically a goner.
However, it now turns out that neurons are changing all throughout adulthood; neurons form new connections and in certain areas of the brain, they can also multiply and increase in number.
There’s one caveat though; the rate at which they divide and multiply is influenced by your lifestyle. Sugar, for example, depresses brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNP), the protein responsible for triggering neuron regeneration…
…but turmeric has been shown to increase brain derived neurotrophic factor activity, according to this study and this study. This study confirmed that feeding curcumin to rats increased the multiplication of cells in their hippocampus.
Aspects of brain performance linked to brain derived neurotrophic factor include: memory, intelligence, special awareness, inventiveness, and sensorial sharpness.
Curcumin is also emerging as a potential preventative weapon against Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is very complicated, but it often occurs when a protein fragment called amyloid-B accumulates in brain cells, producing oxidative stress and inflammation, and also forming plaques between neurons in the brain that disrupt overall brain function.
An amyloid is a general term for protein fragments that the body produces normally, while amyloid-B is a specific protein fragment snipped from another type of protein called amyloid precursor protein (APP). In the healthy brain, these protein fragments are broken down and eliminated with no harm done. But in Alzheimer’s disease, the clearance goes wrong and the fragments accumulate. They form hard, insoluble plaques between brain cells that damage functioning, and they only accumulate over time.
In two studies published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (from April 2006 and December 2004), researchers discovered that curcumin could inhibit amyloid-B aggregation and dissolve amyloid fibrils more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. Furthermore, tests on mice revealed that curcumin had the ability to cross the brain blood barrier and work its anti-amyloid magic there.
Once the curcumin bound to amyloid plaques, the amyloid-B protein fragments could no longer clump together, and hence, further growth of the plaques was prevented. Hence, curcumin could prevent further worsening of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s such as mental confusion, forgetfulness and impaired mental function. One study also found that curcumin increases the activity of immune system macrophages that are specifically used to destroy the evil amyloid plaques.
This isn’t just a load of test tube gobbledegook either; apparently India has lower levels of Alzheimer’s than the rest of the world, as well as less cancer. There’s one village in Northern India called Ballabgarh where men live to be in their 60s and 70s, yet Alzheimer’s barely exists there.
According to this BBC article: “scientists believe recorded rates of the condition in this small community are lower than anywhere else in the world”. After testing 5000 villagers, the rates of Alzheimer’s were less than a third of that in the UK. In my reckoning it’s highly likely that turmeric has something to do with it, given the studies above.
Your guide to using turmeric
Curcumin, the main active component of turmeric, is very poorly absorbed in the human intestine. It simply passes through untouched, without increasing blood levels, and is rapidly excreted from the human body.
That’s why you should follow another Indian tradition: in India, foods containing turmeric are very commonly combined with generous helping of black pepper. Put simply, black pepper contains a compounds called piperine which massive enhances the absorption and power of nutrients.
In a study determining the bioavailability of common curcumin supplements, curcumin given alone to humans translated to blood levels that were very low or undetectable. However, adding piperine led to a miraculous improvement from 0.25 to 1 hour after administration. When taken alongside piperine, the bioavailability of curcumin in humans was increased by 2000%.
That’s why you should either 1) take a piperine supplement, since it enhances the absorption of magnesium, protein, and other antioxidants too, or 2) always eat black pepper with curry. One idea is to swallow a few whole peppercorns along with any meal containing turmeric, to enhance absorption. If you want to take Piperine, take the industry standard: Source Naturals Bioperine Black Pepper Fruit Extract. Note that fat also increases curcumin absorption, so eating it with butter is smart.
As for the broader turmeric strategy, you can either feast on turmeric containing curries and meals, you can take a dedicated curcumin supplement (of which there are now dozens) or you can combine the two.
Combining the two will be most effective, but if you cannot afford it, I would advise sticking to the curry. Why? Because turmeric has been featured in Indian medicine for thousands of years, it is partially responsible for their continued health today, yet the Indians of 2000BC certainly weren’t popping curcumin pills. Curcumin is terrific but turmeric contains many other antioxidants, compounds, vitamins and minerals.
Often it’s claimed that concentrations of curcumin in turmeric are insufficient to have any benefit (3-6% by weight). Yet turmeric still demonstrates many of the same benefits, such as lowering lipid peroxides and improving brain health, as isolated curcumin in studies. You just absolutely have to combine turmeric with black pepper to increase the absorption, as recommended in the old Ayurvedic School of medicine of India.
If you want to take a curcumin supplement, you should buy one with built in piperine. This Turmeric Curcumin C3 with BioPerine Black Pepper Extract fits the bill, and it also has no inflammatory fillers or binders, or soy. The only filler in this supplement is the totally safe rice flour, and it has a higher concentration of curcumin than similarly priced supplements.
There’s only one circumstance in which you should avoid turmeric completely: if you have kidney stones.
Compared to other foods, turmeric is very high in oxalates, organic acids which form crystal compounds with calcium, which build up and turn into those dreaded stones. Doctors advise kidney stone patients to avoid oxalates and this study reveals the dangers of turmeric. Doctors fed patients either cinnamon or turmeric, and found that turmeric led to urine levels of oxalates that were roughly 5 times higher. They concluded that: “the consumption of supplemental doses of turmeric, but not cinnamon, can significantly increase urinary oxalate levels, thereby increasing risk of kidney stone formation in susceptible individuals.”
For everyone else though, eating turmeric is more likely to turn you into superman than leave in you in agony.
In this article I raved about the ability of cinnamon to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, and deemed it to be a top-notch acne-clearing spice. However, turmeric far surpasses it, since it affects not only insulin, but glutathione, inflammation, possibly cortisol, and improves your health so strongly.
Turmeric is among the most anti-inflammatory foods of all time. Since chronic inflammation is the main cause of acne, there’s no higher recommendation than that.
Thanks for reading!