In Praise of Turmeric

The more I age, the more I think about aging. And with age I am changing my view of health. When I was younger, I thought about health in terms of how good I looked and how much I could lift. Now I am thinking more about health in terms of how well I can manage my energy, optimize productivity, and increase longevity. A change in mindset involves a lot of retraining. It’s really easy to fall back on old ‘health’ habits because they’re familiar even though they are actually counter-productive. Change begins with education. I’m interrogating my current habits and working to develop new ones. In this, I don’t want to blindly follow the advice of ‘experts.’ I want to ask and answer the question ‘why?’

So Turmeric.

I’ve been more intentional about consuming turmeric over the last few months. The health benefits are well-documented, but I don’t want to stop at hearing ‘turmeric is good for you,’ throw a sprinkle or two into my food from them to time, and call it a day. I want to know why turmeric is ‘good for you,’ and how I need to consume it to actually benefit.

Although the benefits of turmeric’s most active medicinal molecule curcumin are many, I want to focus on two specific areas because these are areas that I am personally most interested in optimizing for: anti-oxidation and anti-inflammation.

Turmeric as Anti-Oxidant

Oxidation is a normal and beneficial part of the body’s metabolic processes. It involves the splitting of oxygen molecules into single atoms with unpaired electrons that then go about harvesting electrons from other places in the body: cells, proteins, and DNA. These unpaired oxygen molecules are called free radicals.

I feel like free radicals have gotten a bad rap. Free radicals are not bad. Float around attacking foreign invaders, they’re actually a super important part of the immune system. What IS bad is oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of free radicals and anti-oxidants (molecules that keep free radicals in check by lending them their own spare electrons). Without anti-oxidants, free radicals go beyond their job as a part of the immune system and attack otherwise healthy cells. Too much oxidative stress over time can lead to all manner of dysfunction because … humans are made of cells.

The human body creates its own any-oxidants (Most notable glutathione) just like it creates free radicals. But the body isn’t a closed system. Instead, we are constantly introducing more free radicals as a result of our diet (fried foods, alcohol, pesticides), and as a result of environmental pollutants.

Smoking is of course a terrible idea.

In order to mitigate the harm of oxidative stress on muscles, joints, skin, DNA, glands, organs, and the brain, it’s important for us to do things to support the body’s natural production of anti-oxidants while supplementing through our diet.

That’s where turmeric comes in. The curcumin in turmeric works as a both a free radical scavenger and an anti-oxidant that supports the body’s own natural ability to produce glutathione.

Turmeric as Anti-Inflammatory

Acute inflammation is a good thing. When we’re injured, for example, inflammation takes place as the body increases the presence of red and white blood cells along with additional hormones and nutrients to help with healing.

Chronic or low level inflammation is not a good thing. It happens when a mild inflammatory response is triggered despite the absence of a significant threat. Although it may not have symptoms, the long-term effects of chronic inflammation is that the immune system begins attacking otherwise healthy cells. In the long term, chronic inflammation can lead to cancer, heart disease, and a range of auto-immune disorders.

The curcumin in turmeric works as a powerful anti-inflammatory that is equal in effectiveness to many anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side-effects. It does this by regulating the cellular reception of NF-kB, which is responsible for activating inflammation-related genes.

How to benefit from turmeric

To benefit the most from the curcumin in turmeric, there are a few things you need to know:

  1. The amount of curcumin in ground or fresh turmeric is only about 3% by weight.
  2. Most studies that see significant benefits for curcumin do so at levels between 500mg and 1000mg per day
  3. Curcumin alone is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream, but it can be significantly enhanced when consumed with black pepper at a ratio of 1:100 pepper to turmeric.

What this all means is that, assuming that you want more out of your turmeric than the taste, you need to consume about 7 teaspoons (or about 2.5 tablespoons) each day to achieve a minimum effective dose.

That’s a lot of turmeric. But it’s not so much that it’s impossible.

In addition to using turmeric more in my cooking, here are a couple of other things I am doing to add more curcumin to my diet.

My special blend

My wife recently bought me one of these half-gallon motivational water bottles. Each day I fill it with water and add the following:

    2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, which when diluted gives the water a nice kombucha-like flavor while also helping to regulate blood sugar and curb hunger pangs throughout the day
    1 tsp of ground ginger, which is also great as an anti-inflammatory and metabolic aid
    1/2 tsp black pepper, to assist with curcumin absorption

I like to keep my concoction in the fridge at home or at work, and visit it for a drink as a way to reset between meetings and other activities. In addition to meeting my daily curcumin requirement, it ensures that I am hydrated (vitally important for maintaining mental sharpness).

Turmeric Tea

A big jug of yellow sludge may be okay at home and at work, but it can be challenging to wield whilst traveling. For a while I have made it a habit to pack a brick of Numi Organic Aged Pu-Erh. Great for gut health and blood sugar regulation for sustained energy throughout the day. I pop a square in my infuser and refill it throughout the day.

Numi has recently launched a line of turmeric teas. Numi really does it right using only high quality, ethically sourced, organic ingredients. I am a huge fan of rooibos, and so really enjoy the Amber Sun blend for winding down before bed.

Turmeric is not a magic bullet. Truth be told, it’s kind of weird, and it’s super weird that I’ve written an entire blog post about it. But is also pretty neat. Many of us in the West (including myself) aren’t particularly good about our use of spices, either for flavor or for health. We would arguably be far better off if we were. We all need to start somewhere. I’m starting with Turmeric.