At SmartyPants, we’re all about simplifying health. In this series, we’re breaking down those healthy foods and phrases that are suddenly everywhere, to give you the five-minute scoop on why they’re all the rage. ____________________________________________________________________
Yellow is the new black. Or, maybe, we should say turmeric is the new kale. In terms of health foods that are “so hot right now,” turmeric is IT. You may have noticed this amber-hued spice appearing in everything from your Instagram feed (it currently has over 300,000 hashtags) to your local coffee shop’s lattes. Why is everyone going for the gold? Let’s find out.
WHAT IS IT?
Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its yellow color. It’s also been a staple of Ayurveda – the Indian system of holistic medicine – for nearly 4,000 years. More recently, Western medicine has also begun to recognize its importance. Over the past 25 years, turmeric has become one of the most well-researched spices, with over 6,000 peer-reviewed articles published on its benefits.
WHY IS IT GOOD FOR YOU?
Turmeric contains medicinal compounds called curcuminoids, the most powerful of which, is curcumin. Much of the research on the spice credits curcumin for turmeric’s health benefits.DOUBLE-DUTY ANTIOXIDANT Antioxidants. Free radicals. We hear these words a lot. But what do they actually mean? Free radicals are molecules that are missing an electron. They’re generated from environmental and lifestyle factors including stress, pollutants, cigarette smoke, sun overexposure, and even exercise. Free radicals steal electrons from neighboring molecules, resulting in cell damage, or, “oxidative damage.” It’s widely believed that oxidative damage is a primary driver behind many of the most widespread and detrimental health conditions, including those that affect our heart, skin, and brain. Antioxidants are molecules that can donate an extra electron to these free radical thieves. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals before they cause too much oxidative damage. For more on antioxidants and how you can easily add them to your diet, read here. In addition to stopping oxidative damage on the spot, curcumin can also boost the body’s natural ability to make its own, even more powerful antioxidants. So, in effect, curcumin delivers a one-two punch to damaging free radicals – neutralizing them directly, while ramping up the body’s own free-radical fighting mechanisms. [related] IMMUNE HEALTH The term “inflammation,” just sounds bad. But we actually need a healthy level of inflammation to stay well. Inflammation is the process by which our immune system produces white blood cells to protect us from bacteria and viruses. Too much inflammation, or, chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is not so good. Extensive research suggests that oxidative damage can lead to chronic inflammation. Curcumin has been shown to help support the immune system by promoting a healthy inflammatory response. Meaning your body’s defense system may be better able to gauge how and when to react. In fact, several studies have compared the effects of curcumin to those of pharmaceutical medications. BRAIN HEALTH We now know that the neurons in our brain can form new connections, and, in certain areas of the brain, they can also multiply and increase in number. One of the main drivers of this process is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is a type of growth hormone that functions in the brain. Some research shows that curcumin may positively influence levels of BDNF (Xu et al., 2006, Hurley et al., 2013), helping promote memory and cognitive function. There is also some evidence that curcumin can boost the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brain (Kulkarni et al., 2008, Xu et al., 2008). These neurotransmitters are known as our “feel good” chemicals, as they are largely responsible for supporting our mood and sense of wellbeing. HEART HEALTH Several studies suggest that curcumin may support the function of the endothelium, which is a fun name for the lining of our blood vessels. Having healthy, functioning blood vessels means our hearts don’t have to work as hard to pump blood around our bodies. A small study published in Nutrition Research journal even found curcumin to be comparable to one hour of exercise in terms of supporting aerobic capacity and cardiovascular health.
HOW SHOULD YOU EAT IT?Before you start dousing your dishes in turmeric, you should know that curcumin is not very bioavailable, or, easily absorbed by the body on its own. Research shows that you can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by consuming it together with black pepper, which contains piperine, a substance that's been shown to enhance the absorption of curcumin by 2000%! Fortunately, these two ingredients pair nicely together. You can add turmeric and black pepper to almost any savory dish. Our favorites are traditional Indian curries, as research shows that heating turmeric and consuming it with healthy fats such as coconut milk can also help increase the bioavailability of curcumin. If you’ve never cooked with turmeric before, start with this super easy Black Pepper Chicken Curry recipe.