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Turmeric - Potent Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-microbial and Anticancer Spice

by Dorota Zabicka(more info)

listed in antioxidants, originally published in issue 213 - April 2014

Turmeric - Curcuma longa is a perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, native to the Indian Subcontinent. It grows wild in South and Southeast Asia. The plant is cultivated for its rhizomes, which are boiled, dried and ground to make yellow powder, used for curries - giving them their intense yellow colour. It was anciently used by Indian, Japanese and Chinese people as a medicine and spice. 


Biochemical Components

Over 100 components have been isolated from turmeric. Curcuminoids, including curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin are the most important ones. The plant is rich in volatile oils, polysaccharides and steroles. Turmeric is a good source of ω-3 fatty acids. Curcumin is the most studied compound.

Traditional Uses

Turmeric was used since about 4000 years ago - in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. In Ayurveda it is known as increasing energy and warming the body, improving digestion, intestinal flora: eliminating worms, relieving  gas, detoxifying and strengthening the liver and gallbladder: dissolving gallbladder stones, for jaundice: stimulating bile production and encouraging its excretion, regulating menstruation, for relief of arthritis, as a blood purifier, to promote healthy metabolism, to cure urinary tract infections, respiratory conditions, improve blood circulation, treat cystic fibrosis, atherosclerosis, haemorrhoids, gastric ulcers, also externally - on sprains, burns, cuts, bruises, insect bites; soothing in cough and asthma - as antibacterial and anti-fungus. Also - as a treatment for dementia and traumatic brain injury. Boiled with milk, turmeric has been used as a traditional remedy for colds. In ancient Hawaiian medicine -  also for prevention and treatment of sinus and ear infections. Due to its antimicrobial action, it was popular as food preservative. It is now one of the most researched herbs.[1]

Modern  Uses

Turmeric is a very potent antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-mutagenic, and anticancer agent. It has hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, and hypoglycaemic properties. It is effective against neuronal and kidney disorders, helps prevent alcoholic liver disease, and slows down brain diseases like multiple sclerosis. It is also used for rheumatoid arthritis, chronic anterior uveitis, conjunctivitis, some cancers, Alzheimer's disease. The low incidence of colon cancer in India may be an effect of consuming foods containing curcumin. It is also used for chicken pox, wounds, urinary tract infections, liver ailments, digestive disorders, jaundice, menstrual regulation, colic, abdominal pain, dyspeptic conditions, dissolving gallstones, relieving the symptoms of depression and anorexia. It has anti-inflammatory, choleretic and antimicrobial properties.[1,2]


Bioavailability of curcumin is low, due to its poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and systemic elimination; however taking it together with black pepper increases it. Piperine - the active component of black pepper - enhances the serum concentration of curcumin. Bioavailability also increases when cooked in oil.[3,4,5]

Antioxidant properties

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant. It's an effective ‘scavenger’ of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Doses of about 3-4 grams a day, especially when taken with black pepper  inhibit oxidative DNA damage. Indirectly - curcumin stimulates the synthesis of glutathione - an important intracellular antioxidant, which plays a crucial role in cellular adaptation to stress; curcumin enhances the transcription of genes encoding glutathione synthesis. Turmeric extract is more potent antioxidant than garlic, omega 3 and cat´s claw.[4,6]

Anti-inflammatory properties

Curcumin interacts with numerous molecules (cyclooxygenase-2, lipoxygenase, inducible nitric oxide synthase, phospholipase, leukotrienes, thromboxane, prostaglandins, collagenase, elastase, hyaluronidase, interferon - inducible protein, interleukin) involved in inflammation processes - inhibiting them. It also reduces inflammation by stimulating the adrenal glands to release cortisone. Curcumin supplementation is recommended for patients suffering from inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cervical dysplasia, Alzheimer's disease, inflammation of the tongue and gout. It can be taken as tincture, tea, capsules and applied externally.[5,6,7,8]

Arthritis is caused by the inflammation of the joints. By inhibiting cyclooxygenase-2 and stimulating adrenal glands - curcumin reduces inflammation. It is also considered as an effective and safe pain killer. 

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disease where chronic inflammation leads to progressive cognitive deterioration and causes behavioural changes. When brain cells are affected by inflammation, amyloid, a protein normally found in the brain turns into beta-amyloid, toxic to brain neurons. Deposits of beta-amyloid build up around the cells, forming plaques. Because the brain can’t remove them, they stay there and accumulate. Tangles create when long protein fibres acting like scaffolding for brain cells begin to twist. The cell is damaged and eventually dies. These proteins remain in the brain after the dead neurons have been removed. They also interfere with electrochemical messengers between cells causing the healthy cells activity to be diminished too. Both - beta amyloid plagues and tangles trigger inflammation, which is the direct cause of brain cells dying.

Curcumin might be more effective than other drugs tested for Alzheimer's disease treatment and prevention. The structure of curcumin allows it to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and bind to beta amyloid, suppressing the formation of plagues. Moreover - it helps to remove beta-amyloid already accumulated in the neurons and prevents it from forming. It also helps reduce levels of cholesterol available in the brain. (High cholesterol levels can increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease). It also helps to maintain healthy cellular metabolism, helps the cells repair themselves, and keeps them connected to each other. It also protects against free-radical damage. Research has shown that curcumin not only prevents changes in the brain which lead to Alzheimer's disease, but also reverses some of the damage already present and delays degradation of neurons. Antioxidant, lipophilic and anti-inflammatory action of curcumin improves the cognitive functions in patients suffering from this disease. Treatment improves overall memory in Alzheimer’s patients. India, where turmeric is a popular spice - has a low incidence of Alzheimer's. In curries, curcumin is often dissolved in fats, which increases its bioavailability.

Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties it also helps promote cardiovascular health. Plaque build-up in the arteries leads to arteriosclerosis. Curcumin reduces the plague built-up. It also helps to prevent blood clots by thinning blood, reducing the chances of having a heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. It also helps to maintain a normal level of cholesterol.[4,5,7,8,9,15,16]

Antimicrobial, Antibacterial, Antifungal and Antiviral Properties

Turmeric contains volatile oils that kill many strains of bacteria and fungi. This explains its traditional use for treating wounds and rash. Many recent research focus on its antiviral action.

Curcumin is a very promising medicine against malaria - it inhibits drug-resistant forms of Plasmodium Falciparum - the parasite that causes malaria.

It stops Human Papillioma Virus - a main cause of cervical dysplasia and cancer from replicating. HPV has two genes (E6 and E7) which bind to proteins in healthy human cells turning them into cancerous cells. Curcumin binds to the same proteins, preventing the virus from doing it. It reduces the expression of HPV oncoproteins and induces the apoptosis of the cancer cells; enhances the expression of tumour suppressing proteins. Its anti-inflammatory properties are also important in cervical dysplasia and cancer treatment.

It is also promising against HIV. Curcumin stops HIV virus from replicating, in in vitro tests, by stopping the enzyme p300 - essential for this process, from performing its function. HIV integrates itself into human genetic material. When the enzyme p300 stops working, the virus becomes unable to multiply.

It also kills Helicobacter pylori, responsible for stomach ulcers and stomach cancers. 

Tumeric may also be used to treat athletes foot.[10]

Anti-Cancer Properties

  • Curcumin has been studied in multiple human cancers including melanoma, breast, colon, stomach, pancreatic, prostate, cervical, ovarian and skin - with promising results;
  • Its potent anti-oxidant and anti-free-radical properties play an important role in the inhibition of carcinogenesis;
  • Curcumin can also stop the action of the enzyme COX-2 known to cause inflammation - a known precursor to cancer;
  • It activates a key tumour suppressor gene;
  • Curcumin inhibits metastasis - spreading of cancer cells throughout the body (through the release of chemical messengers, pro-inflammatory cytokines CXCL1 and CXCL2). Curcumin alters the expression of these two damaging proteins;
  • It also prevents re-growth of cancer stem cells - the roots of many tumours, while leaving healthy cells unaffected;
  • Cancerous cells invade normal tissue with the aid of enzymes - matrix metalloproteinases. Curcumin inhibits their activity;
  • It increases biotransformation enzymes activity, stimulating the elimination of potential carcinogens. It is proven to decrease the concentration of mutagenic chemicals in the urine of smokers;
  • Curcumin decreases the accumulation of mutations in DNA, reduces DNA damage and helps repair precancerous lesions;
  • It  also blocks oestrogen receptors, which is important in prevention and treatment of cervical, prostate and breast cancers;
  • Invasive tumours develop new blood vessels to survive and grow - in a process known as angiogenesis. Curcumin inhibits this process. Angiogenesis is regulated by a variety of genes and signalling molecules. Curcumin has an anti-angiogenic effect in many tumours including glioblastoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, prostate, ovarian and cervical carcinomas. It has influence on a variety of pro-angiogenic growth factors, enzymes and transcription factors;
  • Apart from its inhibitory effects on angiogenesis, curcumin also affects cellular adhesion molecules involved in the processes of tumour growth and metastasis;
  • It also induces apoptosis - programmed cell death. Cellular growth and proliferation is regulated by many factors in normal cells, and disruption of the cell cycle can lead to uncontrolled proliferation resulting in tumour growth. Curcumin has been shown to selectively induce apoptosis in tumour cells;[4]
  • Autophagy - a Type II programmed cell death is a process in which cells break down their own components and dispose of old or damaged organelles and proteins. It promotes cell survival and function. It's also a process of undergoing programmed cell death. Disruption of autophagy is associated with tumour formation. Induction of autophagy enhances cell death in certain tumour types. Curcumin is an effective inducer of autophagic cell death in some certain types of cancers;
  • Research also shows that curcumin increases the activity of certain anti-cancer drugs protecting healthy cells at the same time.[4,11,12,13,14]

Boosting Immunity

Tumeric also acts as an immune booster. It enhances antibody responses. Its beneficial effects in arthritis, allergy, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and cancer might be also due to its ability to stimulate the immune system.

Digestive System

Curcumin increases the solubility of bile; it assists the elimination of gallstones and prevents formation of new ones. It also enhances the flow of bile. Curcumin prevents liver damage - as an antioxidant and by inhibiting NF-kappaB activation and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It deactivates a protein called Leptin, causing liver damage, helps the liver to regenerate. It helps detoxify the liver during chemotherapy.[4]

It also relieves the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and offers promising results in treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, due to its action on cyclooxygenases, lipoxygenase, TNF-alpha, interferon gamma, inducible nitric oxide synthase and the transcriptional nuclear factor kappa B and its potent anti-oxidant effect.

Curcumin aids weight loss and reduces the incidence of obesity-related inflammation.

It also prevents the Development of Type 2 Diabetes.[15,16]

As an Antidepressant

Curcumin shows antidepressant activity. People diagnosed with depression have higher levels of inflammation in the brain and lower levels of neurogenesis. Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory agent and a powerful stimulator of neurogenesis. It may be used as an effective and safe alternative to fluoxetine in patients with major depressive disorder without causing adverse effects like suicidal thoughts.[17]

Turmeric is a safe and beneficial spice. It might have some side effects, like mild nausea or diarrhoea. It can alter iron metabolism, causing iron deficiency in some patients. Curcumin stimulates the uterus and may cause menstrual flow - it is not recommended for pregnant women. It slows down blood clotting, and should not be taken by those with bleeding disorders. It should be avoided when taking anticoagulant drugs. It can also cause more bleeding during and after surgery. In some people skin irritations occur during external use.

Curcumin helps to slow down ageing and age-related diseases, mostly due to its anti - inflammatory and antioxidant action. Its toxicity is very low, making it safe to use for most people - a very promising natural medicine.[18]


1.         Sahdeo Prasad and Bharat B. Aggarwal “Tumeric, the Golden Spice, From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine” Herbal Medicine Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Edition.  2011.

2.         University of Maryland Medical Center:  “Tumeric overview” 2011.

3.         Shoba G, Joy D, Joseph T, Majeed M, Rajendran R, Srinivas PS. “Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers” Planta Med. 1998.

4.         Jane Higdon, Ph.D. Linus Pauling InstituteOregon State University “Curcumin” 2005.

5.         Holly Lucille ND, RN “Tumeric and Alzheimer’s Disease”

6.         Menon VP, Sudheer AR. “Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin”  Adv Exp Med Biol. 595:105-25. 2007.

7.         Jurenka JS. “Anti- inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma Longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research” Altern Med Rev. Sep; 14(3):277. 2009.

8.         Niraj Patel MD “Turmeric May Have the Key to Alzheimer’s Disease” 2012.

9.         Shrikant Mishra and Kalpana Palanivelu “The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview” Ann Indian Acad Neurol. Jan-Mar; 11(1): 13–19. 2008.

10.       T.V. Padma “Tumeric can combat malaria, cancer virus and HIV” Sci Dev Net 2005.


12.       Ricky A. Sharma, Stephanie A. Euden, Sharon L. Platton, Darren N. Cooke, Aisha Shafayat, Heather R. Hewitt, Timothy R. Marczylo, Bruno Morgan, David Hemingway, Simon M. Plummer, Munir Pirmohammed, Andreas J. Gesher, William P. Steward “Phase I Trial of Oral Curcumin Biomarkers of Systemic Activity and Compliance” Clinical Cancer Research. 2004.

13.       Ayan Banerjee, Prasenjit Das, Jayanth Kumar Palanichamy, Sunesh Kumar Jain, Goura Kishore Rath, Pramod Kumar Julka and Neeta Singh “Role of curcumin as an adjuvant in cervical cancer therapeutics” Cancer Prevention Research: Volume 3, Issue 1, Supplement 1. January 2010.

14.       Kakarala, M., et al., Targeting breast stem cells with the cancer preventive compounds curcumin and piperine. Breast Cancer Research & Treatment, 2009.

15.       Shehzad A, Rehman G, Lee YS. “Curcumin in inflammatory diseases” Biofactors. 2013 Jan-Feb;39(1):69-77. doi: 10.1002/biof.1066. Epub Dec 22 2012.

16.       Hanai H, Sugimoto K. “Curcumin has bright prospects for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease”  Curr Pharm Des. 15(18):2087-94. 2009.

17.       Sanmukhani J, Satodia V, Trivedi J, Patel T, Tiwari D, Panchal B, Goel A, Tripathi CB. “Effiacy and Safety of Curcumin in Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial” Phytother Res. . doi: 10.1002/ptr.5025. July 6 2013.

18.       E Sikora, Giovanni Scapagnini,  Mario Barbagallo “Curcumin, inflammation, aging and age related diseases” Immunity & Ageing. 2010.


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About Dorota Zabicka

Dorota Zabicka MSc is Polish, lives in Northern Ireland, having graduated Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) in 2003 with Master’s Degree. The last two years of her studies were dedicated to studying production of herbs and herbal medicine. Her Master’s project about Epilobium species involved field and laboratory research.  She is the proud mum of three girls, interested in natural medicine and alternative therapies and passionate about sports, nutrition and gardening. She is an activist and vegan - dedicated to human, animal rights and environment protection. Doroto may be contacted via

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