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The Science Behind the Turmeric Hype

Is this golden herb the health and performance boon that we’ve been told? Let science tell the story.

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In recent years, there has been an uptick in the amount of buzz surrounding an astringent golden powder both from a general health perspective and also among athletes who view turmeric as a pathway to improved recovery and performance. Haven’t you noticed how all the cool kids are drinking steamy mugs of golden milk? Yellow-hued smoothie bowls are suddenly like-baiting recovery fuel. Which begs the question: is this spice du jour worthy of the hype? Read on for what we know about one of the original ‘superfoods,’ and if it can make a difference in your day-to-day life and take your running performance to the next level. 

What is Turmeric?

Spices can hail from many different parts of a plant including the dried seeds (cumin), buds (cloves), fruit (peppercorns), bark (cinnamon) and roots. That last one brings us to turmeric, which is the rhizome of a tropical plant native to India and Southeast Asia. When the turmeric root is peeled, dried and then finely ground it leaves us with the yellow powder that you see in the supermarket spice aisle. Turmeric is also the main spice in various curry powder mixtures. 

Many cultures have traditionally used turmeric for culinary, religious significance, and medicinal purposes. Indian Ayurvedic medicine calls upon turmeric heavily for its believed healing powers. 

What Makes Turmeric Healthy?

Turmeric tea
Photo: Tina Witherspoon / Unsplash

The enticing aroma of turmeric wafting up from a simmering pot of curry could do more than whet appetites, it may bolster our health and performance gains. 

The yellow pigment that stains your Tupperware and fingertips comes courtesy of curcumin, a phytochemical antioxidant shown to possess strong anti-inflammatory powers which may benefit the athletic crowd. In a recent meta-analysis of 346 studies published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, curcumin was determined to contribute to lower amounts of inflammation and oxidative stress in those who were physically active leading to reported reductions in muscle pain and damage along with improvements in workout recovery and gastrointestinal functioning.

Importantly, no adverse side effects were reported in athletes and others who took curcumin in various dosages. 

Athletes who want to bounce back from a hard workout should make note of an investigation in The FASEB Journal which found that participants who supplemented with 200 milligrams of curcumin for 2 months had less overall muscle damage and soreness following a bout of muscle-damaging exercise (running certainly fits into this category) than those who didn’t. A lower dose, 50mg, was shown not to be as effective. This type of improved recovery could certainly contribute to helping tick off a few PR pursuits. 

Owing to its anti-inflammatory lore, many athletes also believe using turmeric can help soothe sore joints. There might be some merit to this. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found an extract of turmeric containing high amounts of curcumin relieved knee arthritis pain in older adults suffering from osteoarthritis better than a placebo. And curcumin is much easier on your body than taking an over-the-counter NSAID, which can have unwanted side-effects including heartburn. Still, we should not be so quick to compare older individuals with arthritis to healthy runners who occasionally need relief from nagging knee pain.

Excess inflammation isn’t just a problem if you’re aiming to train hard, it can be disruptive to many cellular processes that over time may damage certain organs including the heart and brain. Since the active compound in turmeric can help quell inflammation it’s not surprising that research suggests it may help fend off heart disease, improve brain functioning, and lessen the risk for certain cancers. Preliminary research sets forward the idea that curcumin could aid in weight management by helping halt the division of body fat cells. 

The benefits seem real, though they may be exaggerated to a degree due to a potential for bias in several of the studies including researchers owing supplement companies who stand to benefit from positive results. This study looking at the scientific literature on curcumin suggests that the compound has limited health benefits. (One big problem is that the reviewers were unable to find any rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials to support its myriad health claims.) Plus, simply eating more turmeric and its curcumin won’t make up for eating a lousy diet overall when it comes to disease prevention. And if you’re dousing your trendy golden latte with sugar, that’s unfortunately going to cancel out any benefit. 

What You Need to Know

Turmeric powder, roots, and yellow flower
Photo: Tamanna Rumee / Unsplash

While the data is certainly promising, a big question remains for researchers and hopeful users: 

How much of the stuff do we need to see the benefits? A range of dosages of curcumin supplementation from 50 to 1,000 milligrams has been used in research studies, so you may need to take a lot more than you’d get from a glass of golden milk or bowl of lentil curry to reap any noticeable health and muscle benefits. To put it in perspective, curcumin only makes up an average of 3% of the weight of 5 mg of dry turmeric powder, according to a 2006 study published in Nutrition and Cancer. Curry powder contains significantly less. The upshot is that to get the dosage that’s going to be most beneficial supplementation with concentrated curcumin is likely needed. (Not all turmeric powders and pills disclose how much curcumin they contain and turmeric spice that’s been sitting in your pantry for eons may have lost its punch.)

Owing to a dearth of regulation, when it comes to turmeric supplements its buyer beware. Of the 13 turmeric pills tested by Consumer Reports, they identified concerns in more than a third of them including lower levels of active curcumin than advertised along with elevated levels of lead and bacteria. 

Compounding the confusion is that several studies combine turmeric with other herbal extracts so it’s hard to say what is having the biggest impact. Interestingly, your body absorbs the curcumin in turmeric best when you pair it with the compound piperine in black pepper. So don’t forget a few grinds of the pepper mill when preparing turmeric laced soups and curries. This is also why you often find piperine included in commercial golden milk mixes and turmeric supplements. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that more research has been conducted on animals than humans. 

All of this is to say that it’s prudent to consider turmeric as a sports supplement with promising results regarding muscle damage and pain, but one that has not yet obtained a high degree of scientific evidence regarding its efficacy. Remember that once something enters the popular press and social media world, it can be blown out of proportion. It’s safe to say that science will never show that turmeric is the panacea we hope for. 

While more research will yield more concrete answers, what we now know might be a cue to add a bit more yellow spice into your life—or at least consider dusting your scrambled eggs with turmeric more often as a safe bet and a way to up the flavor ante of your diet.

Mellow Yellows

If you’re looking to welcome more turmeric into your life, these three products are a great place to start.

Gaia Herbs Turmeric Supreme Extra Strength

Each capsule contains black pepper for added absorption, and the aforementioned Consumer Reports study found that it contains the amount of curcumin advertised and did not exceed safe levels for heavy metals and bacteria. 

Navitas Organics Turmeric Powder

Sourced from fresh turmeric tested to have higher levels of curcumin, this deeply flavored powder lacks the musty taste of stale supermarket versions.  

GT’s Tantric Turmeric Kombucha

Fresh pressed turmeric juice is paired with fizzy kombucha for a hit of beneficial probiotics. Bonus: No added sugars.