Turmeric is a yellow spice that is an important ingredient in curry. It's made from the root of a flowering plant and has an earthy and somewhat pungent taste. The root is boiled or roasted and then ground to make the spice.
Turmeric is very popular in some cultures. It's an excellent spice for everyone else as well because it may have important health benefits. These benefits are thought to centre around turmeric's ability to reduce inflammation.
The active ingredient in turmeric is a substance called curcumin. Unfortunately, curcumin is poorly absorbed from our digestive tract and is rapidly broken down once it is absorbed, which means that we're not getting as much value from the chemical as we could. In what may be a very important development, scientists have recently discovered a method of improving the absorption of curcumin, at least in mice.
Researchers at the Ohio State University have mixed curcumin powder with polyethylene glycol and castor oil to create a material known as a nano-emulsion. This emulsion contains tiny vesicles, or sacs, containing curcumin molecules. The vesicles are absorbed by the intestinal lining of mice more easily and much more extensively than curcumin molecules on their own.
In addition, the researchers have found that in mice curcumin blocks the activation of a protein that triggers the immune response and causes inflammation. Inflammation is a major component of many human health problems, including heart disease, obesity and rheumatoid arthritis. Curcumin also interferes with the activity of macrophages in mice. Macrophages are immune system cells that attack invaders like bacteria. They also secrete chemicals that trigger inflammation. The inflammatory response is a normal and helpful process in the bodies of both mice and humans, but health problems may occur when inflammation is prolonged or excessive.
The researchers made their observations in mice and in isolated human cells, but the inflammatory process works in a similar way inside the human body. Clinical trials are needed to see if the nano-emulsion helps humans as it did mice. There's a good possibility that it will, but we need to see the clinical trial results to be sure.
We can't create a nano-emulsion at home, so the best we can do at the moment if we hope to experience health benefits is to eat lots of turmeric, or perhaps curcumin supplements. I'm not a big fan of supplements, though, unless they're medically prescribed. For those that do need a supplement or a medication in order to fight inflammation, I hope that the clinical trials with the curcumin nano-emulsion take place soon and that they're successful.
Turmeric and spice photos by Giovanni Dall'Orto and Alice_Alphabet