Turmeric (Curcumin): A Complete Scientific Guide

If you're like most people, your nutrition knowledge is limited to what various food labels have been telling you for years. You probably know that fruits and vegetables are essential, but beyond that, you may need to be more knowledgeable. That's because most of the information on how different foods can help or harm your health is based on studies using animals or small groups of humans. Human studies are the best available science to determine how one food may affect another.

So what can we learn from these studies? How do they relate to us? And even if they're irrelevant, why should we care? Let's start with turmeric—the golden yellow root vegetable commonly used in Indian cooking and sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S. It has a sweet scent and a warm color reminiscent of ginger root. Curcumin is the main ingredient in turmeric and gives it its bright yellow pigment; other compounds yield turmeric's odor and color too, but curcumin is by far the main contributor to both properties.

How Does Turmeric Work?

Turmeric is a natural medicine, so we can't say precisely what it does to help your body. Most supplements are designed to modulate one or two essential compounds in the body so that you can improve in several areas. The researchers hypothesize that turmeric may help increase antioxidant levels and improve the inflammatory response. Antioxidants fight inflammation by stopping it from occurring or inhibiting its progression. They're needed in large quantities in our body and blood because the human body is not well-equipped to produce them. Many people may have low levels of antioxidants, especially in some body regions, like the blood.

Turmeric as a Dietary Supplement

Turmeric is sold as a supplement for humans. Still, it is currently unavailable for use by the food industry as a color additive due to its high levels of coumarin. This substance can cause liver damage when consumed in excessive amounts. In 2016, the FDA asked the companies selling turmeric supplements to pull the products from the market until they receive a green light to use it as a natural food additive. The agency is still reviewing the data and expects a decision on whether to allow it to be used as a food color.

Is Turmeric Safe?

Regarding supplements, there is only a little safety data available on curcumin, the ingredient in turmeric. So, the answer is only sometimes known for sure. On the positive side, turmeric has been commonly used for thousands of years in countries like India, where it's consumed daily. It's safe there. On the negative side, it's used relatively small amounts, so consuming too much is likely to have harmful side effects. No studies look at long-term side effects, and there's a risk of taking too high a dose by consuming large amounts over long periods.

Who Should Take Turmeric?

According to recent studies, people with certain health conditions may be better off taking turmeric as a dietary supplement than as part of their regular diet. This includes people with −

  • Chronic Kidney Disease − Kidney disease increases the risk of kidney failure and reduced kidney function, which may negatively affect their antioxidant levels and lead to an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Kidney disease is common in older adults, and people with chronic kidney disease are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other diseases linked to lower antioxidant levels.

  • Anti-Cancer Properties − Early research suggests that curcumin can inhibit breast and colon cancers, but more research is needed to solidify this link.

Turmeric Benefits

  • Skin Health − Turmeric has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. It may also help treat skin rashes like eczema and dermatitis by reducing inflammation.

  • Vital Heart Health − Turmeric may benefit heart health through its antioxidant properties, which may help maintain blood-flow-keeping factors in the blood like LDL ("bad") cholesterol at healthy levels.

  • May Improve Brain Health − Preliminary research suggests that curcumin may improve brain health as we age by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, which may result in better cognitive function.

Curcumin and Turmeric Side Effects

Many herbs and spices are used in small amounts to flavor food, but some are added to supplements, which may be taken at higher doses. It's essential to ensure that you take a manageable amount of turmeric. The best way to do this is to buy the supplement form and consume it as directed. If you end up taking too much, the side effects should not be dangerous, but they could include the following −

  • Increased yellow-orange-colored urine

  • Yellowing of the eyes

  • Mouth and tongue irritation

  • Flushing of the skin

  • Heart palpitations

Pros of Turmeric for Health

  • May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease − Recent studies suggest that curcumin may reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing inflammation in the body.

  • May Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s − Like the brain health benefits seen above, curcumin may help prevent Alzheimer's disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.

  • May Improve Mental Clarity − Curcumin has been linked to improved mental clarity. –

  • May improve Joint Health − A 2014 study found that people who consumed turmeric were less likely to develop arthritis or have joint pain associated with aging.

  • May Improve Immunity − A study published in 2013 found that curcumin had a positive effect on the immune system and may promote the growth of new blood cells that help fight infection and diminish the risk of cancer.

Cons of Turmeric for Health

  • May Increase Your Risk of Pregnancy Complications − It’s best to discuss consumption of turmeric supplements with your doctor if you’re currently pregnant or planning a family.

  • Could Increase Ulcer Development in Chronically Diabetic Patients − Additionally, people with diabetes who take curcumin may experience an increased risk of developing heart disease and other conditions associated with inflammation.

  • Could Raise Your Blood Pressure − One study found that taking a high dose of curcumin supplements for two weeks causes a modest rise in blood pressure—an effect that was not seen in those who took a placebo. Further research is needed to determine if this is a health concern.

  • Could Lead to Liver Damage − There is concern that consuming too much curcumin could lead to liver damage.

  • May Cause Changes in Stool Texture − Consuming too much curcumin may cause changes in the texture of your stool, which may be uncomfortable and cause constipation.


Turmeric is a dietary supplement used for centuries in Asia. It is a root with a solid yellow pigment (curcumin) and has been used in small amounts as a natural gift and for medicinal purposes. It is possible to take too much turmeric, so it's essential to follow the recommended dose and not take more than the suggested curcumin. Turmeric is a natural medicine, so we can't say precisely what it does to help your body. Most supplements are designed to modulate one or two essential compounds in the body so that you can improve in several areas.