Turmeric is a spice that people have used for centuries in both food and medicine. Many believe that it has benefits for the human body. Could turmeric be a new tool to help manage diabetes?
Turmeric is the common name for the root Curcuma longa. It is a bright yellow-orange spice that is a staple in traditional food dishes from many Asian countries.
Nowadays, some people use turmeric in cooking or as a supplement to improve their health. If scientists find sufficient evidence that it can offer health benefits, turmeric could play a role in medical therapies in the future.
In this article, we explore the role of turmeric in alternative and Western medicine and look at its potential benefits for diabetes management.
Scientists believe that turmeric may have properties that help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which are factors that appear to play a role in diabetes. For this reason, they believe that turmeric may be useful for people with diabetes.
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which appears to be the source of many of its health benefits. Most research to date has focused on curcumin rather than whole turmeric.
The authors of a review in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine compiled more than 200 research papers on the connection between diabetes and curcumin.
Curcumin may help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels.
The review paper above discusses studies in animals that have indicated that curcumin could have a positive effect on high blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity.
However, the authors also note contradictory research findings, which showed that curcumin had little effect on blood sugar.
Taking turmeric or curcumin by mouth may help reduce blood sugar to more manageable levels in some people, but more research in humans is necessary to confirm this effect.
Many studies have suggested that turmeric might also protect against the development of diabetes.
The authors of the study also noted that curcumin appeared to improve the function of the beta cells that make insulin in the pancreas.
These findings suggest that including turmeric or curcumin in the diet may help people with prediabetes slow down or reverse the development of this condition.
Compounds such as curcumin may also help reduce the risk or severity of some diabetes-related complications:
Many people with diabetes experience liver problems, such as fatty liver disease.
In laboratory tests, rats with diabetes who consumed curcumin were less likely to have liver problems that those that did not.
Cholesterol and heart health
In a human trial, 63 people with acute coronary syndrome took a low dose of 45 milligrams (mg) per day of curcumin for 2 months. After this time, they had lower levels of both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol.
Diabetes appears to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of premature death in people with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
High blood sugar levels can lead to nerve damage, which doctors refer to as neuropathy.
Autonomic neuropathy affects body functions over which a person has no conscious control, such as digestion. Peripheral neuropathy can lead to pain, tingling, and a loss of sensation in the hands and feet.
Some studies have suggested that turmeric may help prevent certain complications of diabetic neuropathy, including:
- eye problems, such as uveitis and cataracts
- gastroparesis, which slows or stops the movement of food through the digestive system
- cognitive deficits, which affect mental processing
Curcumin may also help prevent or reduce the severity of:
- erectile dysfunction
- diabetic nephropathy, also called diabetic kidney disease
- pain resulting from inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
Curcumin has also shown the potential to protect animals from diabetic vascular disease and, as a result, to speed wound healing.
When a person with diabetes has a wound, it can take a long time to heal, and the person will have a higher risk of infection than someone without diabetes. These factors can lead to severe complications.
Finding ways to help wounds heal could be helpful for people with diabetes.
In some cases, scientists have not yet confirmed that the benefits of turmeric that they have noted in animal models are transferable to humans, so more research is necessary.
Scientists believe that type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
A 2014 article noted that curcumin might adjust how the overactive immune system works in people with type 1 diabetes.
The researchers found that curcumin lowers the body’s T-cell response, which is part of its immune response. This finding suggests that curcumin may help strengthen the immune system.
It could also boost the action of immunomodulatory medicines that doctors prescribe to manage type 1 diabetes.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), turmeric appears to be safe, and people can include it in their diet regularly.
However, if people consume too much turmeric or curcumin, they may experience the following signs and symptoms:
As a result, turmeric is not suitable for people using blood thinning medications.
People with certain health conditions may also need to avoid turmeric as it could worsen their symptoms.
These conditions include:
Taking too much curcumin or turmeric for an extended period may also contribute to liver problems.
Turmeric or curcumin might also increase the effects of other blood sugar medications, which could lead to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
People should talk to a doctor before increasing their intake of turmeric or curcumin and before taking turmeric or any other supplements for their symptoms.
Sometimes a supplement or medicinal food can interact with existing medications.
Learn more about the side effects, benefits, and risks of using turmeric.
If people with diabetes add turmeric to their diet, it should supplement and not replace a comprehensive diabetes management plan.
People with diabetes should use insulin or other medications as their doctor advises and take the following lifestyle measures to reduce the risk of complications:
- eating a healthful diet that includes plenty of nonstarchy vegetables and fiber
- exercising regularly
- managing stress levels
- quitting smoking if necessary and avoiding secondhand smoke where possible
- getting regular sleep
A doctor will work with the individual to create a health plan that addresses their specific symptoms and needs. The doctor can also offer advice on the use of turmeric in food or as a supplement, but they may recommend consulting a dietitian for help with nutrition and meal planning.
Turmeric contains compounds that may be useful for treating various conditions, some of which can occur alongside diabetes.
According to the NCCIH, some studies have found that curcuminoids might:
- lower the risk of heart attacks after bypass surgery
- be as effective as ibuprofen in managing knee pain
- reduce skin irritation, which is common after radiation therapy for breast cancer
Scientists have also looked at the benefits of turmeric for:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- some types of cancer, including prostate cancer and colon cancer
- surgical pain
- reducing dental plaque as a mouthwash ingredient
- rheumatoid arthritis
- skin problems
- liver and gallbladder problems
- breathing difficulties
Research has also suggested that turmeric may help with:
Some of these conditions, such as psoriasis and Crohn’s disease, appear to be more common among people with diabetes.
Learn more here about how turmeric can benefit a person with psoriasis.
Turmeric is a mild spice that adds flavor to many sweet and savory dishes.
People can add turmeric to their diet in several different ways:
- make turmeric tea
- make golden milk using turmeric, milk, and other spices
- add turmeric powder to scrambled eggs
- add color and flavor to rice by stirring in a spoonful of turmeric before cooking it
- use turmeric to add gentle spice to a vegetable stew
- add turmeric to a smoothie
It is best to test the flavor by adding just 1 teaspoon of turmeric first. A person can then add another teaspoon if they want a stronger taste.
Research suggests that curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric, can have a significant effect on some of the symptoms and complications of diabetes. However, most research to date has involved animals, and more human trials are necessary to confirm the benefits of this spice.
In 2017, one team of researchers urged caution over proposing turmeric as a cure-all. They called for more detailed studies, noting that because turmeric varies widely in quality, like other spices, it is difficult to carry out consistent tests.
Turmeric is not a medication, and it is not a replacement for any drug or lifestyle measure that a doctor may prescribe to treat diabetes. People should not use it as a substitute for any aspect of diabetes care.
However, under the guidance of a doctor, turmeric or curcumin may benefit a person with diabetes, whether they use it as a spice in cooking or take it in supplement form.
We hear that turmeric is good for many things. Can it really help with diabetes and stop it from getting worse?
Based on the current evidence, it seems that curcumin could be beneficial for people with diabetes or those wanting to prevent diabetes.
The research is reasonably clear regarding curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to improve insulin sensitivity and cholesterol.
Effective doses appear to range from 1,000 to 2,000 mg per day. It is a staple supplement in my regimen and one I recommend often.
Natalie Butler, RD, LD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.