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.
In this article we explore the role of turmeric in alternative and Western medicine. We go on to analyze the potential benefits of the spice for diabetes management.
Turmeric and medicine
Turmeric and its compounds are being studied for conditions such as cancer, inflammation, and psoriasis.
Turmeric plays an important role in medical practices, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Medical science is interested in the herb, as well, due to the high levels of friendly compounds it contains. Of particular interest is a class of compounds called curcuminoids.
One curcuminoid found in turmeric is curcumin. This name is sometimes loosely used to describe all of the curcuminoids in turmeric.
Turmeric and curcumin are being studied for a number of human conditions such as:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease
- peptic ulcers
- h. pylori infections
- Alzheimer's disease
Turmeric is also often added to the diet to help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Including turmeric in the diet seems to promote general wellbeing. There is also evidence that indicates turmeric may be especially beneficial for people with diabetes.
It is believed that curcumin is the source of many of the medical benefits of turmeric. The focus of most research has been on curcumin itself, rather than whole turmeric.
A review in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine compiled more than 13 years of research on the connection between diabetes and curcumin. The result suggests curcumin can help people with diabetes in different ways, as described here:
Curcumin may help control blood sugar
Curcumin may help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels.
Tests using animal models indicated that curcumin could have a positive effect on high blood sugar. Many tests were also able to improve the levels of insulin sensitivity in test subjects. Other studies found that curcumin had little effect on blood sugar.
Thus, taking turmeric or curcumin orally may help reduce blood sugar levels to more controllable levels in some people, though more research on humans is necessary.
Curcumin may help prevent diabetes
Studies suggest that people with prediabetes may not develop full diabetes when given curcumin in capsules.
Researchers also noted that many of the studies done over the years showed turmeric might also protect against developing diabetes. One study posted to Diabetes Care found that people with prediabetes who were given curcumin for a period of 9 months were less likely to develop the full-blown condition.
The study also noted that the curcumin appeared to improve the function of the beta-cells that make insulin in the pancreas. Accordingly, including turmeric or curcumin in the diet may be beneficial for people who want to reduce their chance of developing diabetes.
Curcumin may reduce diabetes-related complications
Compounds like curcumin may also help with a few diabetes-related complications.
People with diabetes often have liver disorders, such as fatty liver disease. Researchers gave test subjects curcumin over a long period of time. As a result, these people appeared to have fewer symptoms of liver disorders.
Curcumin may also help:
- prevent nerve damage caused by diabetes
- prevent diabetic cataracts, according to results of animal tests
- fight cognitive problems, due to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- fight kidney disease, by reducing important markers
The compound curcumin was reported to be active against diabetic vascular disease, and it seems to speed wound-healing. There is also evidence that suggests long-term curcumin intake can improve aspects of digestion.
Curcumin may adjust immune response in type 1 diabetes
Researchers found that curcumin lowers the T cell response of the body. This is the immune response that destroys the pancreatic beta-cells that make insulin.
This means that curcumin may help empower the immune system. Similarly, it may boost the immunomodulatory medicines prescribed to manage type 1 diabetes.
Risks, considerations, and side effects
Before taking any new supplements, a healthcare professional should be consulted.
Turmeric is considered safe and can be included in the diet regularly. However, there is the potential for side effects when turmeric or curcumin are taken in large doses. Some people experience symptoms of indigestion, nausea, or diarrhea if they take too much of either.
People with certain conditions may need to avoid turmeric altogether, as it may make these worse. Conditions that might be affected include:
Taking too much curcumin or turmeric for a long period of time may also contribute to liver problems.
Similarly, the spice may increase the effects of other blood sugar medications, potentially leading to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. The best course of action is for people to work with a knowledgeable doctor or healthcare practitioner before using supplements like curcumin for any of their symptoms.
Turmeric and diabetes management
If people with diabetes add turmeric to their diets, it should be used as a supplement to a comprehensive diabetes management plan.
Many people with diabetes respond well to:
- eating a healthful diet
- exercising regularly
- managing their stress levels
Doctors will often work directly with a person to create an individualized health plan that addresses their specific symptoms.
A good diet plan for people with diabetes usually begins with a move away from processed foods. People should aim for a diet rich in natural, unprocessed meals instead. Eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains helps to ensure a diet contains as many nutrients as possible.
People with diabetes must watch their carbohydrate intake, particularly carbohydrates in processed and refined sugars, as these can cause spikes in the blood sugar. Although natural sugars such as those found in fruit are better options, these also need to be accounted for when managing diabetes.
Fiber-rich foods are also needed, as they slow the rate of sugar absorption in the body. This may help prevent blood sugar spikes during the day.
Including plenty of other healthy spices besides turmeric in the diet may also help some people manage their diabetes symptoms. These include:
Criticisms of turmeric and curcumin
Not everyone is convinced curcumin is as good as it seems.
A recent study posted to the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry was critical of the use of curcumin to help prevent or treat anything.
The researchers argued that curcumin is not very bioavailable, and that the quality of the herb can vary greatly. This makes it difficult to use or test its compounds in a controlled way. They called for more careful examination of curcumin in future research.
Turmeric is not a medicine in the Western sense of the word. It is not a replacement for any medications a person may be taking. It should also not be used as a substitute for any part of diabetes care.
Both turmeric and curcumin can easily be taken to supplement a diabetes-care regimen. This should be done under the guidance of a doctor, who may ask a person to start out with a low dose to gauge their reaction to it. The dose can be increased, gradually, to avoid any complications or side effects.
Pairing turmeric or curcumin with oils, fats, or black pepper may also increase the effect of their beneficial compounds.