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Turmeric: Help or hype for heart health?

Laura Owens is a freelance writer who specializes in natural health, mood balancing, psychology, social trends and motherhood. She lives in Orlando, Florida. You can reach her at laao@cfl.rr.com or http://lauraowens.wordpress.com.

Spice up your heart health

You've likely heard of - and have even eaten - curry, and perhaps you've also heard that turmeric, the yellow spice that gives curry powder its warm color, is good for your health. Research suggests spicing up your diet with this Indian spice to ward off chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer. Turmeric has become especially well-known from research that links turmeric to heart health. But is turmeric truly the super spice it's hailed to be? Can it really ward off heart disease in a single dash? Should some people even avoid consuming it at all? Keep reading to find out if all the curry over turmeric is well-founded or if it's just another -œmiracle food- getting undeserving hype.

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Turmeric is a marigold-colored spice grown in India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Haiti and Jamaica and is the key ingredient in curry powder. While many herbs offer positive health benefits, research has shown turmeric to be a stand out superstar in what it can do for your health, including that organ in your body that beats more than 100,000 times a day, your heart.

The power of turmeric

In India it's revered as "holy powder" and has been used for centuries to treat wounds, infections and other health problems. In recent years, research has shown turmeric's active ingredient, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-bacterial, anti-tumor, anti-allergic, antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, digestive, diuretic and stimulant properties. That's quite a list of health benefits! What gives turmeric its healing powers?

Turmeric has effects that go deep into the nucleus of cells (the nucleus is the information center of the cell), something far beyond what most herbal remedies can do. University of Michigan researchers led by chemistry and biophysics professor Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy found that curcumin acts as a "disciplinarian" in the cells, making them more orderly and improving cells' resistance to infection and malignancy. "The membrane goes from being crazy and floppy to being more disciplined and ordered, so that information flow through it can be controlled," explains Dr Ramanoorthy.

Turmeric and Heart Health

The February 2008 Journal of Clinical Investigation reported the findings of an animal study that found curcumin may prevent and reverse cardiac hypertrophy, a condition characterized by the heart muscle being abnormally enlarged. Cardiac hypertrophy often accompanies long term high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. Further, cardiac hypertrophy is a strong predictor of future cardiac problems, including heart attack and heart failure. If clinical trials in humans prove curcumin is effective, it may offer an inexpensive and safe treatment for millions.

While the results of the 2008 study are promising, they were conducted in lab rats and not humans. Dr. Liu, a lead researcher in the study suggests proceeding with moderation, "Whether you are young or old; male or female; the larger your heart is, the higher your risk is for developing heart attacks or heart failure in the future. However, until clinical trials are done, we don't recommend patients to take curcumin routinely. You are better off to take action today by lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, exercising and healthy eating."

Be cautious with curry

If you want to include curcumin in your diet and enjoy experimenting with flavors, turmeric has a warm, peppery, woodsy, earthy flavor that can be added to a number of recipes including chicken, beans, bread, butter pickles and numerous vegetable combinations.

You may even already unknowingly consume turmeric. Turmeric gives yellow mustard its bright color and in addition to its central role in curry power, it's a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. It's also used to color foods such as butter, cheese and fruit drinks. Be sure to buy pure turmeric powder rather than curry powder; one study showed curry contains very little of the active ingredient curcumin.

Supplement wisely

It seems whenever research suggests a spice or herb may be beneficial for health, the supplement industry is quick to turn this "health-promoting" substance into pills, powders or liquids. Though experts suggest consuming whole foods, if you decide to supplement, do so wisely.

Turmeric supplements for adults (over 18 years old)

According to the National Institute of Health, doses range from 450 milligrams of curcumin capsules to 3 grams of turmeric root daily, divided into several doses, taken by mouth. As a tea, 1 to 1.5 grams of dried root may be steeped in 150 milliliters of water for 15 minutes and taken twice daily. Average dietary intake of turmeric in the Indian population may range between 2 to 2.5 grams, corresponding to 60 to 200 milligrams of curcumin daily. A dose of 0.6 milliliters of turmeric oil has been taken three times daily for one month and a dose of 1 milliliter in three divided doses has been taken for two months. Before you supplement, talk to your doctor.

Turmeric supplements for children (under 18 years old)

There is no proven or safe medicinal dose of turmeric in children.

Safety of Turmeric

The FDA classifies turmeric as GRAS (General Recognition of Safety). Studies show that curcumin even in large quantities produces few, if any, side effects in humans. However, allergic reactions may include contact dermatitis (an itchy rash) after skin or scalp exposure.

People allergic to plants in the Curcuma genus are more likely to have an allergic reaction to turmeric. Use caution if you are allergic to any of its constituents, yellow food colorings, or to plants in the ginger family. Turmeric may cause an upset stomach or heart burn in high doses or over a long period of time. Pregnant women and individuals with gallstones or bleeding disorders should speak with a health care provider before using turmeric.

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