Could an ancient spice be nature’s remedy?
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - It was lunchtime, and there was robust activity inside Shyan’s Kitchen in Metairie as colorful Indian and Pakistani dishes came together with fresh ingredients.
"So, see a lot of turmeric in it as well,” said Irfan Khan, owner and CEO of Shyan’s, as he stirred a savory chicken dish.
Turmeric is part of the ginger root family, and long before it began making headlines in the U.S., the ancient spice was rooted in Khan’s life.
"I'm from Kashmir, so I remember my grandparents…Grandmother used to take this and she used to grind with the stone to make it powder style…or mostly make paste out of it and then we used it in the cooking,” said Khan.
He said turmeric is critical to a panoply of condiments used to fuel his restaurant’s menu.
"Every dish almost certainly includes some black pepper, as you can see, cloves, turmeric powder, some cumin, salt and pepper and some ginger, ginger-based garlic. Those are essential for any of the curries that we cook here,” Khan said.
In its raw form, turmeric resembles ginger.
"When you dry it up and you make it powder it looks like bright yellow powder,” Khan added.
He said as he grew up his family used it for medicinal purposes.
"We had one doctor like you would have to travel like maybe at least three villages, which is three towns to get to him, no transportation at the time, so people used turmeric a lot to cure the regular day to day things, day-to-day diseases,” said Khan.
For centuries, turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, which is said to have originated in India, and Western civilization is taking notice.
The National Institutes of Health for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that turmeric has been used in Asia for conditions like breathing problems, rheumatism, serious pain and fatigue.
"The recommended dosage is somewhere between one to two grams per day, so I mean that’s the equivalent, let’s see, about five teaspoons of the powder form,” said LSU Health nutrition scientist, Henry Nuss, PhD.
Turmeric is found in U.S. products like mustard and boxed macaroni and cheese.
Dr. Nuss says there is no harm in consuming it in foods.
"No, I don't think there's any downside to it. The only thing that I've seen as recommending that people be cautious about it is women who are pregnant because they're not sure if taking large doses of it may have some adverse effect on the fetus, but that's probably in a capsule form where people are taking it as supplements,” he said.
And there is a growing crop of research on the potential health benefits of turmeric or Indian saffron as some call it.
“I’ve looked into the literature and looked at some of the clinical trials that have been done using turmeric, or actually the active ingredient in turmeric called curcumin and it does seem to have some health benefits to it. With regards to hypertension, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, they’ve even tried using it to treat depression and it does show to have some effect, some positive effects,” said Nuss.
Some studies now suggest curcumin has anti-cancer properties.
"It shows some very promising future directions for its use. They've done studies where they've shown that it's been preventive in certain kinds of cancer, that it's reduced tumor growth,” Nuss stated.
He said more study is needed.
“Yes, but there have been some very promising leads in regards of colorectal cancer,” Nuss added.
At Shyan’s, the chef ticked off some of the many dishes he includes turmeric in daily.
"Every curry, lamb curry, goat curry, chicken curry, beef curry, potato and cauliflower, lentils,” said Khalid Mehmood.
Researchers have discovered that curcumin does not accumulate in the body.
"One of the issues with curcumin as a medicinal use, or for treating certain kinds of cancers and other things we talked about is that our bodies don't absorb it very well at all, so you have to take a relatively large dose to have an effect,” Nuss said.
But Khan pointed to black pepper among the popular condiments in Indian cooking, and while he does not make any scientific claims, a 2017 study published in the Journal Foods and available on the NIH site, suggests that combining curcumin with piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, helps with absorption.
Specifically, researchers wrote, “…when combined in a complex with Curcumin, has been shown to increase bio-availability by 2000%. Curcumin combined with enhancing agents provides multiple health benefits."
Nuss said some turmeric capsules also contain black pepper.
"Like the capsule form, the good ones that they sell now have a little bit of black pepper in them and for whatever reason that increases the bio-availability of the curcumin, so your body absorbs a lot more,” Nuss stated.
And the golden spice may help the skin as it ages.
"In theory, yes. I'm not saying that you can start eating turmeric and you'd never look a day over 12, but it does appear to have some interaction with your skin cells,” said Nuss.
Nuss was asked whether he would consume turmeric daily.
"I’ve already ordered my first bottle of turmeric capsules, so I’m going to try it and see what happens,” he said.
He added that turmeric’s star ingredient, curcumin, may interact with some prescription drugs.
"There does seem to be some recommendations to stay away curcumin if you are taking medications for diabetes, stomach acid and blood thinners,” said Nuss.
And he said while it aids healthy gallbladders it could cause discomfort in people with gallstones.
"It does appear that one of the effects of curcumin is that it causes the gallbladder to constrict in a good way usually, so that helps with the emptying of the gallbladder and is usually a desirable effect, but if you have gallstones it may cause some discomfort as that gallbladder is contracting,” Nuss added.
Khan still uses turmeric to help him feel better.
"Yes, I do use it every now and then especially when I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, or I have, you know, heavy throat and sore throat and stuff like that it does help with that,” Khan said.
While Dr. Nuss will try the capsules, he hopes to see more standardized clinical trials related to the herb and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
"At least in the United States we're not quite at the point to say, take turmeric to treat X, Y, or Z and that will be the course of action. But I've seen enough literature to make me a believer,” said Nuss.
Health professionals say people with medical conditions should always consult with their physicians before taking herbal supplements.
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