Although turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, the renewed attention around this member of the ginger family centers on the scientific evidence supporting its main active component, curcumin. A potent plant-based compound, curcumin has been used in many animal and cell studies, where it has been shown to have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and neuroprotective properties.
The problem is seeing these benefits in human trials. Curcumin effectiveness is limited by its bioavailability, as Linus Pauling Institute nutrition scientist Barbara Delage, Ph.D., told Roni Caryn Rabin for the New York Times’ Ask Well column. Turmeric (or just straight curcumin) is poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolized, and quickly eliminated from the body. Therefore, its potential currently seems very limited.
Although attempts are underway to develop forms of curcumin that are better absorbed, as quoted by Delage in a blog from the Food Network, they “will need to be tested for safety and effectiveness.”
Tricks that boost the bioavailability of turmeric include heating in a curry or warm drink, like this one from Vogue. Also, since curcumin is fat-soluble, eating some oil at the same time may help. And last but not least, a tip from our Micronutrient Information Center: a compound from black pepper (piperine) can slow how fast curcumin is kicked out of the body, thus may aid availability.