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 Turmeric, used in many delicious dishes, and one of its components, curcumin, are being studied for health benefits. Here’s what we know so far about turmeric and cancer.

What is turmeric?

Turmeric is a plant native to South Asia, but it is grown and used around the world. Its golden yellow root is used as a spice in many dishes, including popular Indian curries. It’s what gives these dishes their beautiful color!

The active compounds in turmeric include turmerone oil and curcuminoids. The most studied curcuminoid is curcumin, and this is likely what you see in supplement form. It is being studied for its use and effectiveness for certain ailments and cancer.

** Curcumin is currently not recommended to take with chemotherapy. It may interfere with your specific cancer treatment or other drugs. Please check with your doctor to see if you should also avoid turmeric spice. **

Curcumin is a popular supplement, but should you be taking it?

Preclinical studies suggest that turmeric can reduce inflammation and may even help prevent certain cancers in rats and mice, such as colon, stomach, and skin cancers. But we need results from human studies before we can know for sure.

Curcumin might also act as an antioxidant. While antioxidants are important to keep your cells healthy and for cancer prevention, you always need a balance of antioxidants and oxidants in your body for optimal health. This is especially true when going through treatment for cancer, as too many antioxidants might make your radiation or chemotherapy treatments less effective.

Instead of taking supplements, eating food with antioxidants and phytochemicals is a good way to make sure you get the right amount, not too much and not too little. Supplements aren’t regulated in the same way drugs are in the U.S., so you may not actually know exactly what you are getting. It is usually safer to eat the food rather than take the supplement. However, even in food form, turmeric might interfere with certain chemotherapy drugs, as has been seen with some drugs used to treat breast cancer, so always check with your doctor to see if you should avoid this spice.

Humans don’t absorb or use curcumin very well. That’s why curcumin supplements often contain large amounts. This is likely what causes the most common reported side effects: nausea and diarrhea. One way to increase absorption of curcumin is to take it with its naturally occurring turmerone oils. But as always, nature knows best how to package her foods; so why not just eat it as a spice?

How do you eat turmeric?

Turmeric can be a delicious and a beautiful addition to your cooking! Add a pinch of dried turmeric when cooking grains like rice, quinoa, or even oatmeal. Add a pinch of dried or a small amount of grated fresh turmeric to warm milk with honey. Try Indian curries with turmeric, like these easy veggie recipes. And check out these delicious turmeric recipes from Bon Appetit!

Want to talk more about supplements? Make an integrative medicine consult appointment with UNC’s Dr. Gary Asher. Learn more here.

Guest blog post by Jessica Wallis, dietetic intern, MPH candidate in nutrition at UNC-CH, food lover, and future dietitian.

Asher GN, Spelman K. Clinical utility of curcumin extract. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2013.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. About Herbs, Botanicals, and Other Products: Turmeric. Updated July 2018.

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Turmeric. Updated Sept 2016