As a child growing up in Chennai, India, Aarthi Narayanan remembers that whenever she felt sick, the first line of defense wasn’t found in the medicine cabinet—it was growing in the garden. Narayanan’s grandmother plucked plants and herbs from the tropical trees and plants growing in their small, green plot and made remedies for everything from sore throats to sour stomachs and irritated skin.
But there was one plant that Narayanan’s family used daily to both maintain good health, and add a little color and flavor to their dishes. Turmeric, an underground root and close relative to the ginger plant, was the go-to cure for coughs, cuts, and viruses, among other medicinal uses.
“My response to my grandmother growing up was, ”This is ridiculous—you’re just giving me turmeric and forcing me to think this is going to work,’” Narayanan recalls. “But now I can see where she was coming from.”
In fact, Narayanan, a research assistant professor at the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at Virginia’s George Mason University, is at the forefront of a wave of scientific studies showing that a compound found in turmeric called curcumin helps control—and even stop—inflammation. After thousands of years as a home remedy, curcumin is finally proving its mettle in the lab, and scientists say the results they’re seeing could eventually extend to treating more deadly viruses such as HIV.
Known in the West as the spice that gives curries and mustards their bright yellow color, turmeric is most commonly used in dried form and found in Indian cuisine paired with cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. On its own, turmeric doesn’t have much flavor, but it packs a colorful punch. Food manufacturers use turmeric as a color additive for cakes, cheeses, butter, and even pickles.
For years, studies have shown that turmeric’s compound, curcumin, may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, control inflammation in patients with knee osteoarthritis, and improve the general health of patients with colorectal cancer. A Penn State study published last year in the Journal of Nutrition showed that adding spices like turmeric and cinnamon to high-fat meals reduced triglycerides in the bloodstream.
In 2012, Narayanan and her team found that curcumin stopped the deadly Rift Valley Fever virus from multiplying in human cells and in mice. Rift Valley Fever virus (RFV) is an acute, fever-causing virus that affects cattle, sheep and goats, as well as humans. The researchers were looking at how a host responds to infection, and in turn, how to control the inflammatory response.
They had tested up to 30 different inhibitors on the virus. Remembering the medicinal tradition turmeric had in her own culture, Narayanan threw the spice into the mix on a lark. When she found that curcumin completely eliminated the virus in human cell cultures as well as mice, she felt both shocked and vindicated.
“I wanted to jump up and down and say ”I knew it! I knew it!’” she remembers thinking after the results came in. “So we did the experiment about a gazillion more times, and sometimes... the virus would drop more than 90 percent, and sometimes there was none.”
Results of the study were published in August in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Narayanan next plans to test 10 different versions of curcumin to determine which one is most effective. Eventually she intends to apply the research to other viruses, including HIV. But she warns that turmeric “isn’t a magic bullet.”
The problem that haunts curcumin, she says, is that it peaks in the bloodstream very quickly, and then disappears. Until scientists can alter the basic structure of curcumin to last longer in the body, it won’t be 100 percent protective. In the meantime, adding a little black pepper to turmeric boosts curcumin’s staying power in the body, she says.
Still, turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a smart addition to a daily diet. Though more research is needed on the spice, Narayanan says that adding a pinch of turmeric to a source of fat, such as oil or butter, to meals will slowly but steadily condition the body to respond less intensely to infection.
Indeed, turmeric provides low-impact flavor for high-impact benefits, says Monica Bhide, a culinary writer and educator and author of Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen. Bhide recommends adding a quarter teaspoon of turmeric to fall squashes, stews, soups, chili, and other savory dishes. Just get used to the idea that your food will take on a light yellow tinge. “This is the sunscreen for the inside of your body,” she says.
Elizabeth Weinstein is an Alexandria, VA-based journalist