If it seems like turmeric is the antidote to almost all health issues, it’s because it is – for the most part. Curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric rhizome and one of many curcuminoids in turmeric, is responsible for a wide variety of health benefits with no-toxic effects, even at high doses. What pharmaceutical drug can boast of that?
Curcumin is a polyphenolic compound, a class of bioactive compounds that wine, tea, berries, and dark chocolate share. Curcumin and its extracts have many biological activities that surpass those of these herald health foods combined. Much research has focused on curcumin and its breakdown products (metabolites) as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer agent. Other biological activities include analgesic, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, anticoagulant, antidiabetic and hypolipemic (lowers blood fats) agent (1,2).
A quick Google search shows the plentiful supply of turmeric/curcumin supplements. Capsule supplements are available as “premium,” “extra-strength,” and “high-absorbable” – and there is no shortage of brands to choose from. Supplements also come in gummies and drops. Premium health food with turmeric are also available in products such as turmeric golden mylk powder and turmeric latte mix. Applications aren’t limited to supplements and foods. Skin care brands are also infusing turmeric into facial masks, moisturizers, scrubs, mists, and serums for consumers wanting extra value.
Before curcumin became a premium compound, Ayurvedic medicine, old Hindu medicine, and areas in China and Southeast Asia were using turmeric widely for medicinal purposes, treating issues such as bile-related disorders, anorexia, cough, diabetic wounds, liver disorders, rheumatism, and sinusitis (3).
Let’s not forget, turmeric also has culinary applications for flavouring, preserving, and colouring, especially in Indian cuisine. Long before curcumin supplements, people cooked with turmeric regularly to harness its flavour and function, and I recommend we continue using fresh turmeric root or turmeric powder in daily meal preparation for maintenance of health. Though, if we want supplement-like health benefits from turmeric we can buy at the grocery store, it should be modified.
On its own, curcumin is poorly soluble in aqueous mediums (4), i.e. the human body, being that it is a fat-loving (lipophilic) compound that repels water. It metabolizes rapidly and leaves the body via feces. It also degrades quickly in neutral and basic solutions, yet slows significantly in acidic conditions (5). Poor solubility and rapid degradation limit its therapeutic potential.
The earliest study to examine curcumin uptake, distribution, and excretion in rats showed 75% of orally ingested curcumin was excreted in feces (6). Minor amounts were in the blood and biliary system, indicating curcumin was poorly absorbed from the gut and distributed to blood via the liver. Human studies show similar results (7,8): curcumin has low bioavailability, that is, poor uptake into the blood.
Modifying the formulation and delivery has enhanced bioavailability and extended the time in circulation. More time in the blood means more health benefits due to binding target sites. Many curcumin supplements now contain piperine, the pungent compound in black pepper, after a study in 1998 showed a 2000% increase in bioavailability with higher concentrations of curcumin noted in blood serum compared to curcumin taken without piperine (9). Eating turmeric-containing foods with black pepper will also enhance absorption. Furthermore, delivering curcumin using nanoparticles(10)and liposomes (11)greatly enhances bioavailability, thus, health benefits. These modifications, however, increase cost of supplements.
Fermenting turmeric, on the other hand, is inexpensive and easy to do at home. All you need is salt, filtered water, fresh turmeric root, a clamp-lid jar, and a keen attitude towards fermentation and health. As lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid, the brine acidifies and curcumin becomes more stable. Fermenting turmeric also enhances solubility of its phenolic compounds, thereby, enhancing antioxidant (12), anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective (13) (liver protective) effects as studies have shown. Fermentation becomes an ideal way to preserve and enhance the benefits of turmeric/curcumin.
That’s not all, nutrient content also increases with fermentation as one study notes (14). Calcium increased 83% from 151 mg per 100g of turmeric to 903 mg; zinc increased by 98% from 0.17 mg to 7.45 mg; and selenium increased 100% from 0 mg to 0.07 mg. This is a dietitian’s dream food. (I think I’ve said that many times about all fermented foods and sprouts.)
Once fermentation of turmeric root is complete, about 5-7 days, the brine and root become rich sources of good microbes and curcumin in an activated, water-soluble form, tetrahydrocurcumin. This transformed form of curcumin enhances islet function (insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that manage blood sugar) (15), possess superior anti-inflammatory effects (16)and hepatoprotective effects (17), and generally enhances management of oxidative-stress, namely by antioxidant effects compared to curcumin (18). As in other brine-pickled ferments, the brine is a richer source of activated bioactive compounds and good microbes versus the fermented vegetable or rhizome, in the case of turmeric and ginger. Be sure to make extra brine when preparing your ferment. Drink an ounce per sitting, but ensure the fermented turmeric is submerged under brine until it’s finished.
Caution should be noted for people with gallstones and blockages of bile passages. At high levels, curcumin was found to lower testosterone and decrease sperm motility. If you and your partner are struggling with infertility, don’t have too much of a good thing. In addition, people on proton pump inhibitors to reduce stomach acid should also keep turmeric to a minimum as turmeric increases stomach acid and may interfere with these medications. Lastly, people with diabetes should use caution with therapeutic forms and doses of turmeric since it can induce hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) (19).
Enjoy your fermented turmeric!
Vessel: 3/4 or 1/2 L Airlock Fermenter
250 grams organic turmeric
500 mL non-chlorinated, filtered water
10 grams non-iodized sea salt
- Choose turmeric that is fresh, free of mouldy spots, not dry or wilted. Gently wash each root in filtered water. Trim the ends and any parts where a shoot was broken off so that fresh root is exposed rather than the “scabbed” part. Slice each root lengthwise, keeping one end connected.
- Transfer turmeric to a clean 3/4 L Airlock Fermenter. Put a glass weight over top.
- Make a 2% brine with water and salt. Once cool, pour into the jar, covering the glass weight by 1 inch or more and leaving at least a 1/2-inch headspace.
- Ferment at 18-22ºC for 5-7 days on the counter, away from direct sunlight or with a dark towel wrapped around. Careful not to obstruct the airflow at the top of the airlock.
- Transfer to the fridge. After opening replace the airlock with a plug. Grate fermented turmeric on a microplane and add to curries, smoothies, marinades for meat, salad dressings, stir-fries, pumpkin loaf, or, simply, hot water.
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