Turmeric — an Asian spice that gives curry its signature colour — has made its mark as a “superfood.” Research has linked the ancient spice to a slew of health benefits, like reducing your risk of prostate cancer and heart disease, fighting bacteria and viruses, and even relieving pain.
Most of these benefits are tied back to curcumin, the compound behind turmeric’s vibrant yellow pigment. Now, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), suggests it may protect your memory and mood, too.
Researchers split 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 84 — all of whom had mild memory problems — into two groups. One group took 90 milligrams of curcumin twice a day, while the other group popped a placebo. Both groups performed cognitive tests throughout the 18-month experiment to measure their memory markers.
Thirty of them, half of whom were taking curcumin, also had their brains scanned at the beginning and end of the study to check for abnormal proteins called beta-amyloid and tau, both of which have been tied to Alzheimer’s disease.
At the end of the study, the curcumin group experienced a 28 percent improvement in their memory tests, while those popping the placebo didn’t see a significant change. What’s more, they also saw a slight boost in their mood compared to the placebo poppers.
The researchers can’t say exactly why curcumin might have these effects. But after analyzing the brain scans, they noticed that people taking curcumin had lower levels of both abnormal proteins, specifically in areas of the brain that influence memory and emotion.
Plus, curcumin is an antioxidant that might fight inflammation, explains study author Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center. The more inflammation you have in your brain, the more likely you are to experience cognitive problems and depression, he says.
Similar studies have not yet been performed in a younger, healthier group, says Dr. Small.
“However, other research shows that accumulation of amyloid and tau and elevated inflammation begins in some young adults and many middle-aged people, suggesting a potential benefit,” he adds.
The thing is, curcumin only makes up roughly 5 percent of turmeric, so you’d have to consume a large amount — way more than you probably sprinkle onto your food — to experience the benefits. In fact, you’d probably need to reach for a supplement to meet the amount used in the study, which you should only do after speaking with a doctor.
But it’s still possible that even everyday consumption of turmeric can bring some benefit. “One study including over 1,000 Asian volunteers who did not have dementia showed that those who consumed curry occasionally, often, or very often had significantly better memory scores than volunteers who never or rarely consumed curry,” says Dr. Small.
So if you like the way turmeric tastes, go ahead and add it to your diet. Better yet, sprinkle it onto foods already proven to fight inflammation, like salmon and tuna, Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N. C.D.N., told Men’s Health previously. Research overwhelmingly supports the anti-inflammatory effects of fatty fish, thanks to their concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.
By Alisa Hrustic