turmeric root uncut, cut into slices, and turmeric powder comparison picture

Turmeric – An Ancient Medicinal Cognitive Enhancer & Antidepressant

On this page, I plan to collate as much information as I can on turmeric; health benefits, scientific findings, applications, properties, etc. I also will voice my own experience and insight on this valuable golden spice.

Background Information on Turmeric

Common Names: turmeric, turmeric root, Indian saffron

Latin Names: Curcuma aromatica, Curcuma domestica, Curcuma longa

Turmeric is a plant that has a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4000 years in Southeast Asia. Turmeric is a common psychoactive spice used in the typical Indian Cuisine, related to the Ginger family Zingiberaceae, with a genus curcuma, and specific species longa. That makes Turmeric have a scientific name Curcuma longa. The main active ingredient in Turmeric is Curcumin.

Historically, Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat many conditions including breathing problems, rheumatism, serious pain, and fatigue. And from then up-till now, Turmeric has always been a major ingredient in the Indian cuisine.

Now a days turmeric is used as a dietary supplement for inflammation, arthritis, cancer, stomach, skin, liver, and gallbladder problems- as well as many other conditions.

Traditional Turmeric Preparation

Before turmeric can be used, the turmeric rhizomes must be processed. Rhizomes are boiled or steamed to remove the raw odor, gelatinize the starch, and produce a more uniformly colored product. In the traditional Indian process, rhizomes were placed in pans or earthenware filled with water and then covered with leaves and a layer of cow dung. The ammonia in the cow dung reacted with the turmeric to give the final product. For hygienic reasons, this method has been discouraged.

Modern Turmeric Preparation

In present-day processing, rhizomes are placed in shallow pans in large iron vats containing 0.05–0.1% alkaline water (e.g., solution of sodium bicarbonate). The rhizomes are then boiled for between 40–45 minutes (in India) or 6 hours (in Hazare, Pakistan), depending on the variety. The rhizomes are removed from the water and dried in the sun immediately to prevent overcooking. The final moisture content should be between 8% and 10% (wet basis). When finger tapping of the rhizome produces a metallic sound, it is sufficiently dry. The dried rhizomes are polished to remove the rough surface. Sometimes, lead chromate is used to produce a better finish, but for obvious reasons this practice should be actively discouraged. The powder maintains its coloring properties indefinitely, although the flavor may diminish over time. Protecting the turmeric powder from sunlight retards the rate of deterioration.

How is Turmeric Supplemented?

Turmeric’s underground stems (rhizomes) are dried and made into capsules, tablets, teas, or extracts. Turmeric powder is also made into a paste for skin conditions. Turmeric powder is also commonly cooked into food as curry, and I believe this also is a way of supplementing this herb. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

Otherwise, my experience with consuming raw turmeric is that it gives me gastrointestinal problems. This is certainly what I experienced when I was consuming raw-peeled turmeric root for its nootropic benefit. I suspect that this is due to turmerics potent antibiotic property. However, I’ve never had a problem with food cooked with turmeric- like curry.

A popular drink made with milk, turmeric, and other spices

But if you insist on using raw turmeric like me, what I do is first chew on a slice of ginger and spit it out. Then chew on a slice of turmeric and also spit it out. Finally, if I want coffee I then drink my coffee. So you already know why I spit it out- to avoid messing up the gut flora. But is chewing on the rhizome enough for an effect? It is indeed; turmeric, ginger, and caffeine can all be absorbed sublingualy a.k.a. through the oral mucosa. I chew on the ginger first in order to improve the sublingual absorption of turmeric & for ginger’s own benefit. Spicy foods kind of open up the membrane for better absorption of various substances; you’ll find that is what the Mayan’s did with their traditional spicy cocoa drink.

Note that I mean that some constituents of ginger and turmeric are absorbed through the oral mucosa, namely the essential oils.

How Useful is Turmeric as a Medicine?

Turmeric in Traditional Medicine

Turmeric has been used in alternative or traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Kampo (Japanese medicine) & Egyptian medicine. Turmeric is one of many herbs traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory for chronic inflammatory diseases ie. chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD), asthma, rheumatoid arthritis.

Turmeric also has traditionally been used for treating:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • chronic anterior uveitis
  • conjunctivitis
  • skin cancer
  • small pox
  • chicken pox
  • wound healing
  • urinary tract infections
  • liver ailments
  • gallbladder complaints
  • for digestive disorders
    • to reduce flatus, gas, & bloating
    • jaundice
    • menstrual difficulties
    • colic problems
    • abdominal pain and distension
  • for dyspeptic
  • anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • postprandial feelings of fullness
  • for respiratory conditions
    • asthma
    • bronchial hyperactivity
    • allergies
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • sinusitis
  • sprains
  • swelling
  • improve blood flow

Turmeric has been observed to have an anti-inflammatory, choleretic, antimicrobial, and carminative actions. The main clinical targets of turmeric are the digestive organs: in the intestine, for treatment of diseases such as familial adenomatous polyposis; in the bowels, for treatment of inflammatory bowel disease; and in the colon, for treatment of colon cancer.

For arthritis, dosages of 8–60 g of fresh turmeric root three times daily have been recommended. For dyspepsia, 1.3–3.0 g of turmeric root is recommended.

In folk medicine, turmeric has been used in therapeutic preparations over the centuries in different parts of the world.

In Ayurvedic practices, turmeric is thought to have many medicinal properties including strengthening the overall energy of the body, relieving gas, dispelling worms, improving digestion, regulating menstruation, dissolving gallstones, and relieving arthritis. Many South Asian countries use it as an antiseptic for cuts, burns, and bruises, and as an antibacterial agent.

In Pakistan, it is used as an anti-inflammatory agent, and as a remedy for gastrointestinal discomfort associated with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, turmeric is used to cleanse wounds and stimulate their recovery by applying it on a piece of burnt cloth that is placed over a wound.

Indians use turmeric, in addition to its Ayurvedic applications, to purify blood and remedy skin conditions. Turmeric paste is used by women in some parts of India to remove superfluous hair.

Turmeric paste is applied to the skin of the bride and groom before marriage in some parts of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where it is believed to make the skin glow and keep harmful bacteria away from the body. Turmeric is currently used in the formulation of several sunscreens. Several multinational companies are involved in making face creams based on turmeric.

Turmeric is also used as a cholagogue (cholagogue means a medicinal agent used to promote the discharge of bile from the digestive system), stimulating bile production in the liver and encouraging excretion of bile via the gallbladder, which improves the body’s ability to digest fats. Sometimes, turmeric mixed with milk or water and is taken to treat intestinal disorders as well as colds and sore throats.

Turmeric in Modern Medicine

Turmeric in Eastern Asia was used for preventing and treating diseases. And in our modern era, scientists have conducted studies showing specific attributes of turmeric that may have good medical application, including:

  • anti-arthritic
  • Anti-oxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-mutagentic
  • Anti-microbial
  • Anti-cancer & reduces tumors
  • Anthelmintic (de-wormer)
  • Anti-Depressant
  • Blood Thinner / Anti-Coagulant
  • Cardioprotective
  • Increases BDNF in the Hippocampus
  • Promotes neurogenesis
  • Enhances Cognition
  • Enhances non-spatial and spatial memory
  • Hepatoprotective (protects the liver)
  • Hypoglycemic (lowers blood sugar)
  • Protective against Alzheimer’s Disease
Inflammation is like being on fire.

Turmeric, specifically the turmerin and fat soluble curcumin, acts as an antioxidant by scavenging free radicals; increasing levels of enzymes in the body that have an antioxidant property, and inhibit the peroxidation of lipids.

The curcumin and oil fraction of turmeric are responsible for the anti-inflammatory property of turmeric, reducing the production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and inflammatory hormone-like lipid prostaglandin E2. The anti-inflammatory nature of turmeric also allows it to be beneficial for arthritis, reducing the inflammation between the joints of the fingers and other affected bones.

Turmeric is observed to have anticancer effect in the “test tube” (in vitro) and in live animals (in vivo). Turmeric acts as an anticancer agent by inhibiting cell proliferation and inducing apoptosis of cancer cells. Ar-turmerone, which is a chemical isolated from turmeric, induced apoptosis in human leukemia (blood cancer) cells by fragmenting DNA to oligonucleosome-sized fragments, a known step in the process of apoptosis.

Turmeric also acts as an anti-depressant in a similar fashion to fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is a Monoamine Oxidize Inhibitor (MAOI), which allows fluoxetine to selectively inhibit serotonin reuptake or act as an SSRI. Inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin means that there is more serotonin in the brain, and an increased amount of serotonin in the brain is thought to improve mood. Turmeric is also a MAOI, meaning that it also has the anti-depressant characteristic of fluoxetine by a similar mechanism. Except that Turmeric is observed to be much more potent than fluoxetine as an anti-depressant.[5]

Turmeric as an anti-coagulant shouldn’t be taken by patients who are going to have surgery. But Turmeric’s blood thinning property may improve blood flow to the brain, thereby improving cognition.

How Useful is Turmeric as an Antidepressant & Cognitive Enhancer?

Epidemiological studies have suggested that societies that widely use curcumin show reduced incidence of inflammation-influenced and cognitive function diseases. For example, some studies found that people who eat curry are less likely to experience cognitive decline and there’s also research showing it’s beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients.

Taking Turmeric is reported to improve the cognitive function of elderly people, reverse cognitive impairment in rats, and fix age-related spatial memory deficits. Curcumin may also protect against Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) by preventing amyloid-beta buildup, which is a hallmark of AD[3].

Curcumin as an Antidepressant

In turmeric, there is a chemical compound called curcumin. The oil fractions and other substances inside the turmeric root are also active, but a large number of studies have focused on revealing the properties of curcumin, showing that it has potential for improving cognition & depression, reducing stress & inflammation; increasing neurogenesis & Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the brain.

Researchers have observed that curcumin does effect many different neurotransmitters that are related to the pathophysiology of depression; for example, curcumin affects the serotonin, dopamine, GABAergic, and glutamatergic systems.

Note that BDNF is required for brain cell survival and neurogenesis, and a decrease in hippocampal neurogenesis may lead to depression.

Did you know that Love is also an antidepressant?

Curcumin is a dose-dependent antidepressant, and it works similar to other pharmaceutical antidepressant drugs by increasing BDNF & neurogenesis in the brain’s hippocampus. In depressed individuals, BDNF levels fall, neurons die off, and neurogenesis decreases in the brain hippocampus. So it is thought that depression can be treated or “cured” by restoring BDNF levels.

Pharmaceutical drugs raise BDNF levels through serotonergic and noradrenergic neurotransmitter systems. The first-line intervention drugs for depression are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI). But for a large number of patients they are resistant to treatment (the drug fails to treat the patients depression) or suffer from negative side effects of the drug. So curcumin shows promise as an alternative drug to treating depression by acting through a different mechanism, the central monoaminergic neurotransmitter systems, to achieve the same goal of increasing BDNF levels in the patient’s brain.

In vivo experiments with rats show that the effects of chronic dosing of curcumin were observed up to one week after the cessation of treatment, indicating a relatively long lasting effect. Furthmore, chronic curcumin treatment resulted in increased BDNF expression in the hippocampus.

In-vitro studies show that curcumin has a protective effect against NMDA-mediated toxicity, suggesting that curcumin has an inhibitory effects on NMDA receptors. This inhibition may contribute to the acute (acute in reference to a one-time or non-chronic dose) antidepressant effect, as found with ketamine, an NMDA receptor antagonist, which has a rapid and lasting antidepressant effect in rats.

Another cool thing that I’ve read about the curcumin in turmeric is one of it’s effect on rats. In context of the NIH study that I am reading, they studied the antidepressant effect of curcumin on Wistar Kyoto (WKY) rats. These WKY rats become almost immediately immoble during a Forced Swim Test (FST) when dropped into water. The FST is used to measure the level of helplessness or depressed behavior. What I interpret from the FST is the level of motivation these particular breed of rats have- which is basically none according to the tests. But when the WKY rats are treated with curcumin, their level of immobility is observably decreased. That means that their motivation to try & fight increases with the curcumin treatment. Why this is significant to me is that I also observed a significant increase to my motivation when I took turmeric. When I am writing articles, or studying high level mathematics, I found that it took me significantly less re-reading to understand the material and that I could stay focused on task for longer without taking a break or getting distracted.

Researchers have also found that curcumin has not only an anti-depressant effect on mice & rats, but also that chronic curcumin administration reverses BDNF down regulation & reduced the ratio of phosphorylated cAMP response element-binding protein (pCREB) to CREB levels (pCREB/CREB) caused by chronic stress. I personally do observe that whenever I take turmeric, I feel a lot calmer, have a peaceful disposition, and that it is a lot harder for me to get angry or stressed out.

A major issue with using curcumin for treating depression is that oral administration has very low absorption, is rapidly metabolized (broken down), and distributes through the body tissue in a limited way. However, co-administering curcumin with piperine (piperine is one of the main active constituents in black pepper) substantially improves the absorption of curcumin and slows down the rate at which it is metabolized by the body. So piperine increases the bioavailability of curcumin in this fashion, and can increase the bioavailability of curcumin up to 2000%. Just 1/4 tsp of black pepper can increase curcumin absorption by that amount.

In conclusion, the present studies support the notion that curcumin can be an effective and lasting antidepressant treatment. This effect is most likely due to increasing hippocampal BDNF & neurogenesis.[2]

Turmeric Complications

There are a few problems that you should be aware of when you are taking turmeric in food or as a supplement. It is usually in big doses that turmeric can be harmful.

Consuming too much turmeric can cause blood anemia. That is because the curcuminoids can bind to the iron in your food. So although it is perfectly safe to add a small amount of turmeric to your food, concentrated curcuminiod supplements should not be used chronically for long periods of time to avoid too much iron chelation.

But in theory, a person with hemochromatosis may benefit from taking turmeric. That’s because hemochromatosis is the accumulation & overload of iron in the body- causing cirrhosis, diabetes, cardiomyopathy, arthritis, testicular failure, bronzing of the skin, as well as joint & bone pain. Because the curcuminoids in turmeric chelate iron, turmeric may help treat hemochromatosis.

Also, consuming too much turmeric irritates the stomach, and may cause stomach cramps and diarrhea. And there are a few people who are sensitive to consuming even a small amount of turmeric.



Further Reading


  1. Is Turmeric Nootropic? I find that it immediately lifts my brain fog – [Reddit]
  2. Antidepressant-like effects of curcumin in WKY rat model of depression is associated with an increase in hippocampal BDNF – [NIH]
  3. Curcumin Enhances Neurogenesis and Cognition in Aged Rats: Implications for Transcriptional Interactions Related to Growth and Synaptic Plasticity – [PlosOne]
  4. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition: Chapter 13 Turmeric, the Golden Spice – [NIH]
  5. Antidepressant activity of aqueous extracts of Curcuma longa in mice – [NIH]

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