Turmeric: A Strange New Forefront of COVID Research

Turmeric: A Strange New Forefront of COVID Research

Emma Kolakowski

November 13, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, since its beginning, has claimed over one million lives globally. Finding a way to either prevent or mitigate the disease has become a copiously funded international effort. A number of vaccine trials are underway, drugs such as remdesivir and dexamethasone have been authorised for emergency use, and the world waits with bated breath for the scientific community to announce a breakthrough. In a time of such desperation, no ideas go uninvestigated: even those that sound admittedly far-fetched. Over the past few months turmeric, a feature of many South Asian dishes, has been researched as a potential part of a COVID-19 solution. 

The logic behind examining turmeric stems from a strange question: why doso many South Asian countries have relatively low COVID-19 numbers? A study published in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry this past June, points out that India experienced a relatively low fatality rate compared to its number of cases. The authors suggest that the prevalence of turmeric in Indian cooking may be partially responsible. 

Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is responsible for the health benefits that are attributed to the spice. Long before COVID-19, turmeric was already being hailed as an unusually healthy ingredient. It’s proven to be anti-inflammatory, and may lower the risk of heart disease. Turmeric is also said to inhibit against certain viral infections, and it’s an effective antidepressant. The benefit of turmeric that scientists are most concerned with currently is its effectiveness against respiratory illnesses. COVID-19 is classified as a respiratory illness, which is why some scientists believe curcumin merits further investigation. 

In this study, published in The Pharmacological Potential of Plant Compounds and Preparations in COVID-19, researchers applied curcumin to healthy cells. They found that curcumin altered the surface protein structure of the virus. The curcumin, which carries a positive charge, also affected the electrostatic interactions taking place on the cell. Both of these curcumin-induced changes could potentially inhibit the entry of COVID-19 to the body. Even if curcumin cannot block cell entry, it could still help those already infected by COVID-19. The COVID-19 virus causes a number of health complications, including pulmonary edemas, inflammation and fibrosis, the latter of which affects almost a third of COVID-19 patients. Since turmeric has proven anti-inflammatory properties, it could theoretically ease these symptoms.

Before you rush to the store and buy some turmeric, consider how preliminary this research is. There are very few studies that even consider turmeric as potentially effective, and the existing pertinent research is relatively little. Some scientists are even suggesting that turmeric might have the exact opposite effect on one’s health. ANSES, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, cautions that turmeric and the curcumin it contains could actually hinder immune responses, creating a greater health risk. 

Could a solution to COVID-19 be within our own kitchen cupboards? It’s far too soon to say. Turmeric is by no means proven to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. The existing studies are essentially theoretical, but in a year where normalcy has been upturned, even the most unconventional solutions are worth exploration. 

Emma Kolakowski is a junior double-major in Theater and professional and public writing, whose love for the written word is matched only by her love of ramen. Emma hopes to pursue a career in publishing after graduation. When not buried in a book, she can be found building sets for the theater, fencing, or geeking out over art history.