I must admit that I came in very late to the turmeric milk game. I’m inherently skeptical of anything related to food fads, diet and wellness culture, and turmeric milk seemed to fit that bill. However, after trying it, I can finally appreciate “golden milk”, but not for the reasons that have made it so popular lately. In this post, I discuss what turmeric milk can and can’t do, health wise and evidence based. I also include my favorite turmeric milk recipe that you can make in 5 minutes or less. Keep reading to learn more about this celebrated drink.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a flowering plant of the ginger family, and its roots are used in cooking. It is native to India and Southeast Asia, where it is used for both culinary and medicinal properties. When used as a spice, turmeric has a mustard-like, pungent, slightly bitter flavor. It’s typically used in its dried, powdered form, but it can also be used fresh, like ginger.
Powdered turmeric is a dark yellow spice with a strong flavor. It contains curcumin, a powerful antioxidant and anti inflammatory biologically active substance. Curcumin, which constitutes 2-5% of turmeric, is perhaps its most-studied component.
And while turmeric doesn’t contain a whole lot of nutrients, except in trace amounts, 1 tsp of ground turmeric provides 26% of the daily value of manganese, a mineral involved in bone health, the formation of connective tissue and fat and carbohydrate metabolism.
What is turmeric milk?
Turmeric is used in a hot drink called “turmeric latte” or “golden milk latte”. It’s usually made with coconut milk. The turmeric milk drink known as haldi doodh (haldi means turmeric in Hindi) is a South Asian recipe.
Other spices are also included, which gives this beverage its chai-like flavor. My brother-in-law, who is Indian, recommended using cardamom as well, and once I did I never looked back!
As I said in the beginning, turmeric milk has been attributed with a myriad of health benefits. But how well-backed are these health claims? That’s what we’re going dig into right now. But before we begin, we have to understand how turmeric works in the body, especially with respect to it’s primary bioactive substance: curcumin.
What is curcumin?
Curcumin is the chemical compound, a polyphenol, found in turmeric. Turmeric, on the other hand, is the root of a plant which known as Curcuma Longa. This compounds lends the distinctive bright yellow color to this spice.
Curcumin has been used for thousands of years in Asian traditional medicine for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties. While there are many research papers that agree that curcumin has many potential health benefits, there are some important factors to consider before getting too excited.
What is curcumin used to treat?
This paper from the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists finds that “Some promising effects have been observed in patients with various pro-inflammatory diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, uveitis, ulcerative proctitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel disease, tropical pancreatitis, peptic ulcer, gastric ulcer, idiopathic orbital inflammatory pseudotumor, oral lichen planus, gastric inflammation, vitiligo, psoriasis, acute coronary syndrome, atherosclerosis, diabetes, diabetic nephropathy, diabetic microangiopathy, lupus nephritis, renal conditions, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, β-thalassemia, biliary dyskinesia, Dejerine-Sottas disease, cholecystitis, and chronic bacterial prostatitis”. Whew! Pretty powerful stuff!
It’s been documented that this polyphenol has the following properties:
- Diabetes control
- Antimicrobial activity
It seems that the main way curcumin works in the body is by direct modulation of signaling pathways. The most important appear to be those pathways related to regulation of oxidative stress and inhibition of NF‐кB activity.NF-кB activity refers to that of a family of transcription factors that regulate many important cellular behaviors, such as inflammatory responses, cellular growth, DNA transcription and cellular death.
Curcumin absorption in the body
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it sort of is. You see, the body doesn’t absorb curcumin very well. Curcumin has been confirmed to exhibit very poor bioavailability, with many studies showing very low, or even undetectable, concentrations in blood and extraintestinal tissue. This is mainly due to:
- Poor absorption
- Rapid degradation
- Rapid metabolism
- Rapid elimination
In fact, the majority of oral curcumin is excreted in the feces (≤90%), as has been determined in several animal studies.
Therefore, numerous efforts have been made to improve curcumin’s bioavailability. The use of adjuvants (a pharmacological agent that modifies the effect of other agents) “that can block the metabolic pathway of curcumin is the most common strategy for increasing the bioavailability of curcumin”.
What makes curcumin more bioavailable?
For example, piperine, an alkaloid of black pepper, has shown to help the bioavailability of curcumin. This study found that when subjects received a dose of 2 g of curcumin alone, serum levels of curcumin were either undetectable or very low. However, combining the curcumin with 20 mg of piperine produced much higher concentrations “within 30 min to 1 h after drug treatment; piperine increased the bioavailability of curcumin by 2,000%”.
What this all means is that without piperine, most of the curcumin just passes through your digestive tract.
Cooking with fats such as coconut oil, or making golden milk with full fat dairy, almond or coconut milk can also help improve the body’s absorption of curcumin.
Without piperine (found in black pepper), most of the curcumin just passes through your digestive tract . The majority (≤90%) of oral curcumin is excreted in the feces.
So hopefully, enhanced bioavailability of curcumin in the near future is likely to bring this compound as a therapeutic agent for the treatment of human diseases.
Curcumin in the gut
Interestingly, it’s been proposed that curcumin’s potential as a therapeutic agent may not be completely due to its bioavailability, but rather its medicinal benefits may also arise from its positive influence on gastrointestinal health and function. Our gastrointestinal tract is “the most heavily colonized organ, with the colon estimated to contain >70% of all the microbes in the human body”.
Curcumin seems to influence:
- Composition of our gut microbiota
- Intestinal permeability
- Reduction of inflammation and oxidative stress in the gastrointestinal tract
- Decrease in bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections
Since the integrity of our gastrointestinal tract has a huge influence on the health and function of our whole body, it may appear that curcumin’s health-enhancing benefits may at least be partly due to its positive gastrointestinal effect. However, these findings have not been consistently evaluated through human clinical trials, so we also have to tread with caution on this one.
Additional considerations on curcumin’s health benefits
Another point to consider is that, because of the complex nature of the diseases turmeric has an effect on, the underlying mechanism in many cases remains unclear. Many of the mentioned medicinal properties of turmeric are still the subject of research and debate, “and only some of them have entered the phase of clinical trials”.
Lastly, serum concentrations necessary to obtain a given clinical or biological effect have not yet been identified.
What is a safe amount of turmeric to take daily?
Most of the studies on turmeric have highlighted the safety, tolerability, and non-toxicity of this polyphenol, even at doses up to 8 g per day. Phase I clinical trials have shown that curcumin is safe even at high doses (12 g/day) in humans ( even though there’s still the poor bioavailability thing to deal with).
However, it would be very difficult to reach these levels just using the turmeric spice in your foods. With regards to turmeric milk, which usually contains about a teaspoon of turmeric per cup, you’re just getting around 200 mg. Plus, if it’s not paired with black pepper and/or a fat, it’s just basically going to go through your system.
One cup of turmeric milk made with 1 tsp ground turmeric has about 200 mg of curcumin, which will most likely not be absorbed unless black pepper and/or fats are also present.
Also, be wary of marketing tactics. Some brands take advantage of health related buzzword and are not exactly selling what they claim. For example, a turmeric latte, which can also have large amounts of added sugars, and at most a dash of turmeric, is obviously not the best choice. Always check the food label.
Therefore, if you want to experience the full effects, you need to take a supplement that contains significant amounts of curcumin. But please always consult with your doctor or health care provider before making any changes to your diet or using a dietary supplement.
Can I drink turmeric milk everyday?
As we’ve seen, your standard cup of golden milk isn’t as miraculous as it’s marketed to be. But that doesn’t mean that it’s useless, health wise. And if you enjoy this beverage, there’s no reason to stop drinking it.
Therefore, unless you’re not tolerating certain ingredients in turmeric milk, or your doctor has advised you otherwise, there’s no problem in drinking turmeric milk everyday. In fact, let’s check out how golden milk can benefit you.
Is it good to drink turmeric milk at night?
Drinking turmeric milk before bed is a practice many partake in for better sleep. But how does this work exactly?
It is commonly thought that drinking warm milk before bed can help induce sleep. The theory behind that originated due to the tryptophan (an amino acid) content in milk (the same theory behind turkey making you sleepy), which has been proven false.
The real reason, though, is that when we eat or drink, our energy rushes to our digestive tracts to digest the food– and not because of the tryptophan. This digestive process uses up energy, which is why we may feel more tired after a large meal.
I personally believe that the reason golden milk may help us sleep better is that warm foods and drinks are generally comforting. Warm drinks, such as milk or herbal teas at night may have a soothing effect on our digestion and may help us feel more relaxed. So if this practice helps you sleep better, by all means carry on!
Turmeric milk health benefits: a closer look
As we’ve seen, turmeric does have many potential health benefits, but this depends on the dosage and bioavailability. And a recommended dosis according to health conditions has not been determined yet. Taking this into consideration, here are some common golden milk benefits parsed down. I know I’m being a complete Debbie Downer, but the evidence is still not conclusive, even though it is promising:
- Turmeric milk and weight loss. This systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that “curcumin intake significantly decreased BMI, weight, WC [waist circumference], and leptin, and significantly increased adiponectin levels, but did not affect HR [hip ratio]”. It has been suggested that curcumin intake may improve weight and metabolic status by “speeding up” your metabolism, which may in turn cause more calories to be burned. However, another study reported no significant effect of curcumin intake on weight or BMI, and yet another found no effect on body composition with a dosage of 1 g/day (which is way more than your standard cup of turmeric milk contains). So it’s best to take this health claim with a grain of salt (or pepper??).
- Golden milk to “boost” the immune system and fight inflammation. Among the different properties attributed to curcumin, one of the most studied is the anti-inflammatory benefits that may be useful in both acute and chronic inflammation. Curcumin seems to interact with various components of the immune system, such as cells, cytokines (messenger proteins) and signaling pathways. But, in order to provide a significant, beneficial impact on immune function, a highly bioavailable form of curcumin would have to be consumed. However, results regarding the immune effects of herbal remedies have been inconsistent due to:
- Lack of standardization of active ingredients
- Qualitative and quantitative changes in preparations
- Lack of rigorous tests for efficacy
- Turmeric milk for cough and colds. Due to its anti inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, turmeric is commonly used to treat coughing due to respiratory infections. This study evaluated the efficacy of curcumin as an add-on therapy for the treatment of bronchial asthma. They found that there is a definite improvement in lung function due to the anti-inflammatory effect of curcumin, but there is no visible clinical efficacy. The results also found that curcumin may have potential effects on controlling allergic diseases. This study showed that “curcumin in a dose of 200 mg/kg body weight helps to prevent allergic airway inflammation by inhibiting the actions of an inflammatory protein called NF-κB”. However, further clinical evaluation is needed with more number of subjects, a higher tolerated dose and for a longer duration in order to establish the efficacy of curcumin on respiratory health.
How to make turmeric milk
OK, now I don’t want to put you off turmeric milk, I just want to make sure you’re clear on how it really works and avoid getting sucked in by marketing tactics.
Having said that, if you do want to include more turmeric in your diet, golden milk is just one of many delicious ways. And it’s so easy to prepare!
For this particular recipe, I used additional spices along with the turmeric: fresh ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper (you know why!) and star anise pods-because I love them!
Now if there are any of these spices that you don’t like or tolerate, you can definitely omit them. You can also use whatever type of milk you prefer.
Finally, I used a bit of honey for some sweetness, but you can use your sweetener of choice, or none at all!
Just combine all the ingredients with milk and simmer for around 5 minutes (if desired, longer simmering time will give it a more pronounced flavor). Strain the ingredients in to a cup, and enjoy the coziness and spiciness of it all. My kids recently tried it, and they absolutely loved it!
Turmeric Golden Milk Recipe
- 2 cups milk or plant based milk alternatives
- 2 tsp ground turmeric if you feel the flavor is too strong, start with half this amount
- 1 (1") piece of fresh ginger, sliced
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper optional
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp honey optional
- 2 star anise pods optional
- Heat up the milk in a small saucepan at medium-low heat.
- Add the ginger slices, turmeric, black pepper (if using), cinnamon, cardamom and star anise pods (if using), combining well.
- Simmer for 5 minutes and add honey, mixing well.
- Strain the milk into individual cups and enjoy warm.
So remember, although it remains to be determined as to what is the minimum dose of curcumin required to see its beneficial effects, and whether there is a linear relationship between its bioavailability and bioefficacy, we can still wind down after a long day with a warm, spicy cup of golden milk.
And now tell me in the comments, have you tried turmeric milk? Have you received any health benefits from drinking it? What is your favorite way to enjoy this beverage?
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…