Turmeric, Pain, and Hype.

My mom has been in two major accidents with cars. When she was a young woman, she was run over while walking down a dark gravel driveway after a party. The house was on a hill, the driveway curved. Another guest, leaving the house, didn’t see her around the corner. One set of tires went completely over her pelvis and torso. Thanks to the slow speed and the relatively cushy driveway (compared to asphalt, anyway), she survived. She was hospitalized, and the doctors and nurses had varying degrees of belief in her ability to recover completely and have kids. She remembers it taking months to feel ok; being young and lucky, she did recover.

A few years later, she was a successful career woman working in the Bay Area’s burgeoning tech scene, studying and working to be a buyer. She spent a lot of time commuting to her job as well as to visit her parents near Yosemite (a trip of several hours by car), and so she decided to get a new truck, straight from the factory. It was the kind of thing that would have had a big personal payoff. She loved it. She drove it every day. And then, one lovely sunny afternoon while going through a busy intersection in San Jose, a woman ran a red light while my mom was driving her new truck through. My mom remembers that there was a child in the back seat right where her truck would hit if she didn’t stop. She had a split second to decide; hit the car, or brake and turn and try to miss it. She turned, missed the other car, but ended up flipping her truck. And she was back in the hospital again, with a broken arm and face and smooshed up body. But she hadn’t hit the car with the child. That kid got to live without pain or fear or trauma. She thinks it was worth it, even though the truck was scrapped and another layer of healing added to her own body. My mom is a genuinely good person.

So after two (major) car accidents, three pregnancies and over six decades of life (with 4.5 of those and going as a smoker), her body is a little beaten. Arthritis reared its ugly head early and made every day painful, from morning to night. Her lungs, never the strongest due to genetics and further hindered by smoking, crackled and she had frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia. For years she rotated between the various painkillers: aspirin, ibuprofen, prescriptions from doctors. It all worked, but the long-term effects were weighing her down at the doses she needed. Stomach issues. Bowel issues. Fear of liver or kidney complications. So she dug around online and found a miracle! A simple spice that could control pain and inflammation!

Delicious and potentially dangerous?! Say it isn’t so!

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Turmeric! This bright, yellow-orange spice that gives color to curries, was being hailed as the king of spices for health benefits. And the best part, almost every website she came across (from Healthline to WebMD to various blogs) agreed there really were benefits and few side effects. Reduction in pain from arthritis, stomach issues, constipation, headaches, improved heart and lung health, circulation, glowing skin… It was touted as being a cure-all. And it was relatively inexpensive, both for the spice itself and supplements. She started taking a pill twice a day. And amazingly, she felt better. She gushed to me that after two months she stopped taking other pain killers and she could breathe easily even though she hadn’t quit smoking.

And this is where I got a little nervous. Cure-alls bring out the skeptical scientist in me. It is certainly possible for plants or spices to have these effects, BUT… you always have to be careful. The old adage goes, “the dose makes the poison”. And unless several good-quality studies have been done on a number of human populations (old, young, healthy, unhealthy, taking medications, without any meds at all…), you can’t know at what point a beneficial thing becomes a problem. Beyond that, my mom was taking a supplement containing high doses of the “active” ingredient in isolation. Foods are complex, and while one compound may seem to be important, that doesn’t mean the others don’t play important roles as well. And the cherry on top is that in the US, supplements aren’t regulated so you never can be sure that what you buy is really what you get anyway, or if other stuff has been added in (I’m looking at you, huge list of tainted supplements per the FDA). But Mom felt good!

So I started looking. And yes, there is quite a bit of evidence that turmeric helps with pain and health due to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Pub Med searches for turmeric and curcuminoids (the “active” chemical) turn up large numbers of articles (247 and 661 articles, respectively), some of which deal with real humans rather than mice, and some of those are even double-blind studies (meaning neither the patients OR the attending staff know who gets the placebo or the real drug). It all looked great, honestly. I obviously didn’t look deep enough. There are also a number of studies now exploring the link between turmeric/curcuminoids and kidney stones when taken in high doses. I missed them. I am no doctor, but still.

Because yea, turmeric and some derived supplements contain high levels of oxalate, which can enter the bloodstream and bind with free calcium, causing small calcium stones to form. Kidney stones. Not a huge deal most of the time, annoying but manageable. As long as you know about them. As long as you don’t get a bunch that are too large to pass on their own.

I wish I had seen these potential issues earlier or that the risk was listed on some of those glowing blog/website reviews of turmeric, because in the space of a year my dear lucky mom ended up with both kidneys partially blocked. Yep. Both. She’d been having stomach issues and UTIs for months when, one evening, she began to run a high fever and projectile-vomit. She knew she needed to see a doctor fast so she headed to the ER. A couple blood tests and one big scan later, the issue was clear: a kidney stone (one of dozens) had blocked her ureter. They had to put in a stent (a little bypass tube) so her kidneys could drain and stop poisoning her blood. And they had to start planning how to get all the other stones out before the second kidney blocked up. With her crappy insurance it was a nightmare. Luckily, she qualified for a special program through the hospital that paid for one year and covered the treatments she needed (ultrasonic blasts that break the stones) and they managed to get most of the stones before the funding ended. Barely. Her second kidney blast took place three days before the end due to the hospital being overbooked.

But not all were broken up. She still has at least one big one left and no way to pay for getting it removed until her retirement kicks in, in November. In the meantime she’s on high alert for another possible emergency blockage, and her doctor has had her cut the supplements completely from her diet, along with restricting her intake of calcium. It’s not the turmeric that “did it” for her, it was the combination of factors. High calcium intake along with high doses of an unverified turmeric-derived supplement were both necessary. But as the stuff that causes the calcium to form into stones (oxalate) in “at risk” individuals is present in larger amounts in regular turmeric, it’s good to be cautious.

I love turmeric for cooking. I think that, at smaller doses, it can be good for the body. But I also strongly believe that anytime you choose to do something for health, you must KNOW the possible reactions and side effects. And verify with a doctor… if you can afford one, anyway.

Still happy to be in Canada for that. Just move here with me, momma! <3

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