Eating this trendy spice can help your body fight off viruses

Turmeric, a spice derived from the turmeric plant, is a staple of Asian cuisine and the main spice used to create curry. Besides its culinary uses, though, turmeric has also been used medicinally for centuries. Perhaps best known for its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric gets its trademark yellow color from the natural compound curcumin.

It’s curcumin, a chemical found within turmeric, that provides much of the spice’s health benefits as well. Now, a new study from The Microbiology Society has found that curcumin also boasts antiviral properties capable of killing certain viruses.

Throughout the research, curcumin showed the ability to block the Transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGEV) from infecting cells upon exposure. Additionally, when applied at higher doses, curcumin even killed virus particles. TGEV is an alpha-group coronavirus that is only capable of infecting pigs. 

So, to be clear, while TGEV is somewhat related to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 global pandemic) in the sense that they are both coronaviruses, this is where the similarities end. These findings do not indicate whatsoever that turmeric is capable of treating or preventing a COVID-19 infection.

With that being said, the possibility of additional coronaviruses making the jump from animals to humans is a very real threat, and one that will remain long after COVID-19 is brought under control. Establishing turmeric as an antiviral asset could prove invaluable in the future.

Still, this study is certainly good news for the pigs of the world right now. When infected with TGEV, piglets usually develop a disease called transmissible gastroenteritis. This condition results in severe stomach problems, dehydration, and eventually death. TGEV is also super contagious and almost always fatal among young piglets. As of now, TGEV is a big threat to the global swine industry.

Originally, when the research team decided to investigate turmeric’s potential antiviral properties, they administered turmeric to a group of experimental cells. Then, those same cells were exposed to TGEV. Sure enough, the experimental cells given more turmeric saw fewer virus particles.

Curcumin seems to impact TGEV in several different ways. First of all, it kills the virus before it ever has a chance to infect cells. In addition to that, it appears to “inactivate” the virus as well before killing it. But, just in case all that isn’t enough, curcumin also changes the metabolism of cells it comes in contact with to block viral entry. So, even if TGEV somehow survived curcumin’s attacks, it still wouldn’t be able to infect nearby cells.

“Curcumin has a significant inhibitory effect on TGEV adsorption step and a certain direct inactivation effect, suggesting that curcumin has great potential in the prevention of TGEV infection,” says lead study author Dr. Lilan Xie, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Bioengineering, in a release.

The idea that curcumin/turmeric can be helpful in the fight against viruses isn’t completely novel; curcumin has shown the ability to block replication of other viruses (Zika, dengue virus, hepatitis B) in the past. Beyond viruses, curcumin has also demonstrated antitumor and antibacterial properties. Above all that, however, the study’s authors say they chose to examine turmeric because it offers little to no side effects. 

“There are great difficulties in the prevention and control of viral diseases, especially when there are no effective vaccines. Traditional Chinese medicine and its active ingredients, are ideal screening libraries for antiviral drugs because of their advantages, such as convenient acquisition and low side effects,” Dr. Xie adds.

Moving forward the research team wants to test their findings on actual pigs and piglets. This will determine if curcumin’s antiviral benefits extend to complex living beings and not just individual cells in a lab.

“Further studies will be required, to evaluate the inhibitory effect in vivo and explore the potential mechanisms of curcumin against TGEV, which will lay a foundation for the comprehensive understanding of the antiviral mechanisms and application of curcumin” Dr. Xie concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in The Journal of General Virology.