By Amanda McQuade Crawford
Turmeric is the perfect plant for modern aches & pains
For thousands of years the rhizome (or underground stem) of turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used as a medicine, food, and source of food coloring (bright yellow-orange!). Turmeric was first cultivated in India and South-East Asia. My own plant thrives in the heat of southern California under the merciful shade of native oaks.
Turmeric: Herbal History & Interesting Facts
The Assyrians knew about turmeric. This brilliant orange root (rhizome, really) was described in a book of herbal remedies from 600 BC. The Greek physician Dioscorides used it in the first century AD during his time as “army doc” for the Roman Empire. Today scientific studies on turmeric number in the thousands.
Turmeric has proved of value as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, digestive aid, skin remedy, an adjunct treatment for cancer as well as a prevention for many ills of modern life: heart disease, diabetes, and certain auto-immune conditions. In one study, people with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA, an auto-immune arthritis) found significant relief from just 400mg in capsules taken with meals three times a day (1200mg, or just over one gram daily)**.
Used on the skin, powders and poultices temporarily stain the skin but have a well-known benefit for healing wounds with less scarring and even reducing frown lines. Have you seen the warm glow of healthy skin that graces wrinkle-free matrons throughout South-East Asia? That is from regular massage with anti-oxidant turmeric with essential oils.
More is Not Better
No one needs an orange-stained face from rubbing in powder without proper follow-up using moisturizing plant oils and exfoliation. I mix 1 tablespoon powdered turmeric with 1-2 teaspoons liquid Vitamin E oil to massage into damaged skin or to use with a sterile dressing for fresh wounds.
The dose of the powdered rhizome is 1-4 grams daily, about a heaped teaspoon, mixed into food or extracted, often in milk (the fat helps extract the valuable compounds. Turmeric can also be taken as a concentrated extract in alcohol and water, called a tincture, at a dose of 15ml per day, or a tablespoon, usually divided into smaller doses.
As a regular ingredient in curries and other recipes, a much smaller dose of ½ teaspoon per serving combines well with other common kitchen spices, especially black pepper, ginger root, or cumin seed. Turmeric is in the Ginger family (Zingiberaceae).
Medicinal Benefits of Turmeric: Curcumin
Turmeric is used to improve the way we break down fats and sugars, and for general immunity. On its own, it has astringent, pungent flavors. Too much in your curry gives a bitter taste, so a little goes a long way.
The yellow plant pigments include the isolated curcumin, but the whole plant also has essential oils, lost in over-cooking or lower-grade herb products. Turmeric is also relatively rich in Vitamin C, magnesium for nerves and muscle health, and other nutrients. This golden treasure is used in sacred rituals such as wedding ceremonies when both groom and bride are anointed with turmeric paste.
When people think of turmeric as a medicine, they often think of its anti-inflammatory effect, especially useful for long-term joint pain or immune disorders.
In fact, turmeric helps even in the short term to heal inflamed gastrointestinal walls, in contrast to the anti-inflammatory steroidal drug, cortisone. Turmeric is also used for its antimicrobial effects against bacteria, some viruses and fungi.
How does turmeric work?
The curcumin appears from animal studies to lower leukotriene and prostaglandin production, resulting in lower levels of inflammation (heat). The medical system of India known as Ayurveda classifies turmeric with the drying element of Earth (that astringent quality), reducing excess mucous production. The other compounds in high-quality turmeric (essential oils) balance this drying effect when used in moderate amounts in food or in recommended doses.
For heart health, turmeric acts as a platelet aggregate inhibitor, lessening arterial plaque build-up and stress on the circulatory system as well as the heart. Feeding animals as little as 1% of their diet resulted in better clearing of cholesterol †. Studies also found a liver-protecting effect in animals fed with turmeric ‡.
Tumeric and Cancer Research
Recently the anticancer potential of turmeric and its compound curcumin, has received great interest. Curcumin and water extracts of turmeric may protect against DNA damage. The cycle of cells becoming cancerous appears to be inhibited by the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects of the herb. The many studies on the value of turmeric as an addition to conventional cancer treatments suggest that this sacred herb deserves its reputation as a healing agent.
Turmeric does this in different ways. For those interested in technical details, this includes: activating the liver’s own anti-cancer enzyme, glutathione-S-transferase, inhibiting growth of estrogen-dependent human breast cancer cells (in vitro), along with inhibiting other pathways of cancer such as angiogenesis (tumors stealing blood supplies), decreasing tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and direct anti-tumor activity, all of which increase survival of the patient (and lab animals).
Who should be Careful Using Turmeric?
If you are pregnant, food forms of this potent plant may be best, considering thousands of years of human use. Turmeric is reputed to increase mother’s milk, but high doses may also aggravate a sensitive woman’s digestive tract. Since turmeric stimulates the liver and gallbladder with detoxifying benefits for many types of people, those with gallstones will want to contact their licensed care provider before taking doses over the amounts normally encountered in the occasional curried dish.
Since not all people respond to natural medicines the same way, I encourage each of us to pay attention to our taste buds: if this wonder-plant turns you off, Nature has a planet full of alternatives. If your turmeric tea, curry-topped cauliflower, or doctored salad dressing tastes delicious, you are on your way to holistic health.
**Chandran B, Goel A. Phytotherapy Research. 2012. 26(11): 1719-1725
†Rao, SD et al. J Nutr 1970; 100:1307-1316; Hussain MS, Chandrasekhara N. Indian J Med Res 1992; 96:288-291
‡Kiso Y et al. Planta Medica 1983; 49:185-187