Turmeric –Golden Spice for a Healthier Life

Linda B. White, M.D.

Turmeric boasts a rich history as culinary spice, textile dye, and medicine. Practitioners of the traditional Indian medical system known as Ayurveda, as well as traditional Chinese medicine, used turmeric to “purify the blood” and treat disorders of the skin, heart, liver, and lungs. The herb has earned the well-deserved nickname “Indian solid gold,” even in medical journals—periodicals not known for flowery praise. Authors of these prestigious peer-reviewed publications have gone so far as to refer to turmeric’s key active ingredient, curcumin, as “cure-cumin” and “an ideal Spice for Life.”

tumeric root

Like its botanical cousin ginger, turmeric (Curcuma longa) belongs to the Zingiberaceae. Both are tropical plants with long broad, glossy leaves and beautiful flowers. Turmeric can grow three to five feet tall and produces golden flowers said to smell like mangos. While commonly cultivated in Asia, India, and China, you won’t find it growing in the US, unless you’re in a greenhouse or on one of the Hawaiian Islands.

As with ginger, the rhizome (a fleshy underground stem) is the part used in cooking and in medicine. Both spices are pungent and warming. Traditionally, the orange rhizome is boiled, cleaned, dried, and ground. It’s the ingredient that imparts that characteristic deep yellow color to curry. The rhizome contains a number of biologically active ingredients, including a group of flavonoids called curcuminoids. The best-known curcuminoid is curcumin.

In Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, turmeric rhizome is taken internally to stimulate appetite and to manage flatulence, gall bladder complaints, liver diseases such as hepatitis, colic, diarrhea, hemorrhage, bronchitis, upper respiratory infections, kidney inflammation, bladder infection, cancer, fevers, and menstrual disorders. Externally, it’s used as a poultice for pain and inflammation, as wells as an antiseptic for scrapes, cuts and burns.  If you apply it topically, expect temporary yellowing of skin and possibly permanent staining of clothing. Not surprisingly, turmeric is also used as a textile dye.

More recently, turmeric has caught the attention of scientists. Studies confirm potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power. It’s antimicrobial against a variety of bacteria, fungi, and parasites. It has anti-allergy activity. It also may discourage platelets from forming clots within blood vessels (as happens in heart attacks and strokes), lower cholesterol, and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. (Oxidized LDL harms arterial linings and can initiate the process of atherosclerosis).

In the gastrointestinal tract, turmeric prevents spasms and may help prevent ulcer formation. It protects the liver, promotes bile secretion, and, by making bile more soluble, may help prevent stone formation in the gallbladder and its ducts. As an anti-cancer agent, it discourages the development of tumors and, if tumors do take root, inhibits their proliferation.

Basically, turmeric may protect against or ameliorate many chronic diseases associated with aging. That’s because turmeric is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant; inflammation and oxidative damage (the same process that makes butter go rancid) underlies many of these diseases. The list includes atherosclerosis, arthritis, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

For instance, preliminary research shows that curcumin (1200 mg/day) improved symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In combination with zinc and two other Ayurvedic herbs, boswellia and ashwagandha, curcumin reduced pain in people with osteoarthritis. (Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is caused by wear and tear). Cancer is another common scourge of aging. Turmeric’s curcuminoids have activity against a number of types of cancer. One study found that, in some, but not all of patients with precancerous lesions in tissues such as the cervix, mouth, stomach, and bladder, taking eight grams a day of curcumin for three months led to improvement. Two studies in people with colon cancer showed curcumin slowed signs of tumor progress.

In terms of intestinal disorders, preliminary human research suggests that curcumin offers promise in the management of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. While not associated with intestinal ulcerations typical of inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but may be aggravated by inflammation. However, only two studies have examined the use of turmeric extracts in IBS – with one showing benefits, and the other showing no change in symptoms. On the other hand, turmeric has been shown to alleviate ulcer symptoms. In one study, people with ulcer pain took five turmeric capsules (300 mg each) a day, a half hour before each meal, at 4 p.m., and at bedtime. Most interesting of all (if you happen to have a family history of dementia) is research suggesting that turmeric has an anti-Alzheimer’s disease effect. Compared to Americans, people in India have a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s diseases and other types of dementia. Perhaps Indian researchers wondered whether eating so much curry had anything to do with this happy circumstance.

In Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, a protein called beta-amyloid is abnormal. This abnormal protein causes the brain cells to degenerate. A curcuminoid called bisdemethoxycurcumin stimulates immune cells in the brain basically to digest the beta-amyloid (think Pacman). Studies in mice have shown that curcumin discourages formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. , Best of all this spice is safe for humans and other mammals. While historically women have consumed the spice in food in all phase of reproductive life, medicinal doses may stimulate menstrual flow and, therefore, should not be taken during pregnancy. It’s also not recommended in people with stones that obstruct the biliary system. Some research indicates that curcumin may impair the activity of some anti-cancer drugs, such as irinotecan, used to treat colon cancer. On the other hand, it may actually augment the cancer-fighting power of drugs like Taxol. Some experts don’t recommend that medicinal doses be combined with anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin, Plavix and Coumadin.

Curcuminoids may have more in common with gold than color and value. They’re also not readily accessible, in this case, to the human body. First of all, curcuminoids comprise only three to five percent of turmeric. Second, turmeric and curcumin aren’t very water soluble. Third, curcumin is both poorly absorbed from the intestinal tract. Forth, what’s absorbed is quickly metabolized (broken down) by enzyme systems in the intestinal and liver. To augment absorption, curcumin can be formulated with bromelain (an enzyme in pineapple) or piperine from black pepper and long pepper. In one study, combining piperine (20 milligrams) with curcumin (2 grams) increased blood levels of the latter by a factor of 20. Piperine may both improve curcumin’s absorption from the gut into the blood and slow the enzymes that eliminate it. Newer research shows that creating a phytosome, a process that involves complexing a plant chemical, in this case curcumin, with a phospholipid may also make the curcumin more water soluble and bioavailable. Clearly, you’d have to consume buckets of turmeric to get as much curcumin as is used in studies. (Products from reputable manufactures contain 95% curcuminoids). Does that mean you should take a product standardized for curcumin? That depends. If you have one of the conditions listed above, trying a standardized product seems reasonable. However, as with most herbs, turmeric contains a host of useful chemicals. Plus, buying it in bulk is relatively inexpensive. And you can easily use turmeric in cooking, in the creation of tinctures, and topically as a paste for skin inflammation or musculoskeletal aches, Back to cooking. As mentioned above, turmeric and curcumin aren’t very water soluble. An easier solution than using phytosomes is one worked out ages ago by Asians and Indians: cook turmeric in warm milk, ghee (clarified butter), or coconut milk. Coconut milk is an ingredient in many curry recipes. So is black pepper, which increases absorption.

While curry powder can contain many ingredients, the four base ingredients are turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fenugreek. Other spices may include cayenne pepper (or other chilies), ginger, black pepper, long pepper, garlic, fennel, cloves, mace, nutmeg, curry leaves, cardamon, and mustard.  All these herbs and spices have medicinal properties. For instance, turmeric’s botanical cousin ginger is famous for reducing nausea. It’s also anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antimicrobial. It relaxes intestinal spasms and reduces coughs. Garlic is antimicrobial, anticancer, immune-enhancing, and good for the cardiovascular system. Curcumin is antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, and carminative (relieves intestinal gas.) Black pepper, along with its chemical constituent piperine, has medicinal effects. It stimulates pancreatic digestive enzymes, which improves digestion, is antioxidant, and discourages tumor formation. Fenugreek is anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and carminative. It stimulates breast milk and helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Cardamom is antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, and digestive. These spices are all available from the Monterey Bay Herb Company.

Linda B. White, M.D. is an assistant professor in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at Metropolitan State College of Denver, where she teaches classes in herbal medicine. She has published numerous magazine articles and is the coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore and Kids, Herbs, and Health.