Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used for centuries as a spice, food preservative, food colouring, and fabric dye.
India, China, and Southeast Asia have valued turmeric as a medicine for hundreds of years. In Ayurvedic medicine, the 5,000-year-old natural healing system of India, turmeric is used as a cleansing herb for the whole body and as a remedy for minor wounds, poor digestion, arthritis, jaundice, inflammation, and pain.
Traditional Chinese practitioners have used turmeric medicinally for liver and gallbladder disorders, respiratory congestion, promotion of digestion and assimilation, improving blood circulation, regulating menses, and helping heal bruises and sprains. Based on these and many other traditional uses, researchers are now beginning to realize the importance of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anticarcinogenic actions and its liver-protective properties.
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, grown and commercially harvested in India, Asia, and other tropical countries. The thick, cured rhizomes contain protein, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and yellowish orange volatile oils called curcuminoids that are responsible for the biological activity of turmeric.
A Beneficial Derivative
Curcumin is the principal curcuminoid derived from turmeric and is best known as an anti-inflammatory. It is sometimes formulated with bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme found in pineapple, to increase absorption and enhance its anti-inflammatory action. This combination should be taken on an empty stomach 20 minutes before meals or between meals.
In rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, animal and human studies have shown that curcumin is as effective in reducing inflammation and swelling, with fewer side effects, as hydrocortisone or phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication. The recommended dosage of curcumin for inflammatory conditions is 400 mg to 600 mg three times a day.
Curcumin is being studied in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. An ongoing study is examining the safety, tolerability, and absorption of curcumin to determine its potential effect on cognition, behaviour, and daily function of Alzheimer’s patients.
Researchers are also evaluating curcumin for its antiviral and antibacterial actions and as a preventive agent and treatment option for stomach ulcers, multiple sclerosis, atherosclerosis, and HIV/AIDS.
Turmeric shows real promise as an anticancer agent due in part to its antioxidant activity. Several recent studies demonstrate that the frequent use of turmeric has been linked to lower rates of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer.
Laboratory tests conclude that curcumin may prevent the development of tumours and slow the spread of cancer cells. Currently, clinical trials are under way to assess the efficacy of curcumin in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.
In addition, curcumin is often recommended to protect healthy cells from the harmful effects of radiation and chemotherapy, without reducing the effectiveness of these treatments.
Spice Up Your Veggies
Prostate cancer is a leading cause of cancer in men with new cases being diagnosed every year. The good news is scientists at the State University of New Jersey recently tested curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate, a naturally occurring substance abundant in cruciferous vegetables, and found that this combination significantly reduced tumour growth and the cancer’s ability to metastasize in mice implanted with human prostate cancer cells. Best of all, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, turnips, and cabbage taste delicious when spiced with turmeric.
Further Dietary Assets
Some of our best cholesterol fighters can be found right in our own kitchens, and turmeric is no exception. Studies show that curcumin can lower LDL levels of cholesterol, increase the beneficial HDL levels, and reduce the production of cholesterol gallstones.
Turmeric is also a potent liver herb. Many herbal practitioners believe that turmeric is comparable to milk thistle for treating hepatitis and improving liver function. Turmeric stimulates the liver’s production of bile to help break down fats. It improves peristalsis, the rhythmic contractions that move food through the intestinal tract, and increases glutathione, a powerful substance present in the liver that helps detoxify and eliminate pesticides, heavy metals, and harmful chemicals.
Turmeric can be consumed often and generously in the diet, although prolonged use may cause stomach upset for some. It adds a mild, slightly bitter, peppery flavour and a golden yellow colour to curry dishes, rice, chicken, fish, vegetables, and lentils. Turmeric can also be taken as a tincture, in capsules, and as a powder blended in water or juice.
The next time you are preparing your favorite meal, consider spicing it up with a healthy dose of turmeric.