Botanical Name:Curcuma longa (syn. C. domestica)
Common Name(s): Turmeric, curcuma, yellow ginger, Indian saffron, haridra (Sanskrit), and jiang huang (Chinese)
Family Name: Zingiberaceae
Part(s) Used: The rhizome.
Habitat and Locality: Turmeric is a perennial herb indigenous to Southeast Asia. It thrives in tropical climates, growing in moist, well drained soil; however, it can be cultivated in greenhouses in temperate climates. India produces 94% of the world’s supply of turmeric. It is also cultivated in China, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, Jamaica, Haiti, Japan, and Hawaii.1, 2
Turmeric has vibrant green, glabrous, oblong or lanceolate leaves that taper at each end and grow up to two feet in length. The orange-yellow, tuberous rhizome has branched arms ranging from ¾ to 1½ inches wide. The oblong rhizomes closely resemble ginger, and are covered with light brown skin, with transverse parallel rings. Three to five pale yellow, tubular flowers arise from the roots in dense spikes, surrounded by a bracteole. Turmeric is propagated from root cuttings or divisions.
The Name:Curcuma derives from the Persian word kurkum meaning “saffron” because the orange-yellow rhizome hue is reminiscent of saffron.3 The epithet longa refers to the long, tubular roots. The Chinese name jiang huang translates as “ginger yellow.” The name turmeric derives from the Latin terra merita, referring to the yellow mineral pigment.2
Historical Uses: In India, turmeric is a venerated herb used as a spice, medicine, and dye; it is also used in Hindu religious ceremonies. Today, it continues to be used to dye the holy robes of priests, and as a natural dye for silk, cotton, and wool.4, 5 Traditionally, turmeric was used as a digestive aid, blood purifier, tonic, diaphoretic, and antispasmodic. It was also used for liver disorders, morning sickness, skin infections, arthritis, sores, sprains, eczema, and hemorrhoids.2,6 Turmeric was considered a preventative and treatment for intestinal worms and parasites.7 In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is used to eliminate excess kapha.3 Ayurvedic practitioner Vasant Lad explains that turmeric “gives the energy of the Divine Mother to grant prosperity.” He adds that it “cleanses the chakras (nadi-shodhana).”4 Historically, Turmeric has been incorporated into facial cosmetics and applied to the face to impart a golden glow.2 It has been cultivated and harvested in India since 3000 B.C.5 More than 100,000 acres of turmeric were cultivated in 1950.3
India introduced turmeric to China in the 1570s. It was mentioned in the Tang Pen Tsao (1578) for its medicinal effects on the liver and digestion.3 In Traditional Chinese Medicine, turmeric is recommended for treating flatulence, colic, abdominal pain, liver problems, menstrual cramping, after birth pains, chest pain, blood in the urine, hemorrhage, toothaches, bruises, and sores. It invigorates the blood, removes deficiency cold, and dispels wind.8 Due to its “wind-dispelling actions,” turmeric is sometimes used to treat epilepsy and febrile seizures. Topical applications were administered to relieve pain, reduce the itching of sores, and eliminate ringworm.1
In Polynesia, turmeric continues to be used to treat asthma, skin diseases, constipation, and in religious rituals.1 It has been an important traditional medicine in Thailand, where it is currently used as a carminative, appetite stimulant, antidiarrheal, and astringent. It is also used for treating dizziness, gonorrhea, and peptic ulcers. Turmeric is applied topically to insect bites, ringworm, wounds, bleeding, and inflamed gums.6
In the 13th century, Arab traders introduced turmeric to Europe; however, it was not popular in Western cultures until recently. European and Western herbalists recommended turmeric as a mild, aromatic stimulant and stomachic for dyspepsia, flatulence, and jaundice. It was considered a weaker alternative with effects reminiscent of ginger. Turmeric was used as a test for alkalies, and to color ointments and pharmaceutical products.
Turmeric is a flavoring and coloring agent in the food industry and culinary practice. It is added to baked goods, meats, condiments, relish, pickles, fats, oils, egg products, soups, gravies, and canned beverages. Turmeric is used to tint cheeses, butter, margarine, ice cream, yogurt, sauces, microwave popcorn, cakes, icings, gelatin desserts, and cereal. It is an ingredient in curry powder and Worchester sauce, and is used to color mustard.1
Constituents:Turmeric containsvolatile oil (turmerone, ar-turmerone, α-atlantone, γ-atlantone, zingiberene, 1,8-cineole, α-phellandrene, ԃ-sabinene, borneol, dehydroturmerone, aneole, and monoterpines), the orange-yellow coloring pigment (referred to as curcuminoids) that include phenolic compounds (curcumin, monodesmethoxycurcumin, didesmethoxycurcumin, p-coumaroylferuloyl-methane, and di-p-coumaroylmethane), as well as sugars (glucose, fructose, and arabinose), protein, polysaccharides (starch, ukonanes), minerals, and vitamins A and C. Some sources suggest that turmeric contains betacarotene rather than vitamin A.1, 9
Nutritional Properties:Turmeric rhizome contains high amounts of iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, potassium, selenium, silicon, and sodium. It contains moderate to low amounts of calcium, chromium, cobalt, crude fiber, dietary fiber, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin A (or betacarotene), vitamin C, and zinc.10
Medicinal Properties: Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antiarthritic, antioxidant, aromatic, antispasmodic, bitter tonic, carminative, choleretic, cholagogue, cholesterol lowering, hepatoprotectant, antihepatotoxic, analgesic, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, immunomodulant, antimutagenic, anticarcinogenic, antimetastatic, and vulnerary.
Energetic Properties:Warm, bitter, pungent, and acrid.
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects comparable to anti-inflammatory drugs such as hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone, as well as over-the-counter agents such as ibuprofen. The rhizomes contain curcumin and volatile oils that inhibit the synthesis of inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Turmeric can be used long-term for treating osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, tendonitis, and allergies, as well as other long-term inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. It reduces joint swelling and tenderness, as well as morning stiffness, and increases mobility. Consuming turmeric on an empty stomach between meals is best for utilizing its anti-inflammatory actions. In one study using human subjects, 400 mg of curcumin was comparable to 100 mg of phenylbutazone and 400 mg of ibuprofen.5 In addition, turmeric was devoid of drug-related side effects such as ulcer formation, intestinal bleeding, and suppression of white blood cells. Frequent, consistent consumption of the herb (three to four times daily) is recommended to manage pain and inflammation.
Turmeric acts as a smooth muscle antispasmodic, likely resulting from the prostaglandin and leukotriene inhibiting effects. The carminative and antispasmodic actions relieve digestive cramps, gas, bloating, and non-ulcer dyspepsia. Consuming turmeric for one week prior to menstruation alleviates menstrual cramping and decongests the pelvic region. Taking turmeric on a daily basis decreases chronic uterine cramping and aids in managing pain for conditions such as endometriosis. Turmeric also decreases allergy-related respiratory spasms and can be used as a long-term treatment for asthmatics.
Turmeric acts as a warming, aromatic, carminative, and mildly-bitter tonic that aids fat and protein digestion. It reduces nausea and indigestion that result from combining too many different types of food at once. Turmeric speeds recovery from digestive infections such as a stomach flu, food poisoning, salmonella, dysentery, and parasitic infections such as giardia. A closely related species, Curcuma zedoary, was found to be one of the most effective herbs for killing amoebae such as Entamoeba histolytic, a major cause of amoebic dysentery.3 Turmeric has antibacterial effects and improves the intestinal flora.4 It supports the digestive tract following recent use of antibiotics, and addresses digestive flora imbalances such as Candida albicans overgrowth. Adding small amounts of turmeric rhizome to lactofermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchee is an excellent way support beneficial microbes in the digestive tract. Turmeric is helpful in the long-term treatment of difficult or painful digestion, non-ulcer dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colitis, Crohn’s disease, food sensitivities, celiac disease, as well as stomach ulcers. Consuming turmeric also reduces itching and irritation from hemorrhoids and anal fissures.
Turmeric contains liver protective compounds with actions similar to milk thistle seeds. Curcumin, p-coumaroylferuloylmethane, and di-p-coumaroylmethane protect hepatocytes against injury induced from carbon tetrachloride and galactosamine exposure.1 Turmeric aids hepatic detoxification of heavy metals and environmental toxins. The liver detoxifying actions are beneficial for individuals with alcohol-induced liver toxicity, and for those consuming over-the-counter and prescription drugs that negatively affect liver function. Curcumin also enhances the liver’s detoxification of cancer-causing compounds.5 The hepatoprotectant actions are beneficial for treating conditions such as jaundice and hepatitis.
Turmeric increases the liver’s production of bile (choleretic), regulates bile viscosity, encourages bile secretion (cholagogue), and shrinks engorged hepatic ducts. The choleretic and bile-regulating actions are attributed to tolmethyl carbinol, a component of the volatile oil.1 Turmeric is an excellent medicine for gall bladder disorders such as cholecystitis, cholangitis, and nonobstructive gallstones, and following a cholecystectomy (removal of gallbladder). It also lowers the levels of serum cholesterol, triglycerides, and low density lipids. It prevents the oxidation of cholesterol, which damages blood vessels and leads to the buildup of plaque on the arterial walls. Thus, turmeric aids in preventing and treating atherosclerosis and heart disease.5 Turmeric improves circulation and can be used as a carrier herb in herbal formulas.
Curcumin, a potent antioxidant contained in turmeric, protects cells from free radical destruction that damages DNA and leads to cancer. The antioxidant properties support the immune system and are helpful in inhibiting cancerous growths. They also slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis in rodents.5 Anticarcinogenic, antimutagenic, and antimetastatic actions have been confirmed. Curcumin enhances the cellular destruction of mutated cancer cells and increases the body’s production of cancer-fighting compounds such as glutathione. It has also been found to decrease incidence of cell mutation in smokers and decrease levels of cancer-causing compounds.5, 6 Curcumin was also found to inhibit various stages of colon cancer.5 Turmeric exhibits anticancerous activity against Dalton’s lymphoma cells in rodent models.1
Curcumin has inhibitory effects on epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor sites. Two-thirds of all cancers produce an abundance of EGF receptors sites, causing increased sensitivity to EGF which stimulates cellular proliferation. Curcumin decreases the cellular tendency to proliferate by decreasing the number of EGF receptors.5 It also inhibits tumor growth by limiting angiogenesis, preventing the formation of new blood vessels that feed the tumor. It prevents excessive production of the enzyme cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2) that contributes to tumor development. Curcumin inhibits nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kb), a protein produced by cancer cells that blocks signals; thereby commanding the cells to stop proliferating. Curcumin encourages destruction of unhealthy cells by increasing a protein (nuclear p53 protein) that is essential for apoptosis. It also inhibits cancerous growth-promoting enzymes.5
I’ve observed repeated success in patients using topical and internal preparations of turmeric for precancerous and cancerous skin conditions. A topical preparation for precancerous skin conditions combines three parts turmeric (Curcuma), one part calendula (Calendula), and ½ part blood root (Sanguinaria). This combination can be prepared as a salve (using the alcohol-intermediary method), an extract, or a paste made with powdered herbs and honey. It should be applied twice daily to the affected area only, as blood root can irritate the skin.
Note: Turmeric is not a substitute for medical treatment of skin cancer and should be used with the supervision of a dermatologist or doctor.
Turmeric speeds the healing of tissue and wounds. When applied topically to wounds, turmeric has potent antibacterial effects on Staphylococcus aureus. The volatile oil and curcumin have antibacterial actions. The volatile oil is antiseptic against a variety of gram (+) and gram (-) bacteria, yeasts, and molds.
Turmeric is a deobstruent agent that moves stagnant blood and reduces swelling from physical trauma. It is excellent for speeding the healing of bruises, sprains, strains, and contusions. Topical use stimulates circulation in the tissues, reducing congestion, and decreasing inflammation. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, turmeric is used to move qi and alleviate pain. Turmeric can be used internally and topically for the previously listed conditions.
The antioxidant properties help preserve food and prevent rancidity of oils and fats. Petroleum ether extracts have also been found to be insecticidal against houseflies.1
Avoid turmeric consumption with obstructive gallstones. According to Foster and Yeung, turmeric should not be used during pregnancy.1 I’ve used small quantities of turmeric for medicinal and culinary purposes during pregnancy and have not noted any negative effects. Excessive dosing (higher than suggested use) may cause gastrointestinal irritation such as nausea and vomiting. Some herbalists may caution against co-administering turmeric with antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications; however, no clinical evidence of interaction has been reported. According to classical Chinese medicine, turmeric is contraindicated for individuals with yin deficiency with heat signs (e.g., hot flashes or night sweats), as well as for blood deficiency without stagnant qi or congealed blood.8
Note: Purchasing organically cultivated turmeric is recommended, since it is much less likely to be irradiated.
Warning! Preparations of turmeric impart a vivid yellow hue that can stain skin, fabric, clothing, countertops, wooden and plastic utensils. Latex gloves can prevent staining of the hands when processing turmeric.
METHODS OF PREPARATION AND DOSAGE
Tincture:Fresh [1:2, 95% alcohol] or recent, dry [1:5, 60% alcohol]; consume 15-60 drops, up to four times a day.
Glycerite:Fresh [1:2, 60% glycerin, 40% water] or [1:2, 50% glycerin, 50% alcohol]; consume 10-30 drops, up to three times a day.
Acetum Extract: Fresh [1:2, raw, apple cider vinegar]; consume one teaspoon to one tablespoon, up to four times a day.
Capsules: Consume two “00” capsules, up to three times a day, or consume standardized capsules containing 250-500 mg, up to three times daily.
Tea: Prepare a standard infusion, a cold infusion, or a strong decoction, or infuse two tablespoons per 16 ounces of water.
Honey and Syrups: Prepare turmeric honey by mixing the powdered or fresh root in honey; however, the fresh root requires straining, whereas the powdered root does not. For a delicious treat, try adding one teaspoon to one tablespoon of the medicated honey to warm goat, cow, almond, or coconut milk. The powdered root and honey mixture is ideal as a topical application.
Topical Use: Turmeric can be used as a fresh or dry plant poultice. Prepare an oil of the fresh, wilted rhizome using the double boiler method, or prepare the dry rhizome using the alcohol intermediary method.
Culinary Use: The flavor of the fresh root is reminiscent of ginger, and complements most recipes that contain ginger. Fresh turmeric retains more of the aromatic and pungent qualities, and is slightly less bitter than the dry root. Add a small piece (1/2 to 1 teaspoon) of turmeric to smoothies, or to fresh vegetable or fruit juice. Grate or macerate the herb and add to soups, salad dressing, kraut, kimchee, rice, beans, or protein dishes. Note:A little bit goes a long way! It’s easy to overdo it.
As a preventative or long-term tonic, consume up to one teaspoon of the powder per day in food. Turmeric is most commonly used in curry powders; it is also used to color mustard. It is used to color and flavor condiments, relishes, fats and oils, butter, cheese, egg products, baked goods, soups, gravies, meat and meat products. It can also be used as a dye for Easter eggs.
- Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: A John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2003:499-501.
- Foster S, Johnson R. Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society; 2006:360-61.
- Hobbs C. Foundations of Health – Healing with Herbs and Foods. Capitola, CA: Botanica Press; 1992:286-89.
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- Murray, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books; 2005: 521-24.
- Foster S. 101 Medicinal Herbs. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press; 1998:200-01.
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- Skenderi G. Herbal Vade Mecum. Rutherford, NJ: Herbacy Press, 2003:380-81.
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