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Turmeric root is one of the most valuable traditional remedies with exciting potential for our needs today

Turmeric

Curcuma longa Zingiberaceae

Turmeric is both one of the most extensively used spices in the world and one of its most favoured medicines. Much modern research effort has focused on its yellow pigment known as curcumin. However this is extremely poorly absorbed and is barely available to the body’s tissues. It is more likely that the main impact of turmeric and curcumin is via their direct effects within the digestive system. This accords very well with the core theme in traditional India, that turmeric ignites ‘digestive fire’.

  • How does it feel?

    Dip your finger in freshly opened pack of turmeric powder and lick it off. Even a small quantity packs a big punch! The first impression is of a very powerful aromatic spice, quickly turning into a taste like black pepper. Then there is a significant bitterness, followed by a second wave of heat and finally a lingering aromatic warm aftertaste.

    It is a true education in the power of turmeric to taste it on its own, not integrated into a complex spicy meal. This is clearly a medicine for the gut, that also warms up the rest of our being.

  • What can I use it for?

    Consider adding turmeric to your daily routine for any long-term inflammatory condition, including with joint pain and skin problems. This is not an unusual measure: the average turmeric consumption in India is several grams per day.

    The focus in the traditional reputation of turmeric is on the digestive system. This is key to its benefits on inflammatory problems. The gut turns out time and again to be where chronic inflammations originate and provides many important mechanisms to reduce them. Turmeric is particularly worth trying if there is inflammation within the gut; inflammatory bowel disease like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s may often benefit from regular supplementation with turmeric and there seem to be very few such cases where this has exacerbated the conditions.

    Turmeric has wider benefits on gut health and as a prebiotic could be an important element in a programme to build a healthy gut microbiome, perhaps after antibiotic therapy or after any depleting illness. It is certainly worth trying for irritable bowel (IBS) symptoms and various forms of indigestion.

    It also has a persistent reputation in helping jaundice and what we now refer to as hepatitis. It can also be considered with gallbladder problems or bile stones without risk of exacerbating this condition.

    Turmeric is a warming, ‘drying’ spice in the same category as ginger (to which it is related), black pepper and chillies. So look to turmeric particularly if symptoms are worse in cold and damp, which is often the case with arthritic problems.

    Women will often find turmeric useful to relieve a variety of menstrual problems, including where there is evidence of pelvic inflammation (tenderness in the region especially mid-month, vaginal discharge, bloating) and where symptoms are relieved by a hot water bottle.

  • Into the heart of Turmeric

    A key concept in Ayurvedic health is that of supporting agni (fire) in the digestion, as a metaphor for all digestive and metabolic processes at the core of health. It relates to the Ayurvedic term ãma: the idea that toxins building particularly in the digestive functions can fuel problems elsewhere in the body.

    Turmeric is known as ‘deepana’ – enkindling the digestive fire, and ‘pachana’ helping digestion. This may be the most powerful image for understanding the benefits of turmeric.

  • Traditional uses

    Turmeric has been one of the most valued remedies in Ayurvedic medicine, as a heating and drying remedy that moves the circulation, and clears digestive-based toxins (ãma or ‘damp’) especially from the lower abdomen and pelvic areas. This ties in closely with the Ayurvedic concept of supporting agni (fire) in the digestion.

    Turmeric has a long list of traditional health uses across many cultures. In India, it is regarded as a stomachic, tonic and blood purifier and used for poor digestion, fevers, skin conditions, vomiting in pregnancy and liver disorders. Externally, it is applied for conjunctivitis, skin infections, cancer, sprains, arthritis, haemorrhoids and eczema. Indian women also apply it to their skin to reduce hair growth. Another common use is to promote wound healing.

    In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) different applications are attributed to the ‘rhizome’ and ‘tuber’. Turmeric ‘rhizome’ is said to be a blood and qi with analgesic properties. It is used to treat chest and abdominal pain and distension, jaundice, frozen shoulder, amenorrhoea due to blood stasis and postpartum abdominal pain due to stasis. It is also applied to wounds and injuries. The ‘tuber’ has similar properties, but is used in hot conditions as it is considered to be more cooling. One particular application is viral hepatitis.

    Traditional Thai medicinal uses include gastrointestinal ulcer, anal haemorrhage, vaginal haemorrhage, skin disease, ringworm, insect bites and to prevent the common cold. In earlier Western herbal medicine, turmeric was regarded as an aromatic digestive stimulant and as a cure for jaundice.

  • What practitioners say

    Digestion: Turmeric has widespread application to digestive problems. As a very widely consumed culinary spice it has long been favoured for reducing indigestion in many forms, including dyspepsia, colic and IBS. It has can help to restore disturbed microbiome and can be considered in many inflammatory bowel diseases and even as part of a bowel cancer regime. The traditional focus on its role in igniting agni (see above) is possibly a key to its core prospect: turmeric really does seem to support more robust digestive functions.

    Liver: Turmeric has a stimulant effect on the liver, increasing bile output and helping to dissolve and prevent gallstones. It is traditionally considered a blood ‘purifier’ and is often used for beautifying the skin and clearing systemic toxaemia; eczema, urticaria, psoriasis and acne. As with many liver herbs it is also good for the eyes; a wash is used in conjunctivitis and styes.

    Women’s health: In Ayurvedic terms turmeric is used to clear kapha accumulations from the lower abdomen, uterus and apanakshetra. Fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, dysmenorrhoea, amenorrhoea and congestive pelvic inflammatory conditions and vaginal discharge may all be relieved. As a specific herb for rasa dhatu it also works on its secondary tissue stanyasrotas and is used to purify breast milk as well as to promote the flow of the menses.

    Inflammation: Turmeric may reduce inflammation around the body. It is used in arthritic problems, dermatitis, and other skin problems. In Indian tradition it is favoured for pitta-kapha conditions and in this case mixed with more bitter herbs.

    Circulation: Turmeric has circulatory stimulating and warming properties similar to ginger, chillies or black pepper. This leads to increased blood flow through the tissues, and is likely to accentuate its value in treating symptoms around the body that are worsened in the cold.

    External: Turmeric is excellent for reducing pain as a topical application in bruises, infections, inflammations like mastitis, sprains and pain. Use it carefully as it is very staining to the skin and anything it comes into contact with.

  • Research

    Although curcumin has been widely agreed as active principle of turmeric, and has even been cited as the beneficial agent instead of turmeric, it is insoluble in water, and rapidly converted to inactive metabolites in the gut, so is in fact extremely poorly absorbed into the tissues.  Indeed perhaps only 1% of curcumin consumed actually gets through the gut wall into the body. One review of more than 120 clinical trials found no successful clinical trial of curcumin that was fully double-blinded and placebo controlled, and concluded that it is an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and a highly improbable lead.

    It is therefore advisable to put aside the majority of research evidence for curcumin, usually based in the laboratory, and select only the few studies that relate to real-life human consumption of turmeric.

    Fortunately, as one author has reported “curcumin does not need to be absorbed to bring about its effects since it has profound effects on the intestinal wall and can effectively reduce inflammation by this mechanism”. The following summary identifies research that follows the action of both curcumin and other turmeric constituents on the gut wall.

    Effects on inflammation from gut wall Curcumin has been shown to reduce the activity of gut wall proinflammatory factors, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), 5-lipoxygenase (LOX), inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), TNF-a, IL -1, -2, -6, -8 and -12, TLR 4, and Nf-kappa-β.

    Importantly curcumin mends intestinal cell wall junctions, blocks gut surface enzymes (eg alkaline phosphatase), transcription factors, and growth factors, and prevents bacterial or virus infection from the intestine. This may be the key to the wider effects on inflammation throughout the body. One research team has demonstrated that curcumin can decrease in the release of gut bacteria-derived lipopolysaccharide (LPS) into circulation by maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier function. This could explain the role of curcumin in benefiting metabolic diseases  such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, and kidney disease. It has also shown promise in the management of local gut inflammatory disease, including Crohn’s disease.

    Prebiotic effects Turmeric has been shown to beneficially alter the gut microbiome, with relatively more Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter populations and fewer pro-inflammatory Enterobacteria and Enterococci; its effect in increasing bile flow adds to its stabilising effects on the microbiome.

    Effects on gut function Adding turmeric to curry meals shortened small-bowel transit time, suggesting that turmeric can increase bowel motility. Turmeric has calcium-channel blocking spasmolytic effects on the gut wall greater than either verapamil or curcumin alone. These findings added to the effect on bile above reinforce the view that turmeric can stabilise gut motility from either extreme.

    Effects on leaky gut Benefits have been observed in a number of test models. The role of leaky gut in a wide range of autoimmunological and other chronic inflammatory conditions is widely accepted.

    Choleretic (bile eliminating) effects Turmeric stimulates gallbladder emptying – by between 25-50%; bile acids are natural laxatives; however by increasing microbiotic metabolism to secondary bile acid levels turmeric can reduce consequent laxative action. It also reverses the carcinogenic effect of bile acids in reflux oesophageal cancer, in part through suppression of COX-2 gene expression. Bisacurone B was the most potent choleretic ingredient, followed by ar-turmerone, bisdemethoxycurcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and then curcumin.

    Effects on circulation Like active principles of other spices cayenne, ginger and black pepper, curcumin has a vanillyl group and can stimulate the transient receptor potential vanilloid receptor 1 (TRPV1) on the gut wall surface, leading to increased blood flow and muscle relaxation, and therapeutic benefits similar to those of ginger. In one study curcumin’s observed benefits in test models of inflammatory bowel disease was abolished by the TRPV1 antagonist capsazepine. Follow-up in vitro observations suggest that the TRPV1 receptor is more sensitive to this effect in inflamed tissues.

    Effects on gut-brain axis It reduces markers of anxiety, depression and IBS via 5HT-dependent gut wall receptors.

    There are also other powerful constituents of turmeric that are likely to be more easily absorbed and have their own significant activity elsewhere in the body. Particular interest has been in ar-turmerone which as well as being readily bioavailable, has shown to have promising anti-inflammatory, anti-angiogenic  and neurorestorative properties. Given the current interest in the inflammatory aetiology of mental health problems and neural disease, it is interest that a role in modulating microglial inflammation has also been identified.

  • Did you know?

    The reason Turmeric is called turmeric is because it truly is a blessing of the earth from the Latin ‘terra merita’.

    It’s not true that you must take turmeric with black pepper. The idea that turmeric must be taken with black pepper started because researchers found that the isolated curcumin is poorly digested, but they are also not the only active components. Turmeric has 230 natural compounds and, for example, the essential oils that give turmeric their characteristically earthy smell are also highly protective and anti-inflammatory as well which is why herbalists use the whole spectrum herb.

    In Chinese Herbal Medicine turmeric (jiang huang) is taken as a decocted tea and in Ayurveda turmeric (haridra) is often taken with other oils and spices.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Turmeric is very safe and used everyday by vast number of people in Asia and elsewhere.

  • Dosage

    4g or a heaped teaspoon of powdered turmeric (or equivalent preparation) 1 to 2 times daily

  • Constituents

    • Essential oil (2.5 to 5%) containing sesquiterpene bisabalones (including ar-turmerone 28%, β-turmerone 17% and curlone 14%), zingiberene, phellandrene, sabinene, cineole, borneol
    • Yellow pigments (3 to 6%) known as curcuminoids (diarylheptanoids and diarylpentanoids), 22 identified including curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and demethoxylated curcumins.

    Turmeric’s most prominent active constituent curcumin is generally referred to as if it was a single chemical entity. However it is actually a variable mixture of three diarylheptanoids: diferuloylmethane (curcumin I), desmethoxycurcumin (curcumin II), and bisdesmethoxycurcumin (curcumin III). Sample-to-sample variability of ‘curcumin’ significantly reduces the consistency of research findings for its effects and bioavailability.

  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) Bitter, pungent, astringent.
    • Virya (action) Heating.
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Pungent.
    • Guna (quality) Dry, light.
    • Dosha effect: strengthens all doshas, reduces excessive pitta and vata.
    • Dhatu (tissue) All the tissues.
    • Srota (channel) Digestive, circulatory, respiratory, female reproductive.
Turmeric illustration
  • Recipe

    Natural Balance Tea

    When our digestive fire is low and our metabolism feels sluggish it cannot transform food into nourishing energy. Instead, food can get stored as fat, starting a vicious cycle where digestion becomes weaker and weaker, leading to steady weight gain. This delicious tea helps to stimulate the metabolism and supports your body to find your natural and balanced weight.

    Ingredients:

    • Cinnamon bark 4g
    • Ginger root powder 2g
    • Orange peel 2g
    • Green tea 2g
    • Turmeric root powder 1g
    • Black pepper 1g
    • Orange essential oil a drop per cup

    This will serve 2–3 cups of digestion enhancing, weight-balancing tea that works together with lots of exercise.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except for the orange essential oil).
    • Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water. Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
    • Add one drop of orange essential oil to each cup

    Let me glow tea

    This delicious recipe is a healing blend of chlorophyll-rich herbs that purify the blood, soothe the liver and cleanse the skin, helping you glow from the inside out. Good for anyone with pimples, acne or other skin blemishes.

    Ingredients:

    • Nettle leaf 3g
    • Fennel seed 2g
    • Peppermint leaf 2g
    • Dandelion root 2g
    • Burdock root 2g
    • Red clover 2g
    • Turmeric root powder 1g
    • Licorice root 1g
    • Lemon juice a twist per cup

    This will serve 2 cups of beautifying tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except the lemon). Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water.
    • Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain and add the lemon.

    Joint protector tea

    It’s almost an inevitable human condition that we will suffer from some sort of joint pain as we get older. All that wear-and-tear through our life can catch up with us but we have a herbal tea recipe that will help keep the red-hot inflammation of arthritis and gout at bay.

    Ingredients:

    • Turmeric root powder 3g
    • Boswellia resin 2g
    • Ginger root powder 2g
    • Celery seed 2g
    • Ashwagandha root 1g
    • Licorice root 1g
    • Meadowsweet leaf 1g
    • Honey to taste

    This will serve 2–3 cups of ache-free tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients (except for the meadowsweet leaf and honey) in a saucepan with 600ml (21fl oz) cold filtered water. Cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes.
    • Take off the heat and add the meadowsweet leaf.
    • Leave to steep for 10 minutes, strain and add some honey to taste.

    Recipes from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole

Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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