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’.
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.
All around the world the actions of traditional medicines were understood by their immediate sensory impacts. Click on each of turmeric’s key qualities below to learn more:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turmeric is very safe and used everyday by vast number of people in Asia and elsewhere.
Traditional Ayurvedic characteristics are
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.
To see the references used in this summary check our downloadable Expert Herbal Reality Resource pdf
4 g or a heaped teaspoon of powdered turmeric (or equivalent preparation) 1 to 2 times daily
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.