Turmeric has been used as a natural medicine for millennia in the eastern world where it has the reputation of a natural panacea. Turmeric has so many amazing health benefits and is very well suited to people of all ages and constitutional types. There are few medicinal plants that possess such a wide range of diverse health benefits. If you only keep a small selection of natural medicines at home, turmeric should definitely be one of them!
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It is most famous for its ability to reduce a wide range of inflammatory conditions throughout the whole body, but it also possesses a number of unique anti-cancer properties, is anti-arthritic, analgesic, offers both liver and cardiovascular support, protects against alzheimer’s disease and even has antidepressant qualities.
It has been used with great success in treating IBS, kidney and urinary tract infections, haemorrhoids, atherosclerosis, gallstones, jaundice, headaches, conjunctivitis, the common cold, bursitis, and was historically used as an insect repellent and cure for food poisoning and even scorpion stings!
Turmeric is the root of the Curcuma longa plant and both the wild and cultivated varieties are used as medicine. It is native to India, Nepal and south western China and has a history of recorded use in these regions that stretches back about 5000 years. It is a perennial shrub, but it’s only the root/rhizome that we are referring to when we’re talking about turmeric as a food and medicine.
It has become one of the most deeply revered natural substances within the Ayurvedic system as well as traditional Tibetan medicine. In India Turmeric is most commonly used in curries and is what gives many curries their yellow colour. Even the robes of Buddhist monks were originally dyed using turmeric!
It is an excellent preservative that can prolong the edibility of other foods it is cooked with, but its own potency is also maintained for a considerable length of time, especially when it is dried and stored properly. This same ‘protective’ capacity is said to preserve the bodily tissues from deterioration and in doing so slow down the process of ageing.
According to both Ayurveda and Tibetan medicine, turmeric is suitable for all constitutional types because it balances all 3 doshas/humours, which is basically the equivalent of balancing the 5 inner elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space. This is traditionally why it is believed to be a ‘superlative’ medicine. It can be used safely by men, women and children alike with no known contraindications.
According to these ancient medical systems, turmeric has a hot and slightly bitter taste, yet has a cooling nature that pacifies heat-related pathology It also has an oily nature that reduces neurological disorders and can be combined with fresh whey to reduce sexual appetite.
It can be taken internally as a fresh or powdered root used in cooking, as a fresh juice, as a tea or tincture. It can also be applied externally as a cream or paste to parts of the body that have become inflamed, injured or infected.
A very popular Ayurvedic remedy is to prepare the ‘Golden Milk’ – by cooking turmeric in milk for a short while and adding honey not only for sweetness, but also as a way of driving the medicine into the body more effectively.
Turmeric contains high levels of manganese, iron, potassium and vitamin B6. It also contains volatile oils that are thought to provide anti-inflammatory benefits, although not as much as the unique phenolic constituent curcumin, which is what gives the inner flesh of turmeric root its characteristic orange colour.
Of the hundreds of different pharmacologically active constituents within turmeric, curcumin is the one that has been studied the most and is what many of the health benefits are attributed to. Ayurvedic herbology states that combining turmeric with black pepper is supposed to render the curcumin 2000 times more bioavailable and absorbable, although if you are using it to treat gastrointestinal issues then foregoing the black pepper will allow more of the turmeric to remain in the intestinal tract for longer.
The anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin have been compared with pharmaceutical drugs like hydrocortisone and have shown to have a similar potency, but without the common side effects of gastrointestinal ulcers and lowered immune function. On the contrary, turmeric actually improves immune function and reduces the formation of ulcers.
Through human and animal studies, curcumin has proven itself as a very effective treatment for inflammatory intestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The science behind these conditions is still not particularly advanced, and the way in which curcumin helps them isn’t fully understood either, but broadly speaking we could say that it works in to main ways – firstly the anti-inflammatory/antioxidant power of curcumin will be very therapuetic, but also the fact that curcumin inhibits the N F Kappa B signalling pathway which is a causal influence in pro-inflammatory conditions like these. Benefits such as these can be obtained at low doses too, so simply eating turmeric as an ingredient in meals can be very effective.
The pain and related joint swelling associated with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis are known to decrease thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nature of turmeric. It can be taken internally as a food/herb and applied as a paste externally on the affected areas and by doing so the condition can be treated from both directions at once.
Turmeric may also offer support to those with cystic fibrosis because curcumin is known to correct the DeltaF508 gene mutation which is responsible for abnormal CFTR protein formation, which consequently leads to excessive mucus production in the lungs and digestive system.
As with many of the great adaptogenic herbs, Turmeric also has genuine anti-cancer benefits. Frequent intake of curcumin offers potential benefits linked to breast cancer, prostate, colon and lung cancer, although other types of cancer are currently being researched and it showing a lot of promise as a treatment for pancreatic cancer, which usually has a very poor prognosis and a somewhat dismal recovery rate.
The integrity of healthy cells is clearly maintained by turmerics superior antioxidant content, but curcumin also inhibits the growth and proliferation of tumours in various different bodily tissues and can stimulate apoptosis (programmed cell death) of malignant cells. It does this by shutting down the mitochondria (energy generator) of tumour cells and thereby starving their energy supply and ability to function. Curcumin can also inhibit the process of angiogenesis as it relates to cancer, which basically means that it stops malignant tumours from creating new blood vessels in order to supply themselves with more nutrients. So this is yet another tool that curcumin can employ in order to stop tumours from growing larger and of course spreading and metastasising in other organs and tissues. Although it should be made clear that certain tumour types are chemo-resistant and manage to evade apoptosis in a number of ways, so a multifaceted strategy is essential and curcumin/turmeric should always be employed as part of an overall strategy rather than solely relied upon.
Turmeric has also been linked to the mitigation of some modern diet/lifestyle and environmental (industrial pollution) factors that have caused childhood leukaemia to increase by over 50% in the west throughout the last 60 years.
Phytochemicals called phenethyl isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale and cauliflower are known to work synergistically with curcumin to reduce the development of prostate cancer in men. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in American males, yet interestingly prostate cancer is extremely rare in Indian men…
The natural flavonoid quercetin is another constituent that can combined with curcumin to reduce the formation of tumours and even precancerous polyps in the colon. Quercetin can be found in onions, radishes, capers, cilantro and carob amongst other foods. It is also in green tea and red wine.
Turmeric offers excellent liver support – according to Tibetan Medicine, the liver, gallbladder and eyes are the solid, hollow and sense organs related to heat and the fire element, and as turmeric has a cooling nature it is great for reducing heat related pathology and supporting liver function. From a more conventional point of view, turmerics liver enhancing properties can be understood from its very high antioxidant content and the fact that it significantly increases liver detoxification enzymes.
Elevated serum homocysteine is related to blood clots, heart attacks and strokes, but because turmeric has a lot of vitamin B6 it is able to regulate levels of homocysteine in the blood which can reduce plaque buildup within the cardiovascular system and the resulting damage to blood vessel walls. This situation is helped further by the fact that turmeric’s antioxidants can stop cholesterol from becoming oxidised. Curcumin itself acts as a messaging molecule with liver cells and informs them to produce more LDL (“bad cholesterol”)receptors, therefore removing unwanted cholesterol from the bloodstream before it accumulates and becomes a serious problem.
Tibetan Medicine texts state that Turmeric is an effective medicine for neurological disorders, and now modern science is verifying this claim. Curcumin has the potential to stem the progression of multiple sclerosis by protecting the myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates the nerves.
Turmeric also offers genuine medicine to those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease because curcumin crosses the blood brain barrier and interrupts the oxidation of neurons and the formation of amyloid plaques that disturb normal brain function and lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s. In fact, curcumin is known to inhibit the accumulation of amyloid B proteins in the brain more than mainstream anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, and obviously without any of the side effects.
Turmeric also enhances immune function in a variety of ways, one of which is by stimulating the activity of macrophages – immune cells that perform phagocytosis, which is the process of hunting down and consuming pathogens, toxins and various debris in the body.
But, while turmeric is a truly profound medicine that should be more like a staple food of western culture as it is in the east, it is important to maintain a healthy perspective and not be unrealistic with our expectations. As amazing as turmeric is, but it won’t single-handedly resolve everything that ails us! Plus, we won’t all experience the same exact results from one person to another, for a variety of different reasons and variables.
What is important though, is that we aim at consuming the best quality turmeric we can get hold of – organic or biodynamic, and if possible make our own turmeric powder from the fresh root – which is exactly what we’ll be exploring how to do in the next blog!