The Healing Power Within Turmeric: Curcumin © 2015
by Joe Smulevitz
Turmeric, best known as the chief ingredient of curry, and the source of mustard’s bright yellow colour, is proving to be more than a valuable colouring agent. A member of the ginger family, turmeric comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant, and is gaining recognition for its ability to fight a wide range of health concerns through its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties. What makes turmeric such a powerful healing substance?
Curcuminoids, an orange-yellow pulp contained inside the rhizomes (underground stems) are the principal compounds in turmeric. Curcumin, (not to be confused with the herb cumin), a polyphenol phytochemical, is the primary curcuminoid in turmeric. Curcumin is referred to as a highly pleiotropic molecule because it exerts far-reaching therapeutic benefits.
Before turmeric can be used, the rhizomes of the plant, with its tough brown skin, need to be processed. The processing consists of a number of stages. The rhizomes are harvested about 8 to 10 months after planting in late fall or early spring. The entire plant is removed from the ground carefully; making sure the rhizomes are not cut or bruised. The underground stems are washed in water to loosen the soil. The side (lateral) branches of the rhizomes (“fingers”) are cut off from the central bulb (“mother”) and both are left to wilt for about a day. Afterwards, they are boiled or steamed in water to soften. The well-cooked rhizomes are allowed to cool gradually, before being sun-dried for five to seven days. After that, they are polished by hand rubbing or by rotation in a mounted drum to remove the rough surface, and ultimately ground into a deep yellow powder.
Turmeric is native to Indonesia and southern India, where it has been cultivated and harvested for over 5,000 years. The herbaceous perennial plant is propagated by root division or started from seed. The leafy plant grows to about three feet high, has large lily-like leaves, and clusters of pale-yellow flowers that appear from late spring to mid-summer. Turmeric needs abundant rainfall, rich loamy soil, high humidity, warm temperatures, and full sun or light shade to thrive.
The root of turmeric was used medicinally in traditional Indian or Ayurvedic medicine, long before modern science discovered that the source of the healing power once associated with turmeric is due to curcumin. Ayurvedic medicine is still used in India, where it is seen as a useful and sound alternative to Western medicine. In the Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric is used to treat a variety of physical ailments, including digestive disorders, painful joints, sprains, liver disease, urinary tract problems, toothache, bruises, skin problems, chest pain, colic, fever, as well as jaundice and other liver problems.
Despite its longstanding use in India as a culinary spice, food preservative, medicinal herb, and dye, turmeric received little attention in North America until the 1970s. Curcuminoids became the subject of deep scientific investigation. Indian researchers discovered that the most important curcuminoid, curcumin, possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In the 1980s, researchers demonstrated the anti-carcinogenic potential of curcumin, leading to a huge spike in research, that resulted in confirmation of many of turmeric’s traditional actions and unveiled many new uses for it. Today, curcumin has emerged as one of the most studied compounds, helping it become a hot-selling supplement in the natural products market.
There is an impressive amount of peer-reviewed literature on the apparent ability of curcumin to inhibit carcinogenesis (the initiation of cancer formation). Animal studies imply that curcumin may help curb a number of experimentally induced cancers, including carcinogen-induced cancers of the colon, fore-stomach, duodenum, liver, and oral mucosa. Although quality anti-cancer human studies are few, preliminary clinical evidence indicates that curcumin shows potential to help fight cancer.
As an anti-inflammatory, curcumin is impressing scientists with its potential use for unchecked inflammation, believed to be at the core of many chronic diseases, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike synthetic drugs, which usually work against only a single inflammation pathway, curcumin acts through multiple pathways and numerous targets to limit inflammatory response.
In studies, curcumin is proving to be a strong antioxidant compound that protects the body from damage caused by harmful, unstable molecules called free radicals. Curcumin has the ability to neutralize free radicals, that otherwise can cause cellular damage (called oxidative stress), leading to premature aging and chronic illness.
Existing clinical studies in humans, though limited, show curcumin may be helpful in liver protection, skin health, dental conditions, muscle and joint health, vascular health, eye inflammation, heart health, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), and rheumatoid arthritis.
Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support a determined daily intake of curcumin; however, research strongly points to regular consumption of curcumin as offering important disease-preventive properties.
There are several ways to incorporate turmeric into the diet. Turmeric can be purchased as fresh rhizomes. They have a bitter, warm taste and peppery flavour. Keep the fresh rhizomes in the refrigerator. Ground turmeric can be added to foods. The powder should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. For therapeutic effects, specially formulated curcumin-containing products are recommended. Purchase curcumin products from reputable supplement makers. Look online to determine which brands are most trustworthy. Research has indicated that the majority of orally administered curcumin is poorly absorbed and quickly metabolized before it reaches the bloodstream. To enhance curcumin absorption, look for brands that combine curcumin with an oil base such as fish oils, essential fatty acids, lecithin, black pepper, or bromelain to achieve best results from this amazing natural medicine.
People with gallbladder disease or obstruction of the bile ducts should avoid taking turmeric/curcumin supplements, as it may worsen the condition. Women was are breastfeeding or pregnant, or individuals taking medications for diabetes, should check with their health-care provider before using turmeric/curcumin.
Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, a nutritional researcher, and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.