While most people think of turmeric as just the exotic spice they see in their curry, the use of this plant extends far beyond food. All across the East – India to China, Sri Lanka to Indonesia – Turmeric is cultivated for medicine, dye, religious use, and more. In fact, the number of things turmeric is employed for are endless.
But with so many applications, people often accept a shallow understanding of this herb. My goal is to narrow it down, clear confusion, and elucidate the specialties of turmeric. Who should use it, for what? Why and when?
Most common clinical uses of turmeric, seen throughout history:
Though not yet fully understood by today’s science, researchers and traditional medicine concur that turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties are some of the most powerful in the known world of plants.
Today’s doctors group inflammation and swelling together, which confuses the true mechanism behind either one. In Ayurveda, the medical science of ancient India, swelling is considered the body’s natural response to waste and irritants that are trapped in the tissues. This can happen with injuries and strenuous exercise, where more fluid is required to dissolve and move small particles (of broken bone, for example, or damaged muscle tissue). Swelling generally happens as a result of healing, with an exception being chronic electrolyte imbalances.
Inflammation often involves swelling (due to the above), but is specifically a burning or irritation on a subtle, molecular level. In essence, inflammation is caused by free radicals and toxins (or “ama,” as Ayurveda says) afflicting weak tissues. These irritants cause progressive tissue damage if they’re not neutralized, and cannot simply be ignored.
Inflammation today is usually the result of bad food, poor digestion, chemicals, and general stress. Misshapen proteins and cholesterol with the wrong size or density, for example, run rampant in the circulatory system, binding to the weakest tissues and keeping them from functioning properly. This happens to the heart and the arteries, but also to joints, mucus membranes, skin, on and on.
“Dry” inflammation happens when the body doesn’t have enough time or ability to clear out the irritants (thus swelling is low or absent). Dry inflammation afflicts the elderly especially.
The type of inflammation that doctors often refer to is what might properly be called “wet” inflammation, where swelling goes to put out the fire, neutralizing free-radicals and dislodging caustic or sticky particles.
Turmeric and its extracts, including “curcumin extract,” work primarily on inflammation, not swelling. Ancient medical systems categorize turmeric as “cooling” to the body, with inflammation (from Latin inflammatio, referring to setting fires) being very “hot.”
Just like sand and dirt can put out a campfire, earthy Turmeric can smother the body’s wildfires – and, to a lesser degree, dry up swelling.
Digestion: Signs of poor digestion include gas, nausea, bloating, excessive burping, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, intestinal parasites, gastric and duodenal ulcers, infections, and eventually chronic disease, like acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and food allergies.
In fact, long term digestive failure contributes to the progression of most diseases, whether they’re caused by too much bad stuff or not enough good stuff. And in the case of poor digestion, turmeric works wonders.
And you can prove it!
As a science experiment, take your next batch of dinner leftovers and split it into two containers. Choose one to mix a couple tablespoons of turmeric powder (the spice) into. Once you’ve mixed it thoroughly, put both containers into the fridge and watch them over the next couple days. Why? Because one will rot a week before the other – you can guess which!
By merit of its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, Turmeric is exceptionally good at preserving most foods.
In the body, turmeric guards your food and digestive tissues against infection by killing or inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, fungi, and parasites. As a result, the odds of excessive burping, gas, and infections (like E. coli, candida, and pylori) are drastically reduced.
Turmeric aids proper intestinal movement, and acts as a gentle remedy for constipation and diarrhea. If it’s a problem related to digestion in any way, chances are turmeric will help!
Liver problems: Turmeric has proven to be a powerful ally to the liver. Several studies have investigated its use for cirrhosis, induced hepatic stress, and innate detoxification processes.
The results are positive and encouraging, but 21st century scientists weren’t the first to notice. In Eastern and tropical medicine, turmeric and its close relatives are used to “cool” the liver’s excess “heat.” It’s a no-brainer; whenever there’s a liver problem, think of turmeric! And speaking of brains…
Nervous system: As a part of herbal stress formulas, turmeric’s duty is to help sooth and bolster the nerves. This translates to an overall reduction in restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and pain.
Turmeric has even been used for cognitive problems like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Know, however, that its benefits for the nervous system are sometimes thought to be related to its ability of helping neutralize blood toxicity – which happens to be next on the list.
“Bad blood:” In Ayurveda, turmeric is one of the medicines called for during poisoning of almost any sort. From insect bites to scorpion stings to snake venom to whatever your in-laws added to your coffee (as well as coffee jitters, if it turns out you were just paranoid), turmeric has a talent for buffering the nasty effects of toxic blood.
*In an emergency, turmeric can be used topically (as a turmeric powder/water paste) and internally.
Certain poisons are said to be cured by generous turmeric use, whereas some are not helped much at all. However, for your everyday “bad blood” caused by chemical exposure, pollution, bad diet, etc, this plant’s an all-star!
Just the above covers a lot of bases, and may be responsible for the other benefits noticed while turmeric’s being used.
Everyone has their own opinion of why it works, but with the focus always being on why, they miss the point.
The “why” is important, because it opens up new possibilities, but this should never supplant the question of “how.” Considering that, here’s a brief how-to for using turmeric, because this is one medicine you need to use correctly to achieve maximum results:
How To Use Turmeric
(Dosage note: all of the recipes below should be introduced slowly at first, and then built up to a suitable amount for your problem. Turmeric is a gentle medicine, so the right amount is the one that gets you results without upsetting your regular body functions.)
1) When used for cleansing, such as for blood conditions, lung infection, gallstones, or anything you need to “move out” of your system: use fresh turmeric juice combined with ginger juice, black pepper, pippali (Indian long pepper), carrot juice, and parsley juice. Combining turmeric with any of these other ingredients will increase the effectiveness of your cleanse by several times.
If you have a hot constitution (meaning, a tendency to overheat, get ulcers, become angry, etc), nix the ginger, pippali, and black pepper. However, only minute amounts of these spices are actually required to activate the turmeric.
*If you don’t have a juicer: turmeric powder (by the tablespoon), ginger powder, black pepper or pippali tea, and strong parsley tea may be used. The cleanse may be more mild, and the preparation more lengthy, but in slightly larger quantity will still be effective. Try to include all of the ingredients, but don’t stress if you can’t.
Dose information: if tolerated well, the above can be taken several times a day between meals.
2) For toning the body, such as for nervous conditions, cognitive problems, jaundice, etc: use fresh or powdered turmeric with some sort of fat at meal times, especially ghee (clarified butter) and unrefined oils (coconut, sesame, palm).
Fat in general increases the absorption of turmeric’s compounds. If you’re on a low fat diet, use cholagogue herbs instead. These medicines improve the production and excretion of bile from the liver and gallbladder, and include dandelion root (avoid close to bed), milk thistle, chamomile, chicory, and “digestive bitters.” These are commonly sold in health food store in capsule, powder, and liquid. They will also increase the absorption of turmeric, though not as much as dietary fat and spices.
Dose information: turmeric taken with meals is usually 100% tolerable, even in high amounts.
3) Turmeric and “curcumin” pills: though I consider these a last option, they can be very effective. The recommendations above apply to the pills as well: black pepper, pippali (long pepper), spices, and dietary fat will all increase turmeric and curcumin’s bio-availability.
Some pills include these other ingredients already, but it may be a good idea to use more if you feel the pills aren’t being digested properly. As always, work your way up to the full dose and let your body tell you what’s necessary.
The pill form of turmeric is generally just as effective as fresh turmeric for inflammation and antioxidant benefits, but (depending on the brand) can be much less cost effective.
Organic India makes a good pill that I’ve used myself and I’ve found to be very effective. There are several other good brands; you’ll have to price shop and test them out to find the most effective. Definitely try to avoid overpriced turmeric powder that’s been put into pills. If the ingredient is “turmeric” or “turmeric powder” and it hasn’t been specified that the ingredients are concentrates or extracts, you’re likely paying too much.
4) For adults and children with nightmares, anxiety, and nerve dysfunction, you can add fresh turmeric juice or turmeric powder to milk (whole is best) and warm it on the stove.
In lesser amounts, anise, fennel, licorice root, chamomile (tea), rose petal (tea or “rose water”), nutmeg, ginger (powder), and ashwagandha (powder) can all be simmered with the milk to empower the recipe. Of these, rose petal is the most effective for nightmares. (Notes: try taking this between twenty and thirty minutes before bed, and don’t use honey to sweeten!)
5) For severe inflammation, boil a small handful cat’s claw bark (Uncaria tomentosa) until a decoction is made (like a strong tea), and take this with any form of turmeric.
Larger amounts can be made, strained/filtered, and stored in the fridge for several days. Source Naturals makes a fine cat’s claw pill if you don’t have time to make a decoction. Make sure that whatever you select is from a higher quality brand, as cat’s claw is naturally hard to identify correctly in its natural habitat, and incorrect herbs have been known to make their way into products.
(Note: this recipe is best on the stomach when taken with fresh juice or fruit. For those who have gout or joint problems affected by dietary sugar, tart cherry juice might be tolerated better. For those with blood sugar problems, take with ghee (clarified butter) or a snack.)
Though turmeric as a medicine is considered safe in even very high doses, it may interact with certain medications.
*Apply caution when using at the same time as drugs that affect blood clotting (like aspirin and anticoagulants), as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
In high doses, turmeric can increase the liver’s ability to metabolize certain pharmaceuticals, speeding up, increasing, or lessening their effects.
When using any herb that has strong beneficial effects on the blood and liver at the same time as a pharmaceutical, start slowly, monitor how you feel, and when in doubt, consult a qualified physician.
Always do your own research on interactions concerning any other herb or medicine mentioned in formulas. (Special note: I’ve never met a person who couldn’t tolerate fresh, powdered, or extracted turmeric or curcumin.)
There are hundreds of ways to use turmeric, internally and externally, but those are my favorites. Whenever you’re up against a problem that has you hot and flustered, consider this valuable herb!
-Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research (Jurenka JS; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19594223)
-Pharmacological actions of curcumin in liver diseases or damage. (Rivera-Espinoza Y and Muriel P.; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19811613)
-Possible Interactions with: Turmeric (Steven D. Ehrlich, N.M.D.; umm.edu)
-Turmeric (webmd.com) (drugs.com)
-Turmeric: “The Golden Goddess” (Lisa Gallant C.A.S; ayurvedacollege.com/articles/students/)
-Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine (Kerry Bone and Simon Mills)
Still craving knowledge? For more herb profiles, natural treatments, and medical miscellany, check out our other articles in The Herb Corner!