Turmeric: Sunshine in a Root
“The more I use this yellow wonder, the more uses it seems to have. I call it the medicine cabinet in a jar.”
- Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs
January can feel like the longest month of the year. The first full month of winter after the solstice on December 21st, it signifies the end of the climax of the holidays and short days married to long nights. It is a time when the natural world curls in on itself conserving energy for the season ahead, pressing reset on life and when the underworld comes alive. It is a time when caves become homes to hibernating animals and when ants and squirrels reap the bounty of the summer and fall. It is a time when we create heat and light in place of the sun, lighting candles, building fires and getting cozy with our loved ones.
However, the juxtaposition of the coziness of winter with the winter blues is felt amongst many. Our species has strayed so far from what is natural and while our bodies are yearning for a slower pace, our society wants us to keep functioning at the same level of productivity year-round. Instead of being in harmony with nature and preparing ourselves for the rise out of slumber, we can feel depleted and exhausted. From there, a domino effect of dis-ease in the body. When we are tired, our immunity becomes suppressed, inflammation can become triggered, affecting our joints, skin, and digestion, we can feel emotionally drained or simply more depressed. When we are not living in tune with our nature, our bodies, minds, and spirit can also become imbalanced.
It really is amazing how the plant world knows what we need to get us through the different seasons throughout the year. As leaves have long fallen to become nutrients to the soil in an act of self-sacrifice for the greater good, roots start to become the stars of the show. All of the plants' energy is sent downwards into the roots, and nutrients are collected from the ground and stored for spring and summer. That is why fall is a great time to harvest roots, as most of the nutrients become food and medicine for us. Burdock, dandelion, elecampane, and others offer their root medicine.
In January, amidst the shortest days, another root becomes ready for harvest. And that is turmeric. Turmeric is sunshine in a root. It's deep yellow and deep orange colors are evidence of the medicine that lies within. Turmeric is a perennial herb and member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, grows in tropical climates. The rhizome is the portion of the plant used in cooking and in medicine. Turmeric is used extensively in foods for both its flavor and color, as well as having a long tradition of use in the Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of medicine, particularly as an anti-inflammatory and for the treatment of flatulence, jaundice, menstrual difficulties, hematuria, hemorrhage, and colic. Turmeric can also be applied topically in poultices to relieve pain and inflammation.
Current research has focused on turmeric’s antioxidant, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, and antimicrobial properties, in addition to its use in cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders. The active constituents of turmeric are the flavonoid curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and various volatile oils, including tumerone, atlantone, and zingiberone. Other constituents include sugars, proteins, and resins. The best-researched active constituent is curcumin.
Turmeric gets its tell-tale color from curcumin. Curcumin is the active compound that has been shown to reduce inflammation. A better term to describe this action is inflammation-modulating as inflammation can be a healthy and normal response to a range of physical and physiological processes and we would never want to suppress our body’s natural immune responses completely. However, chronic inflammation plays a significant role in many illnesses including cancer, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disorders, asthma, arthritis, ulcerative colitis, periodontitis, eczema, psoriasis, and many other ailments. In fact, many of the diseases plaguing the Western world can be linked to chronic systemic inflammation and so by modulating inflammation, turmeric also has the potential to address a number of conditions.
Common Names: Turmeric
Scientific Name: Curcuma longa
Plant Family: Zingiberaceae
Parts Used: Rhizome (root)
Herbal Energetics: Warming, drying
Taste: Pungent, Bitter
Herbal Actions: analgesic, blood-mover, cholagogue, antioxidant, astringent, carminative, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, vulnerary, antispasmodic
Plant uses: arthiritis, digestion, eczema, bleeding, wounds, ulcers, diarrhea, liver problems, pain, Alzheimer’s, Colds/flu, cancer, heart health, type 2 diabetes
Cautions and Contraindications: The use of turmeric should be avoided with bile duct obstruction or gallstones, and should not be administered to people who suffer from stomach ulcers or hyperacidity. It is also contraindicated in pregnancy. High doses should not be given to patients taking antiplatelet or anticoagulant drugs.
Water- and fat-soluble extracts of turmeric and its curcumin component exhibit strong antioxidant activity, comparable to vitamins C and E. Curcumin also enhances cellular resistance to oxidative damage.
Liver Protecting Effects
Turmeric has been found to have a hepatoprotective characteristic. Turmeric’s hepatoprotective effect is mainly a result of its antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to decrease the formation of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
The volatile oils and curcumin of Curcuma longa exhibit potent anti-inflammatory effects. Oral administration of curcumin in instances of acute inflammation was found to be as effective as cortisone or phenylbutazone, and one-half as effective in cases of chronic inflammation.
Studies have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to inhibit carcinogenesis at three stages: tumor promotion, angiogenesis, and tumor growth. The anticarcinogenic effects of turmeric and curcumin are due to direct antioxidant and free-radical scavenging effects, as well as their ability to indirectly increase glutathione levels, thereby aiding in hepatic detoxification of mutagens and carcinogens, and inhibiting nitrosamine formation.
Turmeric extract and the essential oil of Curcuma longa inhibit the growth of a variety of bacteria, parasites, and pathogenic fungi.
Turmeric’s protective effects on the cardiovascular system include lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels, decreasing susceptibility of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) to lipid peroxidation and inhibiting platelet aggregation. These effects have been noted even with low doses of turmeric. Turmeric extract’s effect on cholesterol levels may be due to decreased cholesterol uptake in the intestines and increased conversion of cholesterol to bile acids in the liver.
Constituents of Curcuma longa exert several protective effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Turmeric has also been shown to inhibit ulcer formation caused by stress, alcohol, indomethacin, pyloric ligation, and reserpine.
Root medicine is potent medicine and turmeric is evidence of that. It is a versatile spice and the fact that it can be used in food or beverages makes it really accessible. This root deserves the attention it has received and continued research will uncover the reason this herb has been used for thousands of years in ancient herbal traditions.