By Bea Heller, DC, MS, QME
Turmeric is a perennial plant with orange, oblong tubers two or three inches in length, and one inch in diameter, pointed or tapering at one end. When dried, it is made into a yellow powder with a bitter, slightly acrid, yet sweet taste. It is similar to ginger.
The use of turmeric as a coloring agent for food and fabric dates as far back as 600 B.C. Marco Polo, in 1280, mentioned turmeric in notes of his travels in China: “There is also a vegetable that has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell and the color, and yet it is not really saffron.” In medieval Europe, turmeric was known as “Indian saffron.” Since then, turmeric has been used as an inexpensive substitute for saffron.
In the early years of the 20th century, most allopathic medicines were based on herbs. Even as late as the 1940s, about half of all prescriptions still contained herbal ingredients. Turmeric has been mentioned in early writings of the world in many languages. The Unani practitioners, such as Hakeem Hashmi, have used it all over the world, as well as other systems of medicines. It was prescribed by Unani physicians as a drug to strengthen the stomach, and promoted as a tonic and blood purifier.
The genus name Curcuma is from an Arabic word “kurkum,” meaning “saffron,” in reference to the color of turmeric. The actual word “turmeric” is from Medieval Latin, terra merita, meaning “deserving earth.”
Turmeric is used topically and internally for pain related to trauma, and to hasten the healing of chronic sores. It is also used for chest, abdominal, flank or menstrual pain associated with heat patterns.
It is used for symptoms such as anxiety, agitation, seizures or mental derangement. It reduces jaundice associated with gallbladder disorders. Most herbal traditions use turmeric to “invigorate the blood.” In ancient times, turmeric was reserved for patients who were relatively weak.
- Intestinal disorders: Turmeric is a very effective intestinal antiseptic. The rhizome, its juice and dry powder, mixed in buttermilk or plain water, is highly beneficial in treating intestinal problems, especially chronic diarrhea. It also helps prevent flatulence.
- Worms: About 20 drops of the juice or raw turmeric, mixed with a pinch of salt, taken first thing in the morning daily, is considered an effective cure for expelling worms.
Laboratory tests have found that turmeric is antioxidant and antimutagenic, as it potentially helps prevent new cancers that are caused by chemotherapy or radiation used to treat existing cancers.
- Anemia: Turmeric is rich in iron and is valuable in anemia. A teaspoon of raw turmeric juice, mixed with honey, is taken every day in the treatment of this condition.
- Measles: Turmeric roots are dried in the sun and ground to a fine powder. This, mixed with a few drops of honey and the juice of a few bitter gourd leaves, can be taken by those suffering from measles.
- Asthma: Turmeric is an effective household remedy for bronchial asthma. A teaspoon of turmeric powder with a glass of milk twice or thrice daily is very effective. It acts best on an empty stomach. Taking one-fourth teaspoon of turmeric powder with three to four gulps of warm water acts as a preventive against asthma attacks.
- Cough and cold: Turmeric, with its antiseptic properties, is an effective remedy for chronic cough and throat irritation. Half a teaspoon of fresh turmeric powder, mixed in 30 ml of warm milk, is very effective for these conditions. To prepare this, milk is poured in a hot ladle with turmeric in it and boiled over a slow fire. In case of a running cold, smoke from burning turmeric can be inhaled; this increases the discharge from the nose and brings quick relief.
- Sprains: For treating a sprain or the swelling caused by sprains, turmeric paste mixed with lime and salt can be applied with beneficial results.
- Boils: An application of turmeric powder to boils speeds up the healing process. In case of fresh boils, a few dry roots of turmeric are roasted and the ashes dissolved in a cup of water, and the mixture is applied over the affected portion. These solutions enable the boils to ripen and burst.
- Skin disorders: Turmeric is very effective in the treatment of skin diseases like ringworm and scabies. In such cases, the juice of raw turmeric is externally applied to the affected parts. Simultaneously, turmeric juice mixed with honey should be taken orally.
- Pain in breasts: Applying turmeric paste, rubbed on stone, on the affected part, eliminates pain.
- Dental problems:
- Rinsing the mouth with turmeric water (boil 5g of turmeric powder, two clove and two dried leaves of guava in 200g water) gives instant relief.
- Massaging the aching teeth with roasted, ground turmeric eliminates pain and swelling. Clove oil works well, too.
- Applying the powder of burnt turmeric piece and bishop’s weed seed on teeth and cleaning them makes the gums and teeth strong.
Pediatric: While turmeric may be helpful for the treatment of inflammatory conditions in children, appropriate doses have not yet been established. Until more information is available, consider adjusting the recommended adult dose to account for the child’s weight. Most herbal dosages for adults are calculated on the basis of a 150 pound (70 kg) adult. Therefore, if the child weighs 50 pounds (20 to 25 kg), the appropriate dose of turmeric for this child would be one-third of the adult dosage.
Adult: The following are doses recommended for adults:
- Cut root: 1,500 to 3,000 mg per day;
- Dried, powdered root: 1,000 to 3,000 mg per day;
- Standardized powder (curcumin): 400 to 600 mg, three times per day;
- Fluid extract (1:1): 30 to 90 drops a day;
- Tincture (1:2): 15 to 30 drops, four times per day.
How much is usually taken? Turmeric extracts standardized at 90 percent to 95 percent curcumin can be taken in the amount of 250-500 mg three times per day. A tincture, 0.5-1.5 ml three times per day, is sometimes recommended.
Laboratory tests have found that turmeric is antioxidant and antimutagenic, as it potentially helps prevent new cancers that are caused by chemotherapy or radiation used to treat existing cancers. Turmeric in the diet may prevent pain from arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis. A volatile oil in the spice is as effective in relieving pain, under laboratory conditions, as equal amounts of steroids.
The antioxidants in turmeric fight atherosclerosis by deactivating platelet-activating facto. This protein seals leaks in blood vessels by stimulating the growth of a protein “net” on which a cholesterol plaque can form. Curcumin in turmeric helps prevent hardening of the arteries in people who have diabetes, and also helps stop the loss of protein through the kidneys.
Turmeric may help relieve pain caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. If you use turmeric for carpal tunnel syndrome, do not take supplemental vitamin C.
In the laboratory, the antioxidants in turmeric kill cultures of cancer cells from the skin, bloodstream and ovaries. Curcumin may stop the action of a liver enzyme that activates environmental toxins into carcinogen forms, and may be especially useful in deactivating the carcinogens in cigarette smoke and chewing tobacco. Turmeric in the diet increases the production of enzymes that digest fats and sugars, and stop cholesterol from forming gallstones. Turmeric prevents the release of histamine in the stomach, quelling nervous stomach and counteracting food allergies. Turmeric fights gum inflammation by halting the action of a gene that creates irritant chemicals. With the irritation, bacteria cannot find a place to grow, and the absence of bacteria reduces both bad breath and gingivitis.
Cautions and Contraindications
Do not use turmeric if the patient has experienced excessive blood loss, and use with extreme caution during pregnancy. Since turmeric is included in ayurvedic formulas for birth control, women trying to become pregnant should limit their consumption of the herb. As is the case with so many herbs, turmeric should be used in moderation. Too much turmeric for too long can cause stomach distress. Excessive use of turmeric should also be avoided in people with congestive heart failure. The curcumin in turmeric activates a gene called p53. This gene deactivates cancer cells, but it also deactivates damaged cells in the heart.
When taken with herbs and supplements that increase the risk of bleeding, turmeric may increase that risk. Multiple cases of bleeding have been reported with the use of Ginkgo biloba, some cases with garlic and fewer cases with saw palmetto.
Based on animal studies, turmeric may interfere with the way the body processes certain herbs or supplements using the liver’s “cytochrome P450” enzyme system. As a result, the levels of other herbs or supplements may be too high in the blood. It may also alter the effects that other herbs or supplements possibly have on the P450 system, such as bloodroot, cat’s claw, chamomile, chaparral, chasteberry, damiana, Echinacea angustifolia, goldenseal, grapefruit juice, licorice, oregano, red clover, St. John’s wort, wild cherry and yucca.
Turmeric may lower blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). Thus, turmeric may increase the effects of cholesterol-lowering herbs or supplements such as fish oil, garlic, guggul or niacin. Based on animal data, turmeric may lower blood sugar. Check with your health care professional before starting turmeric if you are taking other herbs, supplements or medications for diabetes.
Dr. Bea Heller has been devoted to public service and health care since the age of 14, when she started volunteer work as a candy striper. She is the owner and clinical director of the Pain Control Center in Huntington Beach, Calif. A complete biography of Dr. Heller and a printable version of this article are available online at www.nutritionalwellness.com/columnists/heller.