Saturday, January 28, 2012

Turmeric: "A medicine cabinet in a curry bowl."

Botanical name: Curcuma longa

Plant family: Zingiberaceae

Parts used: rhizome and tuber
Western herbalists mostly use the rhizome. Chinese medicine uses the rhizome as well as the tuber. These plant parts are used differently. This article focuses on the rhizome. 

Energetics: Warming and drying, bitter and spicy/pungent

Actions: Analgesic, blood mover, cholagogue, antioxidant, astringent, carminative, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, vulnerary, antispasmodic

Plant Preparations: powder, capsules, culinary, tea, paste, tincture, external paste, dye

My mentor, Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, is sometimes called “Haldi Baba", which, in India, means "Sir Turmeric". Everyone who knows KP knows this is his favorite herb. And I can see why! This potent yellow root is helpful for so many different ailments it’s no wonder he calls this “the medicine cabinet in a curry bowl.”

Turmeric has been used for thousands of years for countless ailments. In recent years it has also caught the attention of western researchers and there are many studies touting its many benefits. 

In this article we’ll look at turmeric’s benefits for 

  • Digestion and the liver (Ulcers, diverticulitis, flatulence, leaky gut)
  • Heart heath (High blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol) 
  • Immune support (Cancer, colds and flu, bronchitis)
  • Musculoskeletal strength and flexibility (Joint disorders, arthritis, pain)
  • Nervous system (Pain, Alzheimer's) 
  • Wound healing and healthy skin (Eczema, psoriasis) 
  • Diabetes and Menstruation difficulties

Turmeric is pretty astonishing! Let’s take a closer look. 

Digestion and the Liver

Turmeric is a warming herb that promotes digestive secretions. It helps to relieve gas and has strong anti-inflammatory abilities to soothe the inflammation in the digestive tract. These attributes explain why it is used for diverticulitis, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. 

Its astringent qualities tighten and tone the digestive tract, making it a great ally in cases of a leaky gut. Turmeric is often used for ulcers because it tones the surface of the ulceration, decreases inflammation, stops bleeding, and helps to prevent infection. These same qualities make this a great herb for inflammation and pain associated with hemorrhoids and anal fissures. It can be used externally and internally for this. Be warned that turmeric will stain everything it touches yellow! 

Turmeric is a cholagogue, which is an herb that promotes bile secretion from the gallbladder and liver. Using turmeric regularly can help prevent gallstones although it is recommended by the German Commission E to avoid using turmeric if gallstones are present. 

The doctrine of signatures tells us that yellow herbs benefit the liver and indeed turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda and is one of their most highly used herbs for the liver. According to Ayurvedic herbalist David Frawley, combining turmeric with barberry (Berberis vulgaris) will move a stagnant liver in a similar way to the often used bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense) of China. 

Turmeric will stimulate bile flow in the liver. Bile is an important part of the digestive process and notably helps with the digestion of fats. It contains hepatoprotective properties that can help to prevent cirrhosis and other harmful processes in the liver. 

Turmeric is an amazing antioxidant. One of the ways we benefit from taking turmeric regularly is that it acts against harmful carcinogens like cigarette smoke and other environmental toxins.  Using turmeric regularly can help our liver to efficiently process metabolic wastes. 

It also supports healthy intestinal flora, aiding healthy digestion and a healthy immune system. It is used by some herbalists in cases of yeast infections or candida overgrowth. 

Heart Health

Turmeric can help to normalize cholesterol levels. It prevents cholesterol from oxidizing, which is a process that can damage blood vessels. Scientific studies say that turmeric reduces blood clotting, increases circulation and decreases high blood pressure. My mentors recommend it following heart surgery such as angioplasty and bypass surgery. 

Immune support
There are countless studies showing that turmeric can prevent cancer as well as stop cancer from metastasizing. I recently saw a TED talk where angiogenesis researcher William Li explained how we can eat to starve cancer. Angiogenesis is the growth of blood vessels, something that happens normally in humans. However, sometimes this process is too little (resulting in wounds that won’t heal for example) while too much angiogenesis can result in many chronic diseases, notably cancer. 

Li highlighted turmeric as a substance that beneficially effected angiogenesis by inhibiting the growth of cancers. Like so many herbs, turmeric has the ability to normalize function. While it can stop excessive angiogenesis it can also promote angiogenesis when necessary! Besides regulating the growth of blood vessels, turmeric can also promote the growth of blood cells, making it a good therapy for anemia. 

Turmeric is also used for many symptoms of the cold and flu, bronchitis and sore throats, including prevention. KP Khalsa says that turmeric provides broad immune system support.

Fresh turmeric rhizome

Musculoskeletal health, strength and flexibility

Turmeric is an exceptional herb for the musculoskeletal system. It is commonly used for chronic joint conditions such as arthritis. 

Turmeric is a strong anti-inflammatory herb. It can rebuild joints and even decrease pain. It can be used in acute injuries as well to improve circulation to the area, reduce any excessive inflammation and reduce pain. 

For those with chronic arthritis and other joint problems who also have a lot of dryness, it is recommended to combine turmeric with ghee or marshmallow root to offset its inherent drying qualities. 

Turmeric can be taken preventively to keep the musculoskeletal system healthy. Yogis take turmeric to support tendons and ligaments and promote flexibility. 

Turmeric really does stand out as a pain remedy. Besides reducing inflammation it also depletes nerve endings of substance P, which communicates the pain signal. Besides being taken internally it also has been used externally for sore joints and sprains. Be warned though, it will temporarily stain your skin yellow. To use it effectively for chronic pain and inflammation, take it daily for a period of time. 

Turmeric can also be used to heal from surgery. It can stabilize connective tissue and promote the healing of tissues while lessening scars and adhesions. 

Nervous system

Like rosemary, turmeric has been in the research spotlight recently, showing its propensity to prevent Alzheimer's. Some theorize this is why India has significantly lower rates of Alzheimer’s. 

Wound healing and healthy skin

Turmeric can be used internally and externally to promote healthy skin. It’s regularly used for acne, eczema, psoriasis, and to heal wounds. 

The powdered root can stop bleeding fast; simply apply it to the wound. 

Turmeric can heal fungal infections like ringworm and athlete’s foot. To do this a paste is made from the powder and apply externally. And, by now, hopefully you know the warning... it will temporarily stain your skin and anything else it comes into contact with.  

In India turmeric is frequently used for toothaches and to heal gums. 

Diabetes (type 1)

Turmeric is frequently used in Ayurvedic herbalism for people with diabetes. Its strong anti-inflammatory properties are important in this inflammatory disease. It further helps by lowering blood sugar and increasing glucose metabolism. 

Menstrual Pain

Turmeric is used to treat a variety of symptoms associated with menstruation. As a blood mover it moves stagnant blood and reduces clots. It also works as an antispasmodic on smooth muscle tissue, helping to relieve pain associated with cramping. 

It does all that AND...

It is said to repel ants as well. Seems like every summer people in the forums are wondering how to repel ants. I am hoping someone will try it this year so we can hear first hand how it goes. 

Remember all those warnings about turmeric staining your skin and everything else it comes in contact with? Well it turns out turmeric is a great dye. Here's an article I wrote on dying scarves with turmeric. 

Turmeric used to be employed to detect alkalinity. Chemists in the 1870’s found out that the root changed color when exposed to alkaline chemicals. For many years turmeric paper was used to test for alkalinity. Eventually it was replaced by litmus paper. 

Botanical description

Turmeric grows in the warm tropics. India grows 80% of the world’s turmeric. The United States is the largest importer of turmeric, most of which is used to make commercial mustard yellow. 

Turmeric is a perennial plant. Its flowers grow on a spike and range from white to yellow to pink. Turmeric can be 3-5 feet tall. The leaves are long and smooth and taper at the end. If you live in a warm area where turmeric is grown the leaves can be picked fresh and used to wrap food while cooking. Herbalist Susan Marynowski tells me it’s possible to grow turmeric in Florida. 

The rhizomes have a tough brown sheath covering the bright orange yellow flesh. The rhizomes are harvested in the fall and propagated through root cuttings. Most rhizomes are dried and then powdered for use. 

I have seen whole fresh turmeric for sale in health food stores around the country. You might try asking your local stores if they can carry it fresh. Besides being able to work with this plant in its whole form you can also use this for tincturing or simply adding it to meals. 

Considerations when using turmeric

Although turmeric comes from distant lands it is widely available for an affordable price. I buy exception quality organic turmeric from Mountain Rose Herbs

To get the most out of your turmeric add 3% black pepper to the mix. Black pepper improves the bioavailability of turmeric, making smaller doses more effective. 

It’s impossible to read about the plant turmeric without also hearing about one of its constituents, curcumin. If you walk into any health food store you will see many different options for the standardized extract of curcumin. 

Here’s what my mentors KP Khalsa and Michael Tierra have to say about curcumin in their book The Way of Ayurveda Herbs:

Curcumin is the compound that makes turmeric yellow. It is the most researched constituent of the herb and is mainly responsible for turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties. It is unlikely, however, that curcumin accounts for the totality of the broad spectrum action of the herb. Subjectively, herbalists say that for many conditions, they have seen better results with the whole herb than with the curcumin alone. 

Turmeric can be taken at various doses. KP Khalsa recommends 1 gram to 30 grams of the powder depending on the person and the situation. It’s always best to use the smallest dose necessary so it’s best to start low and work up. If a person takes too much turmeric nausea will result. 

I generally recommend using turmeric anywhere from 3-10 grams per day, along with the black pepper

Making your own turmeric capsules

If you are making your own capsules you can measure out 97 grams of turmeric powder using a digital kitchen scale. Then add 3 grams of recently cracked black peppercorns. Stir well. 

Buying a home capsule machine will make the task of creating capsules much more efficient! 

Add 3 % black pepper to your turmeric to increase its effectiveness.
Keep in mind that turmeric is warming and drying and may exacerbate hot and dry conditions. It is often combined with ghee or demulcent herbs to offset this effect.

Turmeric used in curries and cooking is probably safe for everyone. However, there are some considerations for using turmeric in therapeutic doses. 

The following people should avoid turmeric
  • people who are currently taking blood thinners 
  • people who have blood clotting disorders
  • people who have known gallstones (although this is controversial) 
Turmeric will also stain everything it touches a golden yellow (your hands, cutting board, counters, etc). If you do stain something with turmeric use alcohol to clean it off. 

Is Turmeric okay for pregnancy and breastfeeding? 

According to the AHPA's Botanical Safety Handbook, Traditional Chinese Medicine does not recommend turmeric during pregnancy. The book also quotes other scientific studies and notes the mixed results. 

My recommendation is that turmeric should be avoided in large doses for pregnancy (culinary uses are fine). 

There is no known contraindication for taking turmeric during breastfeeding. It is plausible that if it was taken in large doses regularly then it could have a drying effect which could lessen lactation. Other symptoms could also manifest such as hot flashes, dry mouth, dry skin, etc. This is not so much of a contraindication for breastfeeding mothers, but more of an overall consideration when choosing herbs to match the person. 

The above considerations are for the whole rhizome of turmeric. Standardized extracts of curcumin would likely have different physiological effects than the whole herb. 

Some ways to enjoy turmeric

I learned a lot of these variations from my mentor, KP Khalsa. 

You can use turmeric powder or fresh turmeric liberally when cooking or as part of a curry mix 

1 tsp turmeric powder stirred into water or warmed milk

Mix the turmeric powder with honey to form a paste

Tincture turmeric (if you are making your own I recommend using whole turmeric and not the powder for this. Unless you use the percolation method for tincture making.) Or you can buy high quality turmeric tincture from Mountain Rose Herbs

I prefer to use turmeric powder and don't have a lot of experience with using the tincture. Winston and Kuhn recommend the following turmeric tincture dosage: 1:2 or 1:5, 60% alcohol: 2-4 mL, 2-3 times a day. 

Here are some recipes I learned I learned from my mentor Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa. 

Golden Turmeric Paste
1/4 cup of turmeric powder
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper

This can then be mixed with heated milk. 

Can add it to smoothies. 

Can be mixed into honey

Can be mixed into honey plus ghee or coconut milk

Can be spread onto a sandwich
   1) Golden Milk: increase turmeric proportion if desired.  Prepare in two parts:

a) Prepare a golden yellow tumeric paste by adding a 1/4 cup of turmeric powder to 1/2 cup of pure water and boil in a saucepan until a thick paste is formed.  This paste may be stored in the refrigerator.

b) After the paste is made, for each cup of golden milk, blend together I cup of milk, I teaspoon almond oil or any vegetable oil, 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric paste prepared above (or more if necessary), and honey to taste.  While stiffing on a low heat, bring the milk just to the boiling point.  The mixture may then be blended in an electric blender to make a beautiful foamy drink.  Fruit may be added before blending.  Serve with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top.

2) Stir in water/milk/juice/tea.  Swallow quickly.

3) Stir into sweetener (honey, maple syrup) to make a paste, swallow from spoon. 

4) Mix with thick, strong tasting food (i.e. peanut butter), swallow.

5) Mix with water to form soft paste.  Spoon to the back of throat.  Swallow.  Follow with water/juice/tea.

 Turmeric Blend
    1/2 pint sesame tahini  
    2 lbsp. sesame oil (or other)
    1/4 cup honey
    1/4 cup lemon juice
    1/4 to 1/2 cup turmeric powder

Make turmeric paste as in golden milk recipe.  Spread paste 1/4' thick on both slices of broad.  Add condiments: lettuce, parsley, ctc.  Include cucumber slices.  Close and eat.


Turmeric is an incredible herb that has inspired hundreds of scientific studies. Its ability to
address serious health problems from Alzheimer’s to cancer is astonishing. I have seen it
help countless people with their arthritic pain. It is definitely an herb I wouldn’t want to be
without! I highly recommend enjoying turmeric daily in your meals as a way of getting its

myriad of benefits.

Further Resources
Way of Ayurvedic Herbs by KP Khalsa and Michael Tierra
Culinary Herbalism Course by KP Khalsa
Herbal Therapy and Supplements by Kuhn and Winston

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