Turmeric- The Spice of Life!

turmeric whole and ground on spoons

Turmeric- The Spice of Life!

Turmeric is an orange-yellow powder used commonly in many cuisines. Americans commonly come into contact with turmeric in curries and when slathering mustard on their hotdogs! It is also used to produce yellow dye for cosmetics and textiles. Turmeric has been used medicinally in India and China for centuries and now, we in the Western world are finally catching up! If you run a PubMed (National Library of Medicine’s database) search for turmeric, you will find thousands of scientific journals presenting research on the health benefits of Turmeric. As one of my favorite home remedies and an ingredient many of you have in your spice cabinets, I’d like to give Turmeric some attention in this quarter’s newsletter.

Turmeric is technically known as Curcuma Longa. It is a low growing tropical plant which forms long, thin rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) from which the spice is derived. As a relative of ginger, their rhizomes look quite similar (although not as “knobby”). Curcumin is the yellow component of turmeric and is generally considered the most active constituent. The medicinal actions of Curcuma are many and varied. Below are a few of Turmeric’s most important properties:

• It is a very potent antioxidant (more powerful than Vitamin E). Curcumin is an effective scavenger of free radicals and also enhances the synthesis of glutathione, one of the body’s principal antioxidants. This property makes it useful against many forms of cancer, even some which do not respond to common pharmaceuticals.

• It has strong and broad anti-inflammatory properties and can be used in a wide variety of conditions which we now know are linked with inflammation. These include common inflammatory conditions like arthritis. But also include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis), Cystic Fibrosis, and Asthma to name a few.

• Turmeric also has antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.

• Turmeric has been found to reduce total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol’s susceptibility to lipid peroxidation (that “rusting” that contributes to atherosclerosis).

• Turmeric aids in liver detoxification of many toxins and potential carcinogens.

Use in Cancer: Turmeric has been found to be active against many human cancers. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant, protecting against DNA mutations which can sometimes lead to cancerous changes, curcumin also inhibits the replication and spread of these various types of cancer cells. Curcumin has been found to stop cell division of mutated cells in order for repair to take place. If the cell cannot be repaired, it induces apoptosis (cell death) in the cancer cell. It also prevents the spread of cancerous cells by by preventing new blood vessels from growing and supporting the requirements of the cancer cells for fuel and by inhibiting the invasion of these cancer cells into surrounding tissue. One very interesting study found that turmeric prevents the metastasis (spread) of breast cancer and also reversed the toxic effects of Taxol, a commonly used prescription chemotherapeutic drug used in the treatment of breast cancer. Adding turmeric to Taxol enhanced its effects and decreased its toxicity. Pancreatic cancer is known to be one of the most aggressive human cancers which is very difficult to treat. One small human trial found turmeric to be active in stopping the progression of pancreatic cancer growth. Turmeric has been found to be particularly helpful for cancers of the gastrointestinal tract where it is most bioavailable when taken in oral form.

Anti-inflammatory uses: Turmeric has been found to inhibit many chemical messengers associated with inflammation and pain. It has been found to have activity similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen) without the harmful gastrointestinal side effects. Turmeric has been studied in inflammatory conditions as diverse as hernias and arthritis. In fact, it has been found to produce the same clinical improvements as NSAIDS in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Alzheimer’s disease: Curcumin has been found to inhibit the formation of beta amyloid which accumulates, in the form of amyloid plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Inflammation and oxidative damage are also associated with progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Both of these effects are dampened by turmeric.

Safety: Used in dietary amounts, turmeric is considered very safe. Serious adverse effects have not been reported in humans taking high doses of curcumin. In medicinal quantities, caution is warranted in the following situations: The safety of turmeric in large doses has not been established for pregnant or breastfeeding women. That being said, there is no evidence of adverse effects with dietary consumption of turmeric in pregnancy or lactation. Patients taking antiplatelet or anticoagulant drugs have an increased risk of bleeding when taking large doses of turmeric as it inhibits platelet aggregation. Patients with bile duct obstruction or significant gallstone disease. Turmeric has been found to increase the contractions of the gallbladder. This effect promotes gallbladder emptying and can actually decrease the risk of gallstones in healthy people. However, in those with gallstone disease, these contractions of the gallbladder can increase gallstone “attacks” and the risk of bile duct obstruction by a large gallstone.

A note on “bioavailability”: Despite the fact that turmeric seems to be a tremendously promising medicinal plant, it should be noted that many of the above-mentioned studies about the medicinal properties of turmeric have been conducted in animal models or in test-tube situations. Also, there are some studies which call into question the ability of orally ingested turmeric to be absorbed into the blood stream and disseminated into the body.

How to use turmeric: I recommend that all of my patients include turmeric in their cooking as often as possible. I use it in grain dishes, on cooked vegetables, in egg, poultry recipes, and fish recipes on it’s own and as part of the curry powder I often add to my cooking. In patients who have inflammatory conditions, compromised liver function, high cholesterol, or a high risk of cancer, I often recommend a turmeric tea: Place 1tsp of ground turmeric and 2-3 slices of fresh ginger in a mug. Add boiling water. Cover and steep for 10 minutes.

In Summary: Turmeric is a fantastic addition to the diet and a powerful medicinal herb. Its safety and efficacy make it a wonderful choice in many conditions involving inflammation and oxidative damage. So my recommendations: color your world yellow!

Please Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment. If you have any questions, or would like to schedule an appointment, please feel free to contact Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND at 201-757-5558 or, through email at dr*******@ve*****.net.

Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND
Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND

Dr. Kuzniar is a board member of the New Jersey Association of Naturopathic Physicians and is also a member of the Gastroenterology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She currently holds a State of Vermont Naturopathic Physician license (as New Jersey does not yet offer licensing for Naturopathic doctors).