Exploring Turmeric: The Ancient Golden Spice of Meals and Medication
Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay.— Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky
The Ancient Spice
It is thought that turmeric sprang forth from the forests of South Asia; it grows wild in Java and Indonesia. For thousands of years (at least 4,500) it has been revered not only as a spice but also for its medicinal qualities.
Near New Delhi, pots thought to be from as early as 2,500 B.C. contain residues of garlic, ginger, and turmeric. It was around 500 B.C. that is was used in Ayurveda (an Indian philosophy of natural healing) medicine.
"It probably reached China by 700 A.D., East Africa by 800 A.D., West Africa by 1200 A.D., and Jamaica in the eighteenth century. In 1280, Marco Polo described this spice, marveling at a vegetable that exhibited qualities so similar to that of saffron."
– Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, Chapter 13 (National Center for Biotechnology Information, NIH)
Before turmeric was gleaned for healing, it was prized because of the vibrant color it imparts. Buddhist monks wear robes of brilliant yellow; the color resembles saffron but the use of turmeric is just as effective and much less costly. In Indian culture, a string necklace coated with turmeric paste is tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. This mangala sutra colors her skin and indicates to all who see it that she is a married woman.
In winter, the landscape appears barren—but just below the surface of the earth there is life. The rhizomes of Curcuma longa are swelling and storing nutrients. As the soil warms, stems push upward and one by one leaf buds swell and unfurl. The monsoons begin and a sturdy stalk emerges from the center of the plant crowned by waxy funnel-shaped flowers. When the rains subside the plant begins to wither, not to announce the end of a season but to herald the beginning of the harvest time.
When the rhizomes are removed from the soil the air is filled with a peppery fragrance; all that they touch is stained orange-yellow. The Latin word terra merita (meritorious earth) is an homage to the golden hue and from this, we receive the English name "turmeric."
Skilled hands separate out the very best of the rhizomes, those that are plump and shiny, but these will not be processed. Rather, they are set aside, the best of the best, as they will be seeds for the next year’s crop. Those that are left are boiled and then spread out to dry in the sun.
Turmeric is used throughout the world and has many names.
- Arabic – kurkum
- Armenian – toormerik
- Bulgarian – kurkuma
- Chinese – yu chin
- Croatian - Indijski šafran
- Hindi – haldi
- Japanese – tamerikku
- Russian – kurkumy
- Swahili – manjano
- Swedish – gurkmeja
- Thai – kha min chan
And in Sankrit it is such an integral part of life, it has no fewer than 53 names.
Many Sanskrit Names
anestha (not offered for sacrifice)
bhadra (auspicious or lucky)
dhirgharaja (long in appearance)
gandhaplashika (which produces good smell)
gauri (to make fair),
gharshani (to rub)
haldi (that draws attention to its bright color)
haridra (dear to hari, Lord Krishna)
hemaragi (exhibits golden color)
hemaragini (gives the golden color)
hridayavilasini (gives delight to heart)
jayanti (one that wins over diseases)
jawarantika (which cures fevers)
kanchani (exhibits golden color)
krimighni or kashpa (killer of worms)
mangalprada (who bestows auspiciousness)
mehagni (killer of fat)
nishakhya (known as night)
nishawa (clears darkness and imparts color)
patwaluka (perfumed powder)
pinja (yellow-red powder), pita (yellow), pitika (which gives yellow color), rabhangavasa (which dissolves fat)
ranjani (which gives color)
ratrimanika (as beautiful as moonlight)
shifa (fibrous root)
shobhna (brilliant color)
shyama (dark colored)
survana (golden color)
survanavara (which exhibits golden color)
tamasini (beautiful as night)
umavara (Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva)
vairagi (who remains free from desires)
varavarnini (which gives fair complexion)
varna datri (enhancer of body complexion)
varnini (which gives color)
vishagni (killer of poison)
yoshitapriya (beloved of wife)
yoshitapriya (beloved of wife)
What Was Old Is New Again
Historically, turmeric has been a natural remedy used to alleviate respiratory ailments and aid in the healing of wounds and bruises. Thanks to the desire of many to return to natural healing substances and improve nutrition, turmeric is gaining new popularity. Let’s take a few minutes to learn how it can be used today for nutrition and health.
Is Turmeric Really a Super Spice?
There are numerous claims of the efficacy of this golden spice. What has been proven to be valid, what is yet to be proven, and have any of these claims been completely debunked?
The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, has been said to prevent, relieve, or irradicate such ailments as inflammation, digestive ailments, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cirrhosis, and prostate and colon cancers.
Inflammation: The Arthritis Foundation states that curcumin is thought to block several enzymes that cause inflammation. However, in a 2006 clinical study, it was found to be more effective in preventing joint inflammation than in reducing inflammation that is already present. A 2010 clinical trial found that it provided long-term improvement in pain and mobility in patients with osteoarthritis.
Digestive Ailments: Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin can aid in gut inflammation. It is being explored as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. However, if taken in excessive amounts, turmeric can actually irritate the stomach.
Cystic Fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects the mucus membranes and sweat glands. Patients with CF have thick, sticky mucus which blocks airflow and disrupts digestion. Pain, malnutrition (from lack of nutrient absorption), and chronic respiratory infections are almost constant companions in the lives of those with CF, lives which are always cut short. Researchers at the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins are conducting human trials on the use of curcumin as a possible CF therapy. This research is in its infancy.
Alzheimer's: Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, incurable degenerative disease which causes loss of cognitive function and is the most common cause of dementia. Various studies have shown that in India (where turmeric is used on a daily basis) the incidence of AD is lower than in other parts of the world. In a comparison of adults 70 to 79 years of age, the prevalence of AD in India is 4.4 times less than for adults in the United States.
It is thought that there are several causes for the onset of AD—inflammation is one, oxidation (damage from free radicals) is another. Exposure to heavy metals may also be a risk factor, but at the top of the list is the formation of plaque and tangles in brain cells. The Neurology Department of the UCLA Medical Center reports that curcumin has been found to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage and that it also reduces beta-amyloid plaque. However, much more research is needed in this area.
High Cholesterol: In a clinical trial in India, 10 test subjects were given 500 grams of curcumin per day for 7 days. After those 7 days, it was found that the subject's triglyceride levels were lowered an average of 33 percent and LDL (the bad cholesterol) dropped an average of 11 percent.
High Blood Pressure: There are several reasons for high blood pressure (readings greater than 130/80)—stress, atherosclerosis, and high cholesterol levels most common, so it stands to reason that if curcumin has a positive effect on triglycerides and cholesterol, it can also help to reduce high blood pressure. However, there have not been any large-scale human trials to clearly ascertain the effectiveness of curcumin on blood pressure.
Cirrhosis: Researchers in Israel have found that curcumin can help to repair damaged liver tissues. However, the number of studies on the impact of curcumin on liver diseases is still very low and research continues.
Cancer: Curcumin is an antioxidant and so it may stop the cellular damage which can trigger some cancers. But according to Dr. Timothy J. Moynihan of the Mayo Clinic, there is not yet enough evidence to support a recommendation of using curcumin for treating or preventing cancer.
Proven Health Effects
- Reduces the number of heart attacks for post-bypass surgery patients
- Controls knee pain from osteoarthritis, as well as ibuprofen
- Reduces the skin irritation that often occurs after radiation treatments for breast cancer
Source: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
High doses of turmeric can act as a blood thinner and cause stomach upset. Avoid turmeric/curcumin if you take blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), are about to have surgery or have gallbladder disease.
Those with existing health conditions like diabetes and liver disease also need to take precautions when using turmeric. The properties of the spice may counteract certain prescription medications.
In addition to those with a pre-existing medical condition, pregnant women are also advised not to use turmeric in large doses, especially with supplements, as it may carry a high risk of miscarriage.
Turmeric is common in curries and can be sprinkled on potatoes or stirred into a dip. Here are some other ways of including it in your daily diet.
Bedtime Golden Turmeric Milk
Once upon a time did Mom tell you that a warm cup of milk before bedtime would help you to fall asleep? I don't know if there is scientific evidence to support the theory, or if the ritual of warm milk is associated (in our little minds) with comfort and restful sleep. Nevertheless, whether you believe in warm milk as a bedtime necessity or believe it to be an old wive's tale, here is another reason to add a warm beverage to your routine.
Kaitlin uses soy milk (I'm sure that any type of milk would do), turmeric, cinnamon, vanilla, and a sweetener to create bedtime golden turmeric milk. It's relatively low in calories so rest easy.
By the way, the same ingredients can be poured into a cocktail shaker with ice to create a golden milk latte that you can enjoy anytime during the day.
Turmeric Ginger Tea With Cinnamon, Lemon and Honey
Maybe warm milk isn't your cup of tea (sorry, I couldn't resist). Emily has created a comforting hot beverage, turmeric tea. She says it's great for the times that you are feeling under the weather; maybe you have a bit of a sore throat, or a headache, or the weather is cold and blustery. A cup of this is guaranteed to brighten your day (and you don't need a French press carafe to make it).
Apple Cider Turmeric Vinaigrette
Marie is a registered dietician and mom of four. She believes that the road to a healthy life is finding balance in what we eat—food that is healthy, tasty, and guilt free. Her recipe for turmeric salad dressing is bursting with flavor and color and in addition to turmeric gets a nutritional and anti-oxidant boost from apple cider vinegar and honey.
- India is the largest producer (and consumer) of turmeric. Eighty percent of all turmeric grown comes from India.
- The pigment which gives brilliant yellow color is curcumin which has been shown to be an excellent antioxidant and aids in food preservation.
- The plant is an annual (it sprouts, grows and dies within one year).
- Harvest and processing are both very labor-intensive. All of the work, from sowing to digging, boiling, and drying are done by hand.
- Botanically it is related to ginger.
- It is one of the primary seasonings in curry powder
- Ancient Home Remedies
- Atina Foods
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, 1984 Scribner
- Healthy-Holistic Living
- Mayo Clinic
- Medical News Today
- NCBI, National Institute of Health
- NCCIH, National Institute of Health
- The Hindu.com
- The Rainforest Garden
- Turmeric for Health
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Lum