Mrs. S had eczema. Her skin was so bad that blood soaked through the bandages in which she was forced to wrap her arms. Now 40 years old, Mrs. S. has endured chronic eczema since childhood. Over the decades it had worsened until it covered every inch of her body below the neck. She was miserable and depressed about her future.
Ironically, Mrs. S. was very conscious about her health. She ate an excellent diet, used herbs and vitamins, and had a generally healthy lifestyle, but she had never been able to get control of her skin, despite numerous programs from various practitioners. The dose of steroids necessary to control the eczema produced intolerable side effects.
When a friend asked Mrs. S. if she’d finally had enough, she replied that she was willing to try anything. She ended up seeing an Ayurvedic herbalist, who recommended a rigorous program of herbs and diet.
Mrs. S’s program centered around turmeric, in the startling (to Mrs. S., at least) dose of one ounce per day. She was desperate though, and began the treatment. The results were dramatic.
Within days, Mrs. S’s skin began to respond. She faithfully continued to take her turmeric. By the end of the six weeks, she had a patch the size of a dime on one hand, which was shrinking rapidly. The entire rest of her body was covered with fresh new skin!
All this happened five years ago. Mrs. S. has not had a speck of eczema the entire time. She manages her skin now only with diet, and one or two capsules of turmeric per day, or perhaps a pinch in her food. For such a mild mannered kitchen herb, turmeric sure packs a punch.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a perennial herb of the ginger family. The yellow root (rhizome) is the medicinal portion. Grown in South Asia, turmeric, sometimes called Indian saffron, is the ingredient that gives the yellow color to curry powder. It is extensively used for flavor and color in many foods around the world. The United States is the largest importer of turmeric in the world, where it is used almost exclusively to color prepared mustard.
Turmeric is extensively used as medicine in Ayurveda, the Indian system of healing, and to a lesser extent in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It has wide application and is used to treat, among other conditions, arthritis, ulcer, flatulence, bloody urine, bruises, colic, chest pain, jaundice, menstrual difficulties, hemorrhage, and toothache.
Energetics and Actions
One of the most useful medicines in Ayurveda, where it is called “haldi” , turmeric, while related to ginger, is not nearly as pungent (hot, spicy taste). The energetics of turmeric are considered to be:
- tastes – bitter, astringent, pungent (mildly)
- temperature – mildly warming.
- digestive effect – mildly pungent
To describe the actions of turmeric that have been discovered could go on for pages, but primarily they are described as digestive, circulatory, respiratory, and hepatic. In herbal terms, turmeric is described as aromatic (fragrant aroma), stimulant (enhances energy production), tonic (strengthens overall functioning), carminative (relieves gas), anthelmintic (dispels worms), vulnerary (healing applications for wounds), and antibacterial.
Curcumin is the compound which makes turmeric yellow. It is the most researched component of the herb, and is mainly responsible for turmeric’s anti-inflammqtory 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 curcumin alone.
Curcumin is one of the diaryl heptanoids known collectively as curcuminoids that comprise about 5 % of turmeric. A polyphenol, curcumin (chemically termed ‘diferuloyl methane”), has actions similar to other polyphenols.
Curcumin has no known toxicity. Extremely high doses of turmeric, its alcohol extract, and pure curcumin do not produce undesired effects in any animal studied.
The mechanism of action is not well understood in curcumin’s case. Some evidence suggests that it acts to promote steroid secretion in the adrenal glands, while other evidence contradicts this theory. We do know that two primary actions are inhibition of lipoxygenase, and antioxidant effects, similar to other polyphenols.
One study demonstrated that curcumin has a novel mechanism of action, distinct from the main categories of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as salicylates (like aspirin) and glucocorticoids (like prednisone). Finding an anti-inflammatory different from these typical categories is truly a breakthrough.
Curcumin is known as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, and is classified as and NSAID when used in medicine.
Turmeric is one of, if not the most widely used, herbs for arthritis in India where it is commonly combined with ginger for this condition. This action is probably due primarily to curcumin.
The anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin are well documented. While typical anti-inflammatory drugs have grave side effects like ulcer formation and immune suppression, curcumin is exceedingly safe.
Curcumin has been shown to be more effective than cortisone or phenylbutazone in acute inflammation. Like capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne, curcumin also depletes substance P, the neurotransmitter of pain, in the nerve endings. When used orally, curcumin has several direct anti-inflammatory effects, including inhibiting leukotriene formation, inhibiting platelet aggregation, promotion of fibrinolysis, and stabilizing lysosomal membranes.
T’he herb is widely used in all joint conditions, and is said to have a general joint rebuilding capability. It is used in rheumatoid arthritis and gout (both internally and as a pack on the joint). It normalizes ligaments, and therefore facilitates stretching exercise, such as Yoga.
Applied as a wash, it can used for inflamed eye conditions (conjunctivitis, opthalmia).
The concept of antioxidant, of course, comes from modern science. Asian medicine does not refer to turmeric in this way. However, studies have shown that turmeric has strong antioxidative activity. It is more potent as an antioxidant than either vitamin C or vitamin E.
Turmeric inhibits the spoilage of fats and oils, a benefit internally, and can be used as a preservative for these foods.
Turmeric is called a blood purifier, and has been compared to the herb chaparral in its action. It should be noted that the molecular structure of curcumin is very similar to that of NDGA, the active component of chaparral.
Turmeric normalizes cholesterol. One component, dimethylbenzyl alcohol, reduces serum cholesterol (in the blood), while curcumin removes accumulation of cholesterol in the liver. The anticholesterol action includes reducing intestinal cholesterol uptake, increasing the conversion of cholesterol into bile acids, and increasing the excretion of bile acids.
As a hemostatic, turmeric is effective at reducing bleeding. One herbalist reports seeing an emergency oral dose of two heaping Tablespoons of turmeric powder control the crisis in a case of bright red blood pumping from the rectum.
Turmeric reduces arterial plaque. Since it inhibits platelet aggregation, it can benefit circulation in many ways, including reducing the accumulation of deposits on arterial walls. A recent study showed that it reduced smooth muscle damage in the artery, the beginning step in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Turmeric would wisely be used in artery disease or in recovery from bypass surgery or angioplasty.
Anemia benefits from turmeric, as it facilitates the production of new blood cells. Its unique combination of characteristics make it suitable in the treatment of varicose veins.
Digestive disorders also call for turmeric. It treats typical indigestion, acting by increasing mucin and enzyme secretions in the gastric juices.
Turmeric is widely used in Ayurveda as a general digestive remedy. It reduces gas, and as an anti-inflammatory, is a good choice for ulcer. In addition, it kills intestinal parasites.
Hemorrhoids respond particularly well to turmeric, which, in addition to oral use, can be applied topically as a paste. Turmeric based hemorrhoids creams are widely available in Asia. This paste is bright yellow, however, so remember, you may end up being yellow where you won’t want to be yellow! (Only temporarily, though.)
Turmeric is antibacterial, and has the capability of killing many types of bacteria. Ayurveda recommends it for those who are chronically weak, as it is thought to be supportive of intestinal flora.
Recently, it was shown that turmeric can destroy salmonella bacteria, a common cause of food poisoning, within 15 minutes. It is also active against staph bacteria.
While known to be generally immune supportive, turmeric has been shown to be a potent inhibitor of HIV. A recent study at Harvard Medical School, comparing curcumin with chemotherapy drugs, demonstrated that it was effective as an inhibitor of HIV replication.
Turmeric is used historically in Ayurveda, both internally and externally, for the treatment of boils. It is also antifungal and anthelmintic, acting especially against Entamoeba histolytica.
Long used as a respiratory herb, turmeric excels in reducing cough, for which it is often mixed as a household remedy with coriander and cumin.
As an astringent and anti-inflammatory herb, turmeric is effective as a gargle for sore throat. Bitter herbs, generally, are known to be cooling. Turmeric can be used for severe sore throat with fever. In Ayurveda it is often administered in combination with ghee (clarified butter) for this condition.
Clearly, its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties make turmeric ideal for treating bronchitis. Asian herbalists use it for asthma.
Skin and Connective Tissue
Turmeric is a major skin treatment herb in Asia, with a wide variety of uses, both when taken orally and when applied to the skin. In fact, turmeric is a good general treatment for all connective tissue. Being a polyphenol, curcumin has the property of stabilizing collagen. It is used to enhance healing after surgery, reducing adhesions and scarring.
Turmeric is particularly appropriate in treating inflammatory skin diseases, such as psoriasis and eczema, as it reduces heat and cleanses the liver. These qualities make it perfect to consider for all herpes diseases (oral, genital, shingles). It is also touted in Ayurveda for urticaria.
Since turmeric both kills insects, and heals skin lesions, it’s not surprising that a combination of turmeric and neem, another Ayurvedic insecticidal herb, applied topically, eradicated scabies in 97 % of the people treated, within 3 to 15 days. This formula is also traditional for ringworm.
Bitter herbs are generally known to promote bile flow. Turmeric is one of the premier Ayurvedic herbs for the liver. Classically, it is used mixed with barberry. It can increase bile acid output by over 100 %.
Curcumin also increases bile solubility, supporting its historical use in the treatment of gall stones. These same qualities indicate the use of turmeric for the treatment of alcohol abuse.
Being a potent antioxidant, curcumin has hepatoprotective effects comparable to silybin from milk thistle. As an antiinflammatory, it shows the ability to lower SGOT and SGPT.
This herb is antidiabetic in its action, and will help normalize blood sugar. Its action on the liver, cholesterol levels, and lipids generally assist in diabetes. It treats diabetic ulcer, whether used orally or applied to the wound.
Turmeric is an emmenagogue, and is used in Ayurveda as a mild menstrual regulator. As such, it is considered to be the best general spice for women to move stagnant blood.
Conditions which are treated with nervine and anti-spasmodic herbs can respond to turmeric, for which it is often used with bayberry.
Like other antioxidant foods, turmeric reduces the formation of cancers. It inhibits the disease at all stages – initiation, promotion, and progression.
In smokers, turmeric given at 1.5 grams per day for 30 days substantially reduced the formation of mutagenic (cancer causing) chemicals. It is estimated that 500mg (less than 1/2 a teaspoon) of turmeric per day in the diet could eliminate DNA damage characteristic of the development of cancer.
Another recent study reported a 68 % reduction of cancer in animals following treatment with curcurnin.
Turmeric is also used in the treatment of benign tumors. Ayurveda recommends it specifically in the treatment of breast or uterine cysts and tumors.
Body weight and appetite will respond to turmeric. It is used in Asia to reduce obesity and in the treatment of anorexia.
Being anti-inflammatory and astringent, it is a superb medicine for oral care. Many Asian tooth and gum preparations are made with turmeric. As well, it can be used for toothache.
Though supported by scant scientific literature, turmeric is widely used in Ayurvedic asthma regimes, with the same use being clinically supported by several American herbalists.
Turmeric is analgesic. We know it depletes substance P, which may account for it in traditional use in headache and other similar conditions.
With its noted anti-inflammatory and skin healing properties, turmeric is applied as a cream or pack for connective tissue conditions. In Asia, it is mixed with honey and rubbed on the body for strains, sprains, bruises, and itching.
As a paste it is a first aid treatment for wounds. When prepared as an eye wash, it shows effectiveness in conjunctivitis and opthalmia.
Remember that turmeric is bright yellow, and stains the skin (and everything else it touches, like your toothbrush and your pajamas)! American patients may have difficulty with compliance, as bright yellow skin has not yet become fashionable here.
As we have seen, turmeric is not only one of the most revered plants in Asian herbology, it is also one of the most widely useful.
Now that we’ve heard the good news, let’s mention the one minor drawback. Turmeric is a relatively mild herb, pound for pound. The dose for acute conditions typically would be about one ounce per day, or the equivalent of about 50 capsules. Since this obviously is not practical, powder is the best form. Four level teaspoons of powder is about one ounce. A maintenance dose for chronic conditions, however, could be as little as a teaspoon, or 2 capsules, per day.
The impressive effectiveness and wide range of uses of this herb truly make it one of the most valuable additions to an herbalist’s repertoire. When you see what it can do, you will surely add it to yours.