By Raji Jayadev
Accredited Practising Dietitian
Turmeric is one of the oldest spices known. It has a very long history of culinary, religious and medicinal use dating back nearly 4000 years. Turmeric Powder is obtained from the root of turmeric plant Curcuma longa belonging to the family Zingiberaceae. It tastes peppery and bittersweet, has mild fragrance. It is native to southwest India, is grown throughout India, some parts of Asia and Africa. Turmeric is considered auspicious and holy in India and takes an important role in various Hindu ceremonies.
Turmeric is widely used as a spice in Asian (e.g. India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand) and Middle Eastern cooking. Many Persian dishes are started using onions caramelized in oil and turmeric, followed by other ingredients. Although typically used in its powdered form, turmeric is also used fresh, like ginger. Turmeric paste is applied to the skin to remove facial hair, pimples and to improve complexion. Turmeric is currently used in cosmetics, face creams, face masks, soaps, sunscreens and tooth pastes and marketed as ayurvedic or natural products, though the amount of turmeric is negligible to provide any benefit.
Commercially turmeric is used to impart a rich yellow colour. It is used in canned beverages, butter, margarine, ice cream, yoghurt, orange juice, biscuits, popcorn cereals, sauces, curry powders, etc.
Turmeric’s unique health benefits come from two basic chemical compounds – curcumin and turmerone along with a wide range of curcuminoids and volatile oils.
There are two main varieties of turmeric:
- Alleppey turmeric, darker yellow in colour, contains 3.5 – 4 percent curcumin
- Madras turmeric, bright yellow in colour, contains 1.5 – 1.8 percent curcumin
It’s best to use Alleppey turmeric as it contains more health promoting curcumin than Madras turmeric.
In Britain, there were some cases of turmeric mixed with toxic, cheaper agents such as lead oxide, metanil yellow or acid yellow. Buy from a reputable retailer.
Turmeric in traditional medicine
In Ayurveda, Chinese traditional and alternative medicine, turmeric is used for relieving gas, dispelling worms, improving digestion, relieve arthritic pain. It is also used to treat asthma, digestive disorders and liver disorders. Turmeric is applied directly to the skin for eczema and wound healing. A drink made with turmeric mixed in hot milk or water is used to treat cough, colds, sore throats and to expel phlegm. In many south Asian countries turmeric is used as an antiseptic for cuts, burns and bruises. In alternative medicinal practice turmeric is used for various health problems including heartburn, stomach ulcers, gallstones, and also for cancer.
Turmeric in modern medicine
Medicinal properties of turmeric have raised interest in scientists all over the world. Hundreds of studies conducted over several decades to understand the effect of turmeric on several diseases have shown that –
- Turmeric provides a strong anti-inflammatory effect. It can reduce the pain caused by arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In one study, turmeric worked as well as ibuprofen (Nurofen) for reducing the pain.
- Early research suggests that using a turmeric mouthwash is as effective as a drug-therapy for reducing the gum disease (gingivitis) and bacteria levels in the mouth.
- Turmeric being an anti-oxidant, prevents damage to components of cells e.g. DNA and protein. Some research suggests that turmeric’s anti-oxidant activity may help in the prevention of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
- Turmeric reduces blood clotting, improves blood circulation, thus helps to preventheart failure and stroke.
- Curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric, might improve symptoms of eye inflammation (uveitis).
- Several studies conducted on animals with diabetes suggest that turmeric lowers blood sugar levels significantly. More studies are being conducted to prove the efficacy of turmeric in lowering the blood sugar levels in humans.
- Early research shows that taking curcumin does not benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Research done on animals suggests turmeric or curcumin may help in the treatment of various cancers (breast, skin, colon, prostate etc.). Curcumin prevents the growth of cancerous cells and tumours. Anti-oxidant properties of turmeric protect healthy cells thus preventing the spread of cancer.
Multiple studies have confirmed the healing and health protective properties of turmeric and curcumin. But most studies are done on animals and in laboratories. Studies done in humans are limited. For this reason dosage needed for the treatment of diseases like diabetes and cancer is not known. More studies are being conducted, result so for looks very promising.
How much is needed?
Based on a review of many studies done, the University of Maryland Medical Centre, United States suggests that 1–3 grams (1 teaspoon) of dried, powdered turmeric root per day is needed to produce a health benefit.
Side Effects and Cautions
3-6 grams (1-2 teaspoons) of turmeric in food and drink is considered safe for most adults. But high doses taken in the form of turmeric or curcumin powder/oil extract, tablets or capsules may cause stomach upset, indigestion, nausea, dizziness or diarrhea in some people.
Do not take medicinal amounts of turmeric –
- if you are pregnant or breast feeding
- if you have gallstones or a bile duct obstruction
- if you are taking medications that slow blood clotting (blood thinning agents) e.g. warfarin or aspirin
- if you have iron deficiency
Tell your doctor if you are taking turmeric or curcumin tablets as it may increase the effectiveness of certain medications (for diabetes and heart disease) and may lead to undesirable effects.
Recipe for a healthful drink
Heat 1 cup low fat milk, add 1/2 – 1 teaspoon (Alleppey) turmeric powder, 1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon pepper powder and sugar or honey to taste, stir and drink warm.
Note: curcumin dissolves only in fat, piperine in peppercorn assists curcumin entering blood stream.
Let food be thy medicine. Medicine thy food. Hippocrates *(c.460-370BCE)