A member of the ginger family, turmeric has been cultivated and harvested in India since 3000 BC. It was first used as a dye and then later discovered for its medicinal properties. Now a spice heavily relied upon in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, India, and Mexico, it has become a major part of Ayurvedic medicine.
The active ingredient in turmeric is the yellow pigment curcumin, which has, in Western cultures, been gaining attention fairly recently as potential help for various diseases. Turmeric and curcumin are among the most clinically studied spices and herbs today.
Long valued in both Chinese and Indian medicine treatments as an anti-inflammatory agent, turmeric poultices are often used to relieve inflammation and pain.
Scientific experiments confirm curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects and find them to be comparable to over-the-counter agents such as ibuprofin, and even to potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone. Unlike the drugs, curcumin produces no significant toxic effects such as intestinal bleeding, ulcer formation, and a decreased white blood cell count.
Other studies with comparison groups show the effect turmeric can have in rheumatoid arthritis. Four hundred milligrams of curcumin was comparable to one hundred milligrams of phenylbutazone and four hundred milligrams of ibuprofen. Improvements in the duration of morning stiffness, walking time, and joint swelling were about the same in both groups.
Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs show signs in helping prevent colorectal cancer. In comparison to aspirin, curcumin is more effective. It has been shown, in animal studies, to inhibit colon cancer more readily at all stages, from initiation to promotion and progression.
Antioxidant effects in curcumin protect healthy cells from free radicals that can damage cellular DNA and in turn lead to cancer. In areas of the body where cell turnover is quite rapid (eg., lining of the colon), this action is particularly beneficial as frequent replication of any mutations in the DNA is conducive to the quick formation of cancerous cells.
Curcumin also helps the body to destroy mutated cancer cells and will thus inhibit their spread. According to one study, sixteen chronic smokers were given 1.5 grams of turmeric daily while six nonsmokers served as a comparison group. After 30 days it was found that the smokers given turmeric showed a significant drop in the level of cancer-causing compounds in their urine. In fact, their levels were very close to those of the nonsmokers.
Curcumin inhibits the formation of nitrosamines, helps the body produce cancer-fighting compounds, such as glutathione, promotes liver detoxification of cancer-causing compounds, and prevents overproduction of cyclooxygenase 2 (an enzyme that may contribute to the development of tumors).
Turmeric may also play a role in the prevention of heart disease as it helps lower cholesterol and also prevents the oxidation of cholesterol. Oxidized cholersterol is what damages blood vessels and builds up in the plaques, ultimately leading to heart attack or stroke.
Curcumin has been shown to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis in mice. Studies have also shown that in elderly Indian populations where turmeric is a common spice, levels of neurological disease were very low.
According to Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist:
"In countries where people consume a lot of [turmeric], there's a very low incidence of Alzheimer's disease. In India and Southeast Asia, it's a rare disease. And [in the U.S.] it's very, very common."
"A challenge that we face is that drug companies…can't patent turmeric root. So they will continue to try to develop something else. [But] eating turmeric, eating its extracts…appears to be protective against one of the most horrific and debilitating diseases we know."