Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
The essential ingredient in curry powder, this Ayurvedic herb also treats inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and tendinitis

By Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH

What it is
Turmeric grows in southern India, China, and Indonesia and is a close relative of ginger. The herb’s fleshy, orange rhizome (its rootlike underground stem) has a rich history as a culinary spice, food preservative, medicinal herb, and dye. The golden robes worn by Buddhist monks traditionally are dyed with turmeric.

History and folk remedies
Ayurvedic healers have known about turmeric’s healing properties for centuries. The spice is thought to purify the body and has long been prescribed in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat arthritis, liver disorders, menstrual problems, and indigestion.

Why it’s used
Naturopathic physicians and herbalists prescribe turmeric for treating inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and tendinitis. Turmeric is recommended for preventing cardiovascular disease and cancer because of its potent antioxidant properties. It’s also applied topically to wounds, bruises, and muscle strains. In cooking, turmeric is an essential ingredient in curry powder.

How it works
In the 1970s, scientists discovered that the curcuminoid compounds that give turmeric root its bright yellow color also have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Of these compounds, curcumin is thought to be the most powerful because it helps to neutralize free radicals, the cell-damaging molecules at the root of many degenerative diseases, including arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, heart disease, and cancer. Turmeric also inhibits excessive blood clotting, which is a contributing factor in heart disease and degenerative inflammatory disorders.

Scientific support
In dozens of studies, turmeric has been shown to have significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Although most of the studies have taken place in the laboratory and actual human clinical studies are few, results have been positive.

In a 1992 human clinical study, for example, curcumin helped lower several risk factors that contribute to heart disease (Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 1992, vol. 36, no. 4).

Turmeric is often used as an inexpensive alternative to saffron. Other laboratory and animal studies have demonstrated curcumin’s anticancer properties. One small but intriguing study of tobacco smokers showed that turmeric significantly reduced urinary mutagen levels, substances that trigger the cell mutations that lead to cancer (Mutagenesis, 1992, vol. 7, no. 2). Studies also have verified the traditional wisdom of using turmeric to ease arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, though most of these have been animal studies.

How to take it
Turmeric is widely available as a culinary spice. It can be taken in powder form; however, you would need to take large amounts (1 teaspoon or more three times a day) to reap medicinal benefits. Turmeric is also sold in capsules and liquid extracts. Standardized extracts generally contain between 90 percent and 95 percent curcumin; the typical dose for reducing inflammation or for other therapeutic effects is 400 mg to 600 mg three times a day. If you are taking a liquid extract, follow the directions on the label.

Turmeric and the Healing Curcuminoids by Muhammed Majeed, et al. (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 1999). Side effects
Turmeric is safe when used in normal amounts as a culinary spice. By including it in cooking, you can enjoy the flavor while benefiting from the herb’s store of antioxidants. If you have a blood-clotting disorder, are taking blood-thinning medications, or have gallbladder disease, do not take medicinal amounts of turmeric or concentrated extracts of curcumin without consulting a health care practitioner. Cancer patients should consult with a doctor informed about herbal medicines because turmeric may interfere with certain chemotherapy agents.

Herbalist Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon.