Monday, November 16, 2009

Turmeric - Friend to the Liver

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

To truly embrace the concept of complimentary medicine, it is absolutely imperative to understand the truth that food is our medicine. “You are what you eat,” is not just a tired cliché, but a fact of life. Herbs and spices play a vital role in cuisine throughout the world and throughout history, not only for the gift of unique and delicious flavor they impart, but also for a much more practical reason: to keep our bodies in a state of vital health. Turmeric is no exception, for over 4,000 years Curcuma longa has been an essential medicinal herb in India, as well as a key ingredient in curries, a natural preservative for food, a valuable dye for fabric and has played an important role in spiritual ceremonies and traditions.

A sacred tradition among the Bengali called the “Gaye Halud,” uses Turmeric for anointing purposes, ritualizing a woman’s entrance into maturity. Early on her wedding day, a new bride bathes herself in water infused with Turmeric, signifying her new status.

Native to Southeast Asia and India, Turmeric is a close relative of ginger. Its plump tan rhizome, that when sliced reveals a brightly hued orange flesh, is harvested in winter when all above ground growth has withered. With a peppery scent and an earthy, sweet and piquant flavor, Turmeric gives dishes a warm, musky taste and a somewhat spicy aroma. Occasionally used freshly grated in soups, curries, vegetable dishes and desserts, Turmeric is most often found in its dried and powdered form. Traditionally, the rhizome was sun dried and sold whole or ground; now it is usually boiled, peeled, dried and powdered before being sold in Western markets.

The bright yellow/orange color of Turmeric is due to its high content of curcumin, and is the highest known source of beta carotene. The brightly staining yellow color was once used to dye the saffron robes worn by Buddhist monks and the silk garments worn by the Chinese emperor. In fact, the color yellow was so sacred to the Chinese that only the emperor himself was entitled to wear it. The bright and sunny color came to a much more mundane use when Westerners began using it to dye margarine and ball-park mustard, although these days the spice annatto is more commonly used. Because of the color it gives to food, it has often been confused with saffron, but there’s no mistaking Turmeric’s pungent flavor; don’t try to use it as a substitute for that precious spice. On a more practical note, be aware that Turmeric -especially when mixed with oil- will stain clothing, hands, countertops and utensils, only fading slightly with repeated washing.

Bearing in mind The Doctrine of Signatures (the theory that a plant will “show” us its functions through its form), when we look at Turmeric’s bright yellow color, we may recall the sallow complexion of someone with liver problems presenting jaundice. Not surprisingly,
Curcuma longa effectively treats liver congestion, jaundice, and is often used to treat chronic Hepatitis. Turmeric increases the production of bile and improves gall bladder function; its effects are normalizing, mild and long-lasting. Taken in medicinal doses, it can be used to help flush the gall bladder of stones and sediment.

As a liver protector, Turmeric is also anti-inflammatory and can reduce pain associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis, as well as improve flexibility and circulation. Studies done in 1971 and 1991 show that
Curcuma longa has anti-inflammatory effects that surpass hydrocortisone. It is frequently used for migrating aches and inflammation that are exacerbated by cold and damp weather; in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Turmeric is combined with cinnamon twig and astragalus to effectively treat upper back and shoulder pain. For trauma and injury with or without swelling, or for chronic pain and inflammation, it can be taken internally or applied topically as a steam-distilled essence or when mixed with oil and made into a paste.

The strong anti-inflammatory benefits of
Curcuma longa also make it beneficial for the treatment of asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions exacerbated by inflammation. It can reduce the severity of purulent eruptions, canker and cold sores, and has a marked effect on fungal conditions such as Athlete’s Foot or parasitic infestations like ringworm. Turmeric can help treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, although frequent consumption can cause photosensitivity in some individuals. This is interesting, because it can occasionally be found as an ingredient in some sunscreens-go figure.

Because it can move blood so efficiently, Turmeric is also a great remedy for amenorrhea and other menstrual dysfunction associated with poor blood flow, or cramps that improve with warmth. Its circulatory effects on the uterus make it useful in the treatment of uterine masses, tumors, cysts and endometriosis, while its close cousin Curcuma zedoria has been undergoing studies for its success in treating certain cervical cancers. Using medicinal doses of Curcuma isn’t recommended during pregnancy, or when taking blood-thinning pharmaceuticals such as Cumadin.

Research done on
Curcuma longa more than thirty years ago confirmed the traditional uses of this slightly bitter, spicy and warm herbal remedy. It contains up to 5% volatile oils with compounds such as zingiberene, zingerone, cineole, borneol, curcumin, sabinene, phellandrene and turmerone. Studies conducted in 2002 showed some promise for the use of the compound ar-turmerone isolated from Curcuma longa for the treatment of leukemia, while clinical trials in 2005 were conducted by the National Institutes of Health to investigate the use of Turmeric for multiple myelomas, pancreatic and colorectal cancers as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

The volatile compounds in Turmeric are highly anti-oxidant, which is reason enough to research its effectiveness for the treatment of many cancers. It has been shown to be very immunosupportive, neutralizing harmful free radicals and has even proven to be more anti-oxidant than vitamin E. In 1995, studies site that Curcuma longa actually inhibits the replication of HIV-1, more research has shown it to be effective In Vitro against Staphylococcus and it is well known that Turmeric is also highly antibacterial. Because it regulates blood sugar so well, Herbalists also prescribe the remedy for the treatment of diabetes. As if that weren’t enough, Chinese clinical trials conducted in 1987 showed that
Curcuma longa lowers cholesterol; combined with its strength in circulating blood, that makes this a great choice for the treatment and prevention of heart disease.

As a flavorful addition to many traditional dishes, Turmeric not only enhances a recipe’s appeal to the taste buds, it also improves the digestibility of the meal. It can help improve the production of mucous in the stomach and reduce the problems associated with excess acid. It will soothe nausea and relieve abdominal pain and other symptoms of gastritis. The combination of Turmeric, cumin and coriander improves the digestion of complex carbohydrates and helps the body assimilate protein more efficiently. Dairy protein, especially milk, can be particularly difficult for children to absorb, but this problem can be alleviated with the addition of a small amount of Turmeric stirred in. It will also improve the digestibility of home-baked bread, when incorporated into the dough.

When it comes to purchasing Turmeric, a good health food store or your local herbalist will be able to provide you with a medicinal grade supplement in either pill or tincture form. For culinary use, buyer beware…find the best quality that you can –your herbalist can help you there too. Most herbs and spices available commercially today are irradiated, which compromises their medicinal benefits; there is even speculation that they may be harmful to your health. Inferior Turmeric powders can be acrid-tasting or worse: the spice can be mixed with rice powder to produce a cheaper product that brings more profit. Take into account that spices lose their flavor and volatile compounds with prolonged storage. After a year, much of the potency of powdered spices is diminished and after two years will be fairly useless. It is best to buy only small amounts at a time and replenish your stock yearly.

So, have fun experimenting with your food by incorporating this tasty and advantageous medicinal herb to your soups, stews, rice dishes, vegetables or potatoes. Cooking wholesome meals for you and your family that offer a variety of herbs and spices provide a spectrum of health benefits as well as the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your food is coming from. Sharing a home cooked meal around the dinner table with only the sounds of conversation and chewing to accompany the repast is a healthy tradition that many have lost…with any luck this will be one of the more happy outcomes of the collective belt-tightening we’re experiencing. From the ingredients we start with, to the herbs, spices and most importantly the LOVE we prepare it with, our food is our medicine.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
Please call 8 6 0 - 4 8 0 - 0 1 1 5 or email if you have any questions, would like to schedule an appointment, attend meditations, weed walks, or are interested in taking classes.


  1. beeeautiful lisl:) i learned quite a bit i didn't know about one of my favorite spices! i think i will follow your advise and try and find a source other than the grocery store. would love to have a piece of actual root to use:)i like the idea of adding a bit to bread dough also. should give it a bit of color i would imagine, besides for the reasons you mentioned:) you did it again, made my day with a wonderful article. thank you lisl:)

  2. Thanks Leslie! You made my day right back with your caring and sincerity. You know that piece of fresh root in the photo? Well, funny story:

    They always carry whole turmeric at Whole Foods Market,(or they used to anyway) and for this article when I originally submitted it to the magazine, I drove the 40 minutes out there to purchase some root for the photo (and to eat!).
    When I got there, no turmeric. I searched all around where the display basket had been full a few days before. Then I saw it. A teeny-tiny, wee, itty-bitty piece of root no bigger than my pinky nail. I pocketed it. (I KNOW!)
    That eeinsy-wiensy piece of turmeric is the one in the photo you see above along with some powder I had. That camera got a close up that really made me glad, and that turmeric root has a such bold personality that you'd never know how small a piece she was.

  3. Dear Lisl,

    Do you think the bulk turmeric powder available at Whole Foods Market would be irradiated? Thanks for the article!

  4. Hmmm.. it's hard to say. I think if it's organic it's more likely that it's not, but you never know. Your best bet is to contact the manufacturer directly.