This Plant Profile is longer than usual for a few reasons:
One, turmeric is a polycrest herb, meaning it has multiple uses.
Two, the traditional and complete uses of turmeric have largely been lost as it has gained popularity in the inflammation supplement market in the US.
Lastly, much of the information available in the mainstream health food community is either incomplete or incorrect so I decided to write a longer monograph in the hope that it shows both the breadth and depth of this amazing plant. There is still more to share and this article will be revised as I further my own journey in working with Curcuma longa.
Turmeric has been riding the crest of an ever growing wave of popularity in the West for several years. Used for centuries in daily cooking in India, it has been marketed elsewhere as a near miracle cure for inflammation and consumers are told that more is better.
A major problem is its use has grown far beyond the borders of the herb community; it is currently being used by people who have little to no training or experience in the broader field of herbal medicine. This monograph is an attempt to separate fact from marketing hype by looking at both traditional Indian uses and modern research.
Curcuma longa (Zingiberaceae)
C. domestica refers to the same plant but is a less commonly used name.
This is the species used in daily life in India and in the herb community in the West.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses a potentially confusing group of Curcuma species. While there are many general similarities within these species, there are also clinically significant differences that can be overlooked without clear labeling.
The following comes from Subhuti Dharmananda, the director of the Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine:
-Jianghuang (meaning “yellow ginger”) is C. longa or C. domestica. Both names refer to the same plant. This is the turmeric used in commerce and in India.
TCM also uses other Curcuma spp. The Mandarin names are Yujin, Ezhu and Erhuang. Since these have different uses, they should not be used interchangably with C. longa. The species listed in reference sources are not consistent and can be C. zedoaria, C. kwangsinensis or C aromatica. An even newer species in use is C. viridiflora.
English – Turmeric
Hindi – Haldi
Sanskrit – Haridra
Mandarin – Jianghuang
A mixture of pungent, bitter and astringent
Warming, drying, light
It has an overall catabolic-reducing-detoxing effect on the body while stimulating movement of blood and chi.
While it is considered tridoshic, it is best for Kapha and can be used with some caution by Vata and Pitta.
Benefits of Using Turmeric
The primary reason this rhizome has become so popular in the west in recent years is its effectiveness in reducing systemic and localized inflammation. The legion of loyal consumers testifies to its success.
The major issue with this is people thinking it is a miracle cure and expecting it to resolve the inflammation and associated pain without making needed changes to diet and lifestyle. Like any herb, turmeric works best when it is part of a larger protocol. For long term benefit, this specifically means addressing diet-caused gut inflammation and adding healthy fats and flavonoids to the diet.
Turmeric, either the whole rhizome or the extract, can be used to modulate acute inflammation from trauma or for beginning a protocol to address chronic inflammation.
Turmeric is often combined with Ginger or Boswellic Acid for inflammation.
Its warming and drying qualities make it useful for increasing the digestive fire and reducing ama. This makes it especially good for Kapha.
Warms and stimulates liver function and increases bile flow. Its effect on the liver can also be seen in its affect on the skin; it helps to clear eczema, psoriasis and acne.
In TCM, the liver controls the sinews (tendons and ligaments). Yogis use the liver-nurturing quality of turmeric to support flexibility when doing asanas.
Turmeric supports Phase I & II liver detox. Combine turmeric with Milk Thistle and Schizandra to support this process.
Turmeric has a cleansing quality to the blood that works to reduce the Kapha excess that causes high cholesterol and artherosclerosis.
Its blood moving quality makes it helpful in healing sprains, pain and any type of blood stagnation such as bruises. It can be used topically for this as a poultice. Be careful as it stains readily.
It is considered an overall beneficial herb for heart health. It can be combined with Hawthorn and flavonoids for this.
Its antioxidant property contributes to both the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer affects. While it is most certainly not a magical “cancer cure”, integrating it into one’s diet and daily use promotes health. Research shows it is specifically active against bowel cancer and many people believe its daily use in Indian curries is one of the reasons for India’s low rate of this type of cancer.
Anti-oxidants have broad ranging health promoting effects and integrating anti-oxidant rich foods into one’s diet is a superb way to promote health.
Turmeric has a long history of use as an anti – bacterial+viral+fungal but I have no experience with it in these roles.
Weak digestion and high Kapha contribute to excess dampness in the lungs. Turmeric strengthens the digestive Fire (agni) and reduces Kapha. Combining turmeric with Ginger and Black Pepper supports both the inflammation response and strong digestion.
Turmeric has a long standing reputation to assist in normalizing high blood sugar levels and is traditionally used in Ayurveda for Prameha (diabetes). Exactly how it works is unclear. This is another example of reducing excess Kapha.
There is some research that shows turmeric to be supportive of cognitive function. The possible mechanisms are as an anti-inflammatory or anti-oxidant. This is promising but more research needs to be done before claiming it as a major brain supplement.
In Mandarin it is Jiang Huang (Yellow Ginger).
Its primary uses are for:
“Invigorating the blood” which means increasing circulation. This is especially helpful for trauma-caused swelling or pain caused by blood stagnation.
“Moves the qi and eliminates the pain” which means it is helpful for pain caused by qi stagnation or a lack of the overall Flow in the body.
In TCM, qi provides the energy for blood to circulate while blood carries the qi to various organ systems and meridians. Qi and blood stagnation often go together in TCM.
Ways to Prepare Turmeric
The best long term way to use this rhizome is in the daily diet. It is best when cooked with fat. In India, it is often used with ghee although coconut oil also works well. Minced or grated, the fresh root can be added to stir fries and hearty stews. It should not be eaten raw as it is considered too heating and is hard to digest. The powdered herb sold in stores has already been boiled as part of its processing.
Turmeric is more thoroughly assimilated into the body when taken with a small amount of black pepper (some sources claim that ginger or pippali long pepper have the same effect). If using fresh turmeric in cooking, simply grate some pepper into the dish. If using the more common dried turmeric powder, add 5% black pepper into the powder and mix well then add to the meal. To make the math easy, this is about 1 tsp of fresh ground black pepper in each ½ C of turmeric powder.
Remember that black pepper quickly loses its therapeutic value once it is ground; the spice found in most pepper shakers on dinner tables in America is therapeutically inert. It is worth the effort to use a grinder and prepare smaller quantities.
Another traditional use of the dried powder is to make a paste, then add a spoonful of the paste to warmed whole fat milk. This is an excellent way to prepare turmeric for two reasons. One, the cool, moistening, heavy energy of milk balances the warm, dry, light energy of turmeric. Two, the fat in milk follows the traditional way to ingest turmeric.
Recipe for Turmeric Paste & Golden Milk
To make the paste:
Simmer ¼ cup turmeric powder in 1 cup water while slowly stirring. Continue until this becomes a thick paste, similar to peanut butter in consistency. The ratio of 1:4 turmeric:water is a common ratio although a slight variance isn’t harmful.
When it has cooled, stir in 1 tsp of fresh ground black pepper. It is important to use black pepper that is fresh ground and to add it after the heat. Both heat and air degrade the aromatic quality of ground pepper.
Next, stir in a spoonful of ghee or unrefined coconut oil. Mix everything together well.
This paste will keep for about 10 days in the refrigerator. Like any leftover, it eventually loses its zing. If using turmeric as part of the daily routine, this amount of paste will be used up before it turns bad.
The paste is easier to use than the powder and there are many possibilities. One way is to spread it on crackers.
To Make Golden Milk
Add ½ – 1 tsp of turmeric paste to 8 oz whole milk (the fat content of whole milk is important). Heat until just before a boil and let cool a few minutes, then sip and enjoy.
Other herbs can be added; ginger, cinnamon and cardamom are common.
Take as a extract in capsule form. There are differing views on the extract. I think it is best as a short term acute approach – using it to begin work on chronic inflammation or an acute injury. Some products combine the curcumin extract with Boswellic Acid or Ginger which are both helpful for inflammation.
Mix the powder into yogurt, hummus or applesauce or make the paste as described above.
Tincture or Tea (Alcohol & Water Extracts)
The chemistry of turmeric shows it is not fully extracted in alcohol. Yet some Western herbalists have had good success with combining the fresh root of turemric with Yerba Manza in tincture form for inflammation and other herbalists tincture turmeric powder with good results.
This formula is prepared as a powder to be added to food to improve digestion. In Ayurveda, this is known as a Churna. This specific formula is warming and drying and works to reduce Kapha. It has all six flavors with an emphasis on pungency. It is delicious sprinkled on egg dishes or added to stir fries.
2 parts Ginger
2 parts Black Pepper
2 parts Turmeric
1 part Coriander
1 part Cumin
1 part Sweet Paprika
½ part Salt
⅔ part Raw Sugar
1 part Dried Mango Powder (Known as Amchoor and available at www.thespicehouse.com)
Turmeric is best extracted in fat (although the antioxidant Turmerin is water soluble) which is why it is used in cooking and the Golden Milk recipe.
Some of the key constituents, such as the curcuminoids, are not water soluble so turmeric is not traditionally used in tea or alcohol extracts. Both these products are available in the West. While there may be some therapeutic value in these forms, they are not optimal from a traditional Indian or chemistry perspective.
In addition to the well known curcumins, the turmeric rhizome is 70% carbohydrate, 7% protein, 4-14% essential oils and 1% resin.
Sesquiterpene is part of its essential oil content. This chemical category is well researched and well known in the essential oil community as a reliable anti-inflammatory.
Whole Root v. Curcuminoid Extract
A controversial topic for sure.
The retail supplement market in the US promotes various forms of concentrated super-charged extracts of various herbs. These are held out as being more scientific, modern and effective than the old fashioned approach of using the whole herb. My personal view is that these are offered (and purchased) because these capsules are similar to modern pharmaceuticals in both looks and use.
There are three curcuminoids (-oids means “a group of”) in turmeric. These are: Curcumin, Demethoxy-curcumin and Bisdemethoxy-curcumin. Curcumin is the pigment in turmeric. These three make up 3-5% of the whole rhizome. They make up 95% of the standardized extract.
Research shows the standardized extract to be effective for inflammation. Clinical use in western herbalism shows the whole rhizome to also be effective.
In the modern supplement industry, the whole rhizome has been reduced to a concentrated extract which has been reduced therapeutically to only an anti-inflammatory supplement. There are literally hundreds of chemical constituents in the turmeric rhizome. The activities of these constituents are both wide ranging and effective in their therapeutics. The case for using the whole rhizome asks why would we want to take away 95-97% of turmeric’s chemistry and therapeutic value?
In both India and traditional Western herbalism, the use of the whole plant is preferred over plant concentrates or standardized extracts. This is where the wholeness of ‘holistic’ healing comes from.
My personal opinion is to incorporate the fresh root or powder of turmeric into the diet…
and take a supplement, at least initially when starting herbal use for inflammation, heart or liver health. The supplement may not be needed long term. Consider gradually reducing its use after a month if other diet, herb and lifestyle approaches have begun.
The final decision is up to the user. Some people are more comfortable taking the capsules of extract and that may be the only way they will use this herb.
Many people use it allopathically for inflammation and think more is better. It is important to consider the energetics of the person, herb and imbalance. While its drying and reducing qualities make it beneficial for excess Kapha, it can increase Vata and damage Yin. Yin is especially difficult to rebuild. Using it in Golden Milk, with ghee and/or adding licorice or a mucilaginous herb such as marshmallow helps to balance its energy for Vata.
Its heating quality means it must be used with awareness by Pitta people. Pitta dominant people can add cooling herbs such as fennel, rose or coriander to balance its heating effects or use it in Golden Milk.
Due to its stimulating action on the liver and gall bladder, do not use if gallstones are present or with acute hepatitis or jaundice.
Due to its blood moving quality, do not use therapeutic doses during pregnancy.
Due to its blood thinning and moving quality, combining its use with pharmaceutical blood thinners (Warfarin) should be closely monitored.
“Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice” by Sebastian Pole
“Turmeric: The Ayurvedic Spice of Life” by Prashanti de Jager
“Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica” by Dan Bensky and Andrew Gamble
“The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad