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Turmeric: The Mellow Yellow Healing Herb
by Manny Frishberg
Turmeric is something of a mystery since the jars of yellow powder are not found on most American supermarket shelves. The peppery, mustard-like spice is not only a staple in every Indian kitchen, but also in most medicine chests. It is so highly prized for its health-giving properties that many families would not consider serving a meal that does not include it.
Turmeric is just one of the several hundred herbs and vegetables prescribed in the Indian healing tradition known as Ayurveda. While the earliest surviving written texts were penned more than 2,000 years ago, oral traditions date back some 50 centuries to the time of the Indian God, Krisna. Among the oldest texts is the Sushruta Samhita, which was written by the surgeon, Sushruta. The 184 chapters recommend 700 medicinal plants, 64 mineral preparations, as well as 57 remedies from animal sources, from milk to bone meal, to treat 1,120 illnesses.
Turmeric has dozens of uses in the traditional Indian healing art. According to the traditional texts, turmeric can be used to treat ailments of the skin, heart, liver and lungs. It was prescribed for epilepsy and bleeding disorders, skin diseases, anemia, cancer, diabetes, food poisoning, gallstones, indigestion, parasites, poor circulation, infections and to purify the body and mind. It is also prized for its painkiller, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and fever reducing properties.
The yellow herb is also used to treat tumors, allergies and spasms. It can also be prescribed as a stimulant, diuretic or to promote cardiovascular and digestive health. The seemingly endless list of benefits even includes reproductive health by purifying breast milk and increasing semen production.
As a founding member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, Dr. Light Miller has personally witnessed the essential role turmeric has played in the recovery and optimization of health in countless patients during the 35 years he has been teaching and practicing in Sarasota, Florida. “Turmeric has been a primary botanical that I have used in the successful treatment of arthritic joints, pain management for cancer and AIDS patients, lowering cholesterol and liver disease to reduce jaundice and inflammation. Used in an ongoing basis, turmeric has also been an essential component in the diet of clients who have arrested early signs of dementia.”
“It is applied as a paste for facials and body lotions in beauty clinics, as well as used as a healing painkiller in rural India in case of a fracture or dislocation,” writes Sandip Sen, a professor at the University of Tulsa, in an article on the healing properties of turmeric. “Such is the magic of turmeric in the Orient that all cosmetic majors, like Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and Garnier, have turmeric-based beauty products targeting India’s billions.”
As a result, turmeric is recommended as the single best herb to have if a person had to choose only one. In order to really understand how it is used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, one must first understand the principle of the three doshas (physical and personality types). People who have a Vata dosha are usually very thin and have a naturally high metabolic rate, which exudes energy. Those with a Pitta dosha tend to be very warm, both in their personalities and in their bodies, while people with a Kapha dosha are likely to be heavy-set and slow moving.
Illness, in the Ayurvedic tradition, results from the doshas being out of balance. Turmeric is used most often to correct a Kapha imbalance, which may be the cause of weight gain and fatigue. As a stimulating, warming herb, turmeric is believed to help reduce Kapha, restoring Vata and Pitta to healthy levels.
Another aspect of the Ayurvedic understanding of disease has to do with the blocking of channels, similar to the Chinese concept of chi. The lack of healthy channels - tubes that exist within the body and transport fluids from one point to another - may lead to disease and insanity. Turmeric is often combined with other warming herbs, such as ginger, to treat such illnesses.
According to Ayurveda and You, turmeric has hundreds of chemical constituents that contain a number of biological effects, including at least 20 antibiotic molecules, 14 of which are believed to help prevent cancer. An additional 12 are considered anti-inflammatory agents and at least 10 are used as antioxidants.
The most widely researched alkaloids found in turmeric are the curcuminoids: curcumin, demethoxy-curcumin and bisdemethoxy-curcumin. Most research has been done with highly purified curcuminoid extracts, although they make up just three to five percent of the fresh root. The National Institutes of Health reports that research shows turmeric and its constituent element, curcumin, have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. That helps support some of the claims made by Ayurvedic practitioners, although not a great deal of clinical research has been done with human subjects.
Still, modern practitioners, both in the East and West, have found a good deal of science to back up the traditional uses for the herb. Andrew Brandeis, a naturopathic physician in Bellingham, Washington, says he uses a variety of healing systems, such as Botanical Medicine, which includes Ayurvedic herbs, nutritional counseling, water therapy and physical manipulation, to treat patients. He says he prefers using herbs and other botanical remedies before going to pharmaceuticals for a number of reasons.
For one, like most of the other herbs he prescribes, turmeric has virtually no harmful side effects. If a person accidentally consumes too much, they may suffer from diarrhea, but nothing that will cause serious health problems. “That’s why I prefer to use herbs before I go to the stronger pharmaceuticals.”
Cost is another considerable factor since many of Brandeis’ patients lack adequate health insurance. “One of my favorite things about it,” he says, “is you can just go to the store and buy it as a bulk herb and put it into everything. It costs next to nothing.”
Its many healing properties is another reason Brandeis finds the herb useful. “It’s really good for reducing inflammation in the joints caused by arthritis and for non-localized inflammation,” he says. “I also love to use it for liver support. Say a person has been an alcoholic or has been on pharmaceuticals for a while or they were exposed to pesticides - say they worked on a farm. There are a lot of reasons why the liver can be distressed. The liver is the filter for the blood. It is where toxins are turned from fat-soluble to water-soluble so your body can excrete them. So, your liver can be under a lot of stress. Turmeric, along with some other herbs, is really, really good for liver health. It helps the hepataccytes, which are the liver cells, actually regenerate. It helps them to detoxify. It’s a great herb for that.”
Still another use for turmeric that is gaining converts in the West is as an antifungal for infections with candida, the organism responsible for yeast infections in women. Dr. Brandeis says he prescribes turmeric in cases of systemic candida as the first line of defense.
“Studies have shown turmeric to be just as effective as [the commonly prescribed] Diflucan to treat fungal infections,” Brandeis claims. “The reason I prefer to use turmeric is a lot of people have some nasty side effects to pharmaceutical antifungal agents because they also wipe out your own intestinal flora. Turmeric doesn’t do that, so it’s like a selective antifungal agent.”
“My goal is to find and treat the cause of illness, not just treat symptoms with drugs. Turmeric actually helps the body fix the condition, to literally heal itself,” Brandeis explains. “An anti-inflammatory drug doesn’t do that - it just reduces inflammation. Turmeric has so many chemical components to it that it can do a myriad of things, including healing the body, as opposed to just curing a particular symptom. Natural medicine can have a huge impact, not just on our individual health, but also on the health of our families, our communities and our planet.”
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