Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a perennial flowering plant in the ginger family grown mostly in South Asia. It is as common in that region of the world as salt and pepper is to us, but in North America, the use of turmeric is still fairly rare. In addition to its rich golden color, turmeric has a pungent, spicy aroma and flavor. Over the past several years, there has been increasing interest in the medicinal properties of turmeric.1 Since 2004, sales of the supplement form have increased 35%.2 Turmeric has long been used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory, to treat digestive disorders and liver problems, and for the treatment of skin diseases and wound healing.1

Background

The title of a 2005 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Indian Spice May Ward Off Disease—Turmeric, an Antioxidant, Is Studied for Use in Fight Against Cancer, Alzheimer’s,” accurately describes the optimism surrounding this herb’s medicinal potential.3 With studies currently under way evaluating its efficacy in treating everything from skin diseases to cancer, turmeric seems to have limitless potential.

Turmeric, also known as Indian saffron, is a plant that grows with rhizomes, thick, tuberous underground structures that give root to additional plants.2 These rhizomes are harvested annually. After cleaning, they are boiled for several hours and then dried in ovens.2 The baked tubers are ground into a deep golden orange powder and processed for further use.2 Those uses cover a wide range.

Before the herbal supplement business assumed such a large role in turmeric use, it was mostly used as a key component in all the dishes commonly lumped under the category of “curry.” Because of its deep rich color, turmeric is also used quite extensively as a dye for fabrics and other materials.4

Science

Turmeric contains up to 5% essential oils and up to 3% curcumin, a polyphenol.2 Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is also known as C.I. 75300 or Natural Yellow 3.2 Turmeric is on Germany’s Commission E (the equivalent of the FDA) list of approved herbs.5 The herb’s active chemical components are known to limit the activity of several substances, including two enzymes (cyclooxygenase-2 and lipoxygenase) involved in promoting and maintaining inflammation.4 Turmeric also has been shown to inhibit tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α.6 Any chemical that can block or mitigate the action and potency of these two enzymes will subsequently also reduce inflammation and the pain response associated with them.,sup>4 The TNF-&alpga; inhibitory action has also led to numerous studies exploring the potential anticancer effects of this herb.6

According to a review article published by researchers from The Ohio State University in Columbus, curcumin demonstrated anticancer effects at virtually all stages of tumor development in rodents.5 Curcumin showed potential to kill cancer cells and prevent normal cells from becoming cancerous. Additional animal studies from France and the United Kingdom support these findings.5

Uses

Purported therapeutic uses of turmeric range from topical pastes to oral preparations, depending on the ailment targeted. Such conditions as psoriasis and eczema have improved with the application of a thick paste made from turmeric.5 Another common use of this herb is as an oral powder-filled capsule to soothe symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.6 Many other uses may be validated in the future as the findings of current studies begin to be published. Studies are under way to explore the potential use of turmeric in treating and preventing such diseases as Alzheimer’s dementia, hyperlipidemia, hepatitis, and even HIV.5

Safety, drug interactions

Turmeric may potentiate warfarin and other anti-platelet medications, as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.6 Persons with cholelithiasis should avoid this herb, as it may worsen the condition.7 Turmeric should not be used in medicinally therapeutic doses in pregnant or lactating women.6 Curcumin has been shown to potentiate the effects of paclitaxel (Taxol) in preventing the metastasis of breast cancer.2

Extended or excessive use of curcumin may produce stomach upset and, in extreme cases, ulcers. Turmeric should not be taken by patients who have gallstones or obstruction of the bile passages without explicit direction from a qualified practitioner.1

Cost

Cost is variable depending on the concentration and purity of the product. Typical therapeutic doses range in cost from $10-$20 per month and are widely available.

How supplied, dose, and side effects

Turmeric is available as powder in capsules or tablets and in tincture form.5 The usual therapeutic dose is 400-600 mg of powder t.i.d., standardized to the curcumin content (although some find it easier to just use a teaspoon of the spice with each meal).5,6 The powder can be made into a paste or ointment, depending on the base used, and applied directly to the skin. The primary side effect of turmeric use (GI upset) occurs when oral doses exceed the normal recommended amount for several days.6 Individuals who are allergic to ginger or yellow food colorings are more likely to be allergic to turmeric.5

Summary

Few things are better than an effective medicine that tastes good too. While much is yet to be proven, the early data seem to indicate that eating a diet high in turmeric may well prevent everything from arthritis to cancer. Side effects are nearly nonexistent, and the herb is readily available and reasonably priced. When planning your next meal, go for the gold.

References

1. University of Maryland Medical Center. Turmeric. Available at www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/turmeric000277.htm. Accessed June 5, 2008.

2. Wikipedia. Turmeric. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turmeric. Accessed June 5, 2008.

3. Lewis C. Indian Spice May Ward Off Disease. The Wall Street Journal. August 30, 2005:D5.

4. Drug Digest. Turmeric. Available at . Accessed June 5, 2008.

5. American Cancer Society. Turmeric. Available at http://www .cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Turmeric.asp. Accessed June 5, 2008.

6. Skidmore RL. Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs & Supplements. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo.: Elsevier Mosby; 2006:975.

7. National Center for Alternative and Complimentary Medicine. Turmeric. Available at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/turmeric . Accessed June 5, 2008.