Turmeric – A Pharmacy in a Glass
There’s a lot of buzz these days about turmeric (Curcuma longa). This pungent orange rhizome, locally known as kunyit, is a common backyard culinary herb in Bali. It’s been widely claimed that curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric, can cure everything from depression to cancer. The anecdotal evidence has been sufficient to convince medical researchers around the world to explore its healing properties.
In Indonesia, where 40% of the population earn under $2 a day and there is only one doctor per 5,000 people, traditional herbal remedies are still widely used. Turmeric has been used as an anti-inflammatory in India and China for thousands of years. It’s been a traditional remedy in Java (where it may have arrived via early Indian traders) as the tonic drink jamu, which many Indonesians and savvy foreigners knock back daily.
I’ve been a big fan of jamu for over 20 years now. I try to take a shot every day. Wayan Manis makes an extra strong batch if I’m not well. Even when I already feel good, I swear it makes me feel better. Its earthy flavour can be an acquired taste, granted, but it becomes addictive. I rub a piece of cut turmeric on scratches, cuts and insect bites to prevent infection and use the dried powder mixed with aloe gel on all kinds of human and canine skin conditions, usually with rapid results.
Turmeric extract contains powerful antioxidants which can help boost the body’s immune system and protect against all kinds of illness and disease. Wherever turmeric grows, local wisdom honours it as a potent medicine that strengthens the liver, purifies the blood, improves circulation, aids digestion, protects the body against intestinal parasites and acts as a general tonic. The darker the colour of the root, the better the quality.
Turmeric’s cousins are also traditional remedies in Bali. Kencur grows flat against the ground and has a pretty mauve and white flower. Ground up with rice, it’s used as a poultice for everything from sprains to fever. It feels cool going on, then heats up amazingly on the skin. Culinary ginger root is used internally. Taken as a tea it settles nausea and promotes digestion. This is a great remedy for morning sickness and also assists in the discomfort of eating too many beans.
Evidence of turmeric’s healing ability is not just anecdotal. Research on turmeric is vast; one source claims the herb has been the subject of over 5,600 peer-reviewed and published biomedical studies. I’ll cite just a handful here to give an indication of the level of interest medical researchers are taking in this humble root. It’s been five years since I last wrote about turmeric. In that time international research on its healing properties has largely moved on from test tube and animal trials to human trials. Contact me if you’d like the links to the hard science.
According to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic illnesses.
Water-distilled volatile essential oil of turmeric was found effective against the fungal infection tinea (ringworm) by researchers at Mahidol University in Thailand, which has a faculty that conducts research on traditional Thai herbal medicines. Another Thai study showed that turmeric extract was comparable to Ibuprofen in treating knee osteoarthritis symptoms.
Much research has been done on curcumin’s anti- inflammatory properties for rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis. The article ‘Anti-inflammatory Properties of Curcumin’, published in the Alternative Medicine Review Volume 14, Number 2 2009, states, “Curcumin’s diverse array of molecular targets affords it great potential as a therapeutic agent for a variety of inflammatory conditions and cancer types. Consequently, there is extensive interest in its therapeutic potential as evidenced by the number of ongoing phase II and III clinical trials. The primary obstacle to utilizing curcumin therapeutically has been its limited systemic bioavailability, but researchers are actively investigating a number of different curcumin compounds and analogs that may be more effective and better absorbed. Results from completed clinical trials are encouraging and trials currently being conducted for both inflammatory conditions and cancer should clarify curcumin’s value as a therapeutic agent and confirm some of the mechanisms responsible for its efficacy.”
Much research has been undertaken for cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, “A number of laboratory studies on cancer cells have shown that curcumin does have anticancer effects. It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing. It has the best effects on breast, bowel, stomach and skin cancer cells. A 2007 American study that combined curcumin with chemotherapy to treat bowel cancer cells in a laboratory showed that the combined treatment killed more cancer cells than the chemotherapy alone. A 2007 American study in mice seemed to show that curcumin helped to stop the spread of breast cancer cells to other parts of the body.”
And the American Cancer Society states that, “Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, is an antioxidant. Laboratory studies have also shown that curcumin interferes with several important molecular pathways involved in cancer development, growth, and spread. Researchers have reported that curcumin inhibited the formation of cancer-causing enzymes in rodents.”
Test tube and animal studies have been promising for a number of illnesses, but clinical trials on humans are challenging because of curcumin’s apparent low bioavailability when taken orally; the active element shows only low concentrations in the blood and tissue. Now experiments are underway to “…design and develop nanoscale delivery systems of curcumin and scientists have developed injectable, fat soluble forms of curcumin which may improve the results.” Actually the results seem to be just fine, the scientist just need to know why. Although blind human trials suggest that oral curcumin administration may not effectively deliver curcumin to tissues outside the gastrointestinal tract, many patients experienced improvement after treatment with curcumin even though it was not detected in the body. It occurs to me that perhaps it transforms from curcumin into another compound within the body? Something is certainly working, even if frustrated scientists can’t find it! Bioavailability,indeed.
Toxicity studies show that turmeric is not harmful even in high doses over long periods of time (up to 8 grams/day for three months in humans). It’s clearly got something going for it because there was an attempt to patent turmeric about 20 years ago. A patent for turmeric was granted in the US in March 1995 to two non-resident Indians associated with the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, Jackson, USA for the use of turmeric in wound healing. It was revoked on the grounds of lacking the novelty requirement. Nice try, guys. Can you imagine the outrage among the grannies of Java and Bali if anyone tried to prevent them from harvesting their own kunyit? How could any authority control it anyway? It grows like a weed. Toss a piece of turmeric root into the garden and stand back; it flourishes in sun or shade and is tolerant of poor soils, although it does better in rich ones.
As science struggles to define exactly what it does, millions of people continue to use turmeric for its healing properties because they know it’s effective. Maybe it works on a dimension science just can’t measure yet. I’m fine with that. I rather like it.
Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle
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