Turmeric is a staple household spice used in many Indian homes and is best known as the yellow ingredient in curry dishes. This vibrant colored spice is used everyday in Southeast Asia to enhance food and to purify the skin. The women of India use it as a facial mask believing it nurtures a beautiful complexion. The bright yellow-orange color is used as a dye for many foods like American cheese and mustard. It can also be used in religious and sacred venues where it covers the sacred thread, Yajnopavita, worn by Brahmin in India. In addition to its many uses throughout the Indian culture, turmeric is also a potent herb that has been used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine for at least 4,000 years. This common household spice is greatly revered and has been used often due to its impressive medicinal properties.
Turmeric’s vast healing specialities are described in the 53 Sanskrit names given to it. In general, it is also known as ‘Haldi’ which comes from the Sanskrit word “haridra”and means yellow one. In fact, in many languages, it is translated as, yellow root. Yet, other names give credit to its many assets and compliment this well known spice using names like “Varvarnini” (Chosen One), “Kanchani” (Golden Goddess), “Mangalya” (Divine Gift) and “Pavitra” (Sacred). Prashanti de Jager explains that the turmeric name, “Aushadi” which simply means herb, is often used in the Vedas from thousands of years ago. He surmises that by constantly referring to turmeric as “herb”, may be evidence that they considered turmeric as, “Thee Herb”, the most outstanding herb, the one herb above all others.”  Interestingly, Marco Polo discovered turmeric in China in 1280 and referred to it as a poor man’s saffron. He missed the boat on this spice for it seems to be living up to another name, Indian Gold.
In Latin, and therefore in the botanical world, turmeric is called curcuma longa. It is a “rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family Zingiberaceae.”  India grows most of the turmeric plants in the world and consumes 80% of it. The South Indian state named, Tamil Nadu, is the world’s largest producer of turmeric and much trade occurs in the city, Erode. The key part of the plant is the rhizome which is the stem of the plant that grows underground in a dark, wet soil of tropical temperatures ranging between 20 degrees Celsius and 30 degrees Celsius. There is a main rhizome which branches off to smaller tubers. The root has rough skin which is divided into segments and has an orange interior. The rhizome is dried and then grounded to a powder to be used as a spice. The tubers can also be used raw and grated into food and drink. From a phytochemical analysis it seems the root consists of 70% carbohydrates, 8% protein, 4% minerals, 1% resin and 4-14% essential oils like the sesquiterpenes. Furthermore, there are also 3 alkaloidal curcumins: curcumin, Demethoxy-curcumin and Bisdemethoxycurcumin. Both the volatile oils and the curcuminoids have been isolated as the active factors of turmeric. Volatile oil, also knows as essential oil, is a “concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants.”  The components responsible for the aroma of turmeric are turmerone, ar-turmerone and zingiberene. According to de Jager, the essential oils from turmeric consist of a concentrated mix of rare and unique molecules and many have receptor sites in the neuro-endocrine area of the brain. They are responsible for lowering triglyceride levels, aiding in digestive and carminative issues and supporting the liver. Ar-Tumerone is an effective anti-venom source destroying the lethalness of the Pit Viper bite as well as an effective repellant against mosquitoes. Plus, turmeric oil has been found effective in removing sputum and preventing asthma. Despite the strong role the essential oils play in turmeric, it is the curcumin which offers the magic.
Many marvel at curcumin’s potency and efficiency and it works in many diverse ways. It is due to its triple threat actions as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer agent that has helped turmeric gain much attention in the modern medical world. Some believe it is as effective if not more effective than pharmaceutical drugs. Curcumin is a polyphenol, a group of compounds found in plant food that have antioxidant properties and give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors as well as their bitter and astringent aroma and flavor. Antioxidants are well known to protect our bodies from free radicals, also known as corrosive oxygen molecules. These corrosive oxygen molecules contribute to the deterioration or death of human cells. Plus, when these “effected” cells reproduce, they create a new generation of cells that are not as well functioning as the previous generation. Therefore we begin to age, or worse, we begin to create an environment susceptible to disease. Oxidative stress is “essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants.”  Curcumin may be one of the most powerful antioxidants. According to the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity scale which rates a food’s antioxidant levels, curcumin rates were over 1.5 million per 100 grams while blueberries, known for being a stong antioxidant food, received a 6,000 per 100 grams rating. As an antioxidant, curcumin is capable of fighting cancer cells, inhibiting angiogenesis(the growth of blood vessels that feed a tumor), combating free radicals, protecting the cardiovascular system, promoting brain health, supporting blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation.
Curcumin is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation, in general, is a healthy and necessary function of the human body to heal and repair. But inflammation in a chronic state, when the body’s immune system is overreacting, is when it can become harmful. Many chronic diseases are related to chronic inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and multiple sclerosis. Inflammation also plays a role in cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease. There has been much research on the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin and results have shown great efficacy on serious inflammatory diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and some cancers.