The Healing Plant

Therapeutic and tasty, turmeric has been part of the human diet and medicine cabinet for centuries.

| September/October 2004

  • Rita Mistry uses turmeric in cooking and to give her skin a natural glow.
    Photo courtesy of Amanda Chew

When Rita Mistry woke up on her wedding day, her skin was buttercup yellow and she wasn’t a bit surprised. Vivid yellow skin is only to be expected when you’ve been covered in turmeric paste for nearly a week.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a spice Mistry knows well. Born in England to Indian parents, she says the dried, ground yellow root is indispensable to Indian cooking. “We use turmeric in every curry we make,” she says. “It gives a lovely color and flavor to samosas, bhaji and biryani. You’ll find it in almost any Indian dish you can name.”

Mistry, who now lives in Rugby, England, also is familiar with turmeric as a home remedy for abrasions and insect bites or stings. “Mum was always running for the turmeric when we were little,” she says.

Mistry’s mum knows her rhizomes. First mentioned in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, turmeric has been used topically for the treatment of wounds, ulcers, eczema and inflammations for thousands of years. Taken internally to treat dyspepsia and dysentery, turmeric also is known as a blood purifier and as an aid to treat arthritis, jaundice and other liver problems. The herb is just as well known in Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditional medicine for the relief of pain, indigestion and skin ailments.

A Well-Researched Herb

In the West, we have understood turmeric’s benefits only lately, says Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, distinguished professor of cancer research at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. It often takes someone from the East to help the West discover natural healing. When asked what prompted his research into the herb, Aggarwal said, “Turmeric is described as an anti-inflammatory in Ayurveda. Because most diseases, such as cancer, heart attack, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, psoriasis and autoimmune diseases, are pro-inflammatory diseases, turmeric should thus fight against them.”

Does current research bear out the traditional knowledge of Ayurveda? “Curcumin, a polyphenol derived from turmeric, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent,” Aggarwal says. “Extensive research over the last 50 years has indicated this polyphenol can both prevent and treat cancer. Evidence also has been presented to suggest that curcumin can suppress tumor initiation, promotion and metastasis. All of these studies suggest that curcumin has enormous potential in the prevention and therapy of cancer.”

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