The Healing Plant

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Rita Mistry uses turmeric in cooking and to give her skin a natural glow.
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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.”

A History of Health Benefits

A perennial shrub native to southern Asia, turmeric is cultivated extensively in all parts of India, the country that produces most of the world’s supply. A member of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), turmeric grows as ginger does, by branching rhizomes. The vivid orange fresh root is used in Thai cooking, much like fresh ginger. After turmeric root is dried and ground, it mellows to the distinctive yellow powder that Indian cooks favor.

Not surprisingly for such a colorful herb, turmeric is known for its striking hue. The word turmeric derives from the Latin terra merita, or “meritorious earth,” thought to be due to its resemblance to ochre pigments. Its use as a colorant is reflected in the common name for it in English, “Indian saffron.” And the Chinese name for it, jianghuang, literally means “yellow ginger.”

The same polyphenol (curcumin) that gives turmeric its bright color also makes it a powerful healer. On his website, Dr. Andrew Weil recommends turmeric “for all inflammatory disorders and for autoimmune conditions, including multiple sclerosis.”

In the body, inflammation usually equals pain. Reducing inflammation could help millions of those beset by inflammatory ailments such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is characterized by poor digestion, stomach pain, diarrhea and/or constipation, and chronic recurrent ulceration of the bowel. The National Institutes of Health estimates that some 2 million Americans suffer from this painful disorder.

A study carried out in two Vancouver hospitals in 2003 proved that curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) decreases inflammation in the bowel. While curcumin’s role in the attenuation of colonic cancer in animal models already has been established, the new research proved that curcumin improves functioning of intestinal cells in animals suffering from IBD. The researchers concluded that curcumin “may prove to be a cheap, well-tolerated and effective therapy for inflammatory bowel disease.”

Joints Favor Curry

Last year, experts from Bristol, England, suggested that eating Indian curry was a good way for arthritis sufferers to get some curcumin into the system.

But is it really possible to eat enough turmeric to affect one’s health? “Absolutely, yes,” Aggarwal says. “There is plenty of data to support this. Indian people have fewer autoimmune diseases, including arthritis. They also have less cancer. Turmeric contains 5 percent curcumin. An average Indian consumes 100 to 200 milligrams of curcumin daily in his diet. This amount is sufficient as a preventive agent for most routine ailments.”

It is true that Indians suffer less from rheumatoid arthritis than other populations. Arthritis affects 0.5 to 1 percent of the adult population in India. According to the Arthritis Foundation, one in three Americans (70 million people) suffers from arthritis or “chronic joint symptoms.” In a 2000 Epidemiology of the Rheumatic Diseases study, researchers note that “people of Indian and African-Caribbean origin have a lower prevalence of osteoarthritis [of the] hip than people of European-Caucasian origin.” It is possible that this is due to eating plenty of turmeric-laden curry.

Good for the Skin, and Beyond

Mistry can vouch for turmeric’s benefits to the skin. She mixes a mean facial mask with turmeric, honey and sea salt. As she prepared for her recent wedding, she discovered another traditional use for the herb.

In the Hindu religion, before a bride and groom can marry, they must both undergo the Pithi Dastoor ceremony, a purification ritual necessary before their souls can be joined. The couple is prepared in their separate homes by the women in the family, by having a paste of turmeric, sandalwood and rosewater applied to their skin. Then they must stay indoors for one to five days (one, three or five; it has to be an odd number or it’s unlucky); until the day of the wedding.

The properties of the herb purify the skin and tone it, and its warm color gives the skin a glow. But in a spiritual sense, it is believed, the turmeric also is working to purify the couple, to make them ready for the sacred task ahead of them. “Don’t worry: I got to remove it before the wedding,” Mistry says with a smile. And as we can see from her photo, it made her absolutely gorgeous. 8

Nancy Allison is a freelance health and garden writer currently living in England. She is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.

The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Turmeric,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at

Makes 4 servings

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon poppy seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 to 5 medium potatoes, diced small
11/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
11/4 teaspoons red masala
11/4 teaspoons mixed fresh ginger, garlic and fresh green chiles
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
Fresh cilantro, for garnish

In a large pan, heat vegetable oil and cook poppy and cumin seeds on low until they crackle. Add potatoes and coat with oil and seeds. Let cook 1 minute. Sprinkle in spices and stir. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with cilantro.

Makes 4 servings

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seed
2-inch piece fresh ginger, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 onion, sliced
1 green chile, such as bird’s eye, finely minced
11/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ground coriander
11/2 pounds of your choice of mixed vegetables, sliced (try eggplant, cauliflower, carrots, beans, peppers and okra)
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces coconut milk
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add mustard seeds, ginger and garlic, and sauté until the seeds pop, about 1 minute. Don’t let the garlic get too brown — keep stirring. Add onion and green chile, then reduce heat to medium-low and sauté gently until onions are golden.

Add turmeric and coriander and cook for about 1 minute. Then add vegetables, mixing them well with the spices. Add salt and coconut milk. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Serve over basmati rice and garnish with cilantro.

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