Turmeric, which many of us know primarily as a golden-yellow spice found in powdered form on the grocery store shelf, is technically a vegetable, the bulbous rhizome or root of the Curcuma longa plant. The turmeric plant, a relative of ginger, is native to Southern Asia. Turmeric has been used by a number of different human cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as a food, medicine, spice, and coloring agent for centuries. Turmeric root is so well established as an essential source of nutrition and health that in some cultures, it is even used in religious rituals. In India in particular, turmeric has a 4,000-year history of use as both food and medicine.
In its common dried and powdered form, it is the primary ingredient in Indian curry. But turmeric also has a storied history in Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine as a potent treatment for a wide array of ailments. Turmeric root–whether consumed raw, cooked, or used via powders, poultices, tinctures, and other extracts–has been employed to treat everything from digestive disorders and cardiovascular ailments, to burns and wounds, to certain cancers. In Western scientific medical terms, its potent combination of bioactive compounds is known to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial properties, as well as to aid in digestion, improve circulation, and even to inhibit the growth of some types of cancer cells.
The most important bioactive compounds in turmeric are volatile oils, curcumin, and related compounds called curcuminoids. Curcumin is considered the primary active ingredient for many medicinal purposes. Test tube and animal studies indicate that curcumin has many beneficial effects, such as lowering cholesterol production, preventing the buildup of “bad” cholesterol in arteries, and preventing or treating several types of cancer, including prostate, breast, skin, and colon cancers. Studies in humans demonstrate its clear efficacy, long known to traditional healers, in treating digestive disorders ranging from indigestion and excessive gas, to ulcerative colitis. Along with its general anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin stimulates the gall bladder, increasing bile production and thereby aiding digestion.
Turmeric root has no known side effects and few, if any, drug interaction concerns. Some sources recommend consulting with a physician before ingesting turmeric for medicinal purposes if you are taking prescription doses of certain diabetes, blood-thinning, or stomach acid reducing drugs. But Germany’s herbal regulatoray agency, Commission E, lists no such interactions, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled turmeric and curcumin both to be “generally regarded as safe.” Whether you are interested in turmeric as a treatment for a specific ailment, or as a dietary supplement for overall health and preventive medicinal purposes, four thousand years of holistic practice and several decades of strong science support reaching for some version of this humble, gentle, and healthful vegetable to help build and maintain wellness.