When I first began studying herbs in 1970, pretty much the entire herbal category was spurned, ridiculed, and marginalized by medical experts and by the media. People who favored natural healing were fruits, nuts and flakes. Real medicines, or pharmaceuticals, were credible and tested, whereas herbs were anachronistic and untested- possible even unsafe. We have come a very long way since then. Today studies on herbs show up in medical and scientific journals every day, and the media can't get enough herbal tips for various health disorders. We know now that over-the-counter and prescription drugs kill approximately 300,000 American every year, and that most years nobody dies from the use of herbs. Many human clinical studies show both efficacy and safety of herbs, and both medical doctors and pharmacists are scrambling to learn about this category of healing. Worldwide, herbs are used by more people than drugs. So it only makes sense that health practitioners would finally wish to know more about the world's number one category of medicines.
Among the many medicinal plants that have been well studied is turmeric root. Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a spice originating from Southeast Asia. Widely used in foods and for cosmetic, and medicinal purposes, turmeric imparts a rich yellow color to curry, and is used by food industry to color cheese, butter, and other foods. Turmeric is highly revered in India's 5000 year old system of Ayurvedic medicine, with a history of use for treating respiratory conditions including asthma, allergy, coughs and sinusitis, for liver disorders, for rheumatism, and to heal diabetic wounds.
Compounds in turmeric most responsible for its broad uses are the bright yellow curcuminoids, notably curcumin, which makes up about 3 percent of the weight of dry turmeric root. Curcumin is a superstar plant compound with especially powerful antioxidant and anti-ini!ammatory properties. This makes turmeric root and the compound curcumin highly valuable. We know now that every degenerative and chronic health disorder involves both oxidation and inflammation. Cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, arthritis, diabetes, cancer and many other conditions fall into this category. If oxidation and inflammation can be reduced, then both the risk and the symptoms of various degenerative disorders can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.
According to various published studies, curcumin shows anti-carcinogenic, antimicrobial, liver-protective, heart-protective and anti-arthritic activity. Recent studies also suggest that curcumin may possess cognitive-enhancing and anti-depressant activity, due to curcumin's capacity to promote the activity of neuroprotective factors in the brain, and to regulate certain neurotransmitters. And while out-of-touch critics of herbs fret over safety, turmeric root and concentrated curcumin extract demonstrate great safety. No studies in animals or humans have shown any toxicity associated with the use of either, even at very high doses. This makes sense, since turmeric root is consumed in very large quantities daily in various parts of Asia and Southeast Asia.
Curcumin is not the only worthwhile compound in turmeric root, and I am loath to fall into the "magic molecule" theory of medicine. Turmeric root also contains other proven anti-inflammatory compounds including cineol, alpha-pinene, borneol, caffeic acid, caryophyllene, eugenol, limonene, and vanillic acid. Even without curcumin, these compounds impart significant health benefits.
Curcumin has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its pain-relieving properties, due to its powerful anti-inflammatory activity. Millions of American suffer from pain, and many turn to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for relief. But these drugs, including naproxen, acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can cause liver, kidney and gastrointestinal problems. By contrast, curcumin does not cause these effects. While anti-inflammatory drugs typically target one enzyme associated with inflammation, curcumin targets them all. As with the NSAID's, curcumin inhibits COX2, also known as cyclo-oxygenase 2. But curcumin also inhibits other key factors in inflammation, including 5-LOX, NF-kappaB, and PPAR Gamma transcription factors. By inhibiting the activity of all these inflammation factors, curcumin demonstrates overall greater effectiveness and safety than drugs for the same purpose. This results in real pain relief. Remember, neither turmeric nor curcumin promote any known negative health effects.
If there is a problem with curcumin, it is the poor absorption of this compound into the body. In societies where turmeric root is eaten in large quantities daily, this is not an issue. The sheer volume of turmeric root consumed assures that people who eat this spice regularly will absorb sufficient enough curcumin to derive broad health benefits. As a fatty compound, curcumin is more easily absorbed when consumed with fat. In a typical curry, for example, turmeric root will be cooked in oil. Some of the ancient Ayurvedic texts recommend cooking turmeric in fatty buffalo milk.
For use in supplements, curcumin needs some help being better absorbed. Some extracts of curcumin contain piperine, a derivative of black pepper. This compound aids absorption of curcumin, as demonstrated in studies. Yet even better absorption is achieved when the essential oils of turmeric containing the agents cineol, alpha-pinene, borneol, caffeic acid, caryophyllene, eugenol, limonene, and vanillic acid, are added to curcumin. This type of "reconstituted" extract shows the highest absorption, and is superior to pure curcumin or curcumin with piperine.
In turmeric root and its concentrated extract of curcumin, we have powerful natural medicine. And while critics used to howl with abandon at natural medicines, they do so less now, as a massive body of science shows significant health benefits from these remedies. The traditional use of turmeric root for health is broad and well documented. The science on turmeric root and curcumin is massive. The days of marginalizing natural remedies are fading into a fuzzy past. With turmeric and curcumin, people in need can say no to dangerous pharmaceuticals, and can derive real health benefits from a benign natural medicine.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com