Nov 10 , 2014
Laurel Redmon, M.S., L.Ac. Dipl. C.H.
Turmeric rhizome, Curcuma longa, or jiang huang has been enjoying the limelight in recent months. It was the herb-du-jour, in the wake of the Vioxx scandal, along with a bit of research funding and an urban myth that Indian women never contract breast cancer. Media scrutiny rarely bodes well for a single herbal agent. The efficacy of such herbal giants as Echinacea (Echinacea ssp.), Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) and Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), have been called into question by poorly constructed and executed studies that followed media fanfare. Ma huang (Ephedra sinensis) has been banned from our pharmacopeia because of inappropriate applications promulgated by mainstream news. Like the latest Hollywood starlet, media outlets would build them up to otherworldly proportions, only to exaggerate, even fabricate scandals and falls from grace.
All of the studies that render the aforementioned herbs impotent have resulted in scholarly critiques. Yet these rebuttals seem to reach the ears of the choir only, with the mainstream media/ pharmaceutical corporations honing in on their next target.
This herb has a rich and long history in the Indian subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia. Spice blends have employed the dried and powdered rhizome for its deep, aromatic nature that harmonizes so many herbal flavors. While its vibrant color fades much faster than saffron on garments, it has a much stronger medicinal track record. Traditional Asian medicine has employed this herb for many blood and dermatological disorders, gastrointestinal disorders including irritable bowel syndrome or excess gas, and for musculoskeletal problems, as a specific for shoulders. As the doctrine of signatures dictates through its hue, this herb is especially useful for hepatic and biliary disorders, treating jaundice, hepatitis, and gallbladder disease.
Spicy, bitter and warm.
Enters the spleen and liver meridians.
Turmeric is a specific remedy for shoulder pain according to traditional Chinese wisdom.
Cooking, tincture, powder, oleoresin, fresh sources
Traditonal wisdom has been impressively substantiated and augmented by modern research, which recognizes turmeric in benefiting the following organ systems and diseases:
Anti-inflammatory: Acute or chronic
Chronic and acute sinusitis
Chologogic: (Increases production and secretion of bile)
Hepatoprotective, especially against hepatitis and carcinoma
Non-healing or necrotic wounds
Shoulder pain, especially “frozen shoulder”
Urinary tract tonic
Uterine Stimulant: Treats amenorrhea and dysmennorhea
With proven effectiveness in rheumatoid as well and osteoarthritis, this could be a promising herb for fibromyalgia, Lyme’s disease, and other autoimmune pain syndromes.
My research revealed a surprising number of topical applications for this plant rhizome. In our age topical application of herbs is a neglected area. At times, topical application is far more efficient and efficacious than ingestion. Of course, it does require more commitment on the part of the patient. Encouragement and enthusiasm on the practitioner’s end is in order. An acute outbreak of scabies or impetigo can be effectively eliminated. Turmeric can also help most chronic skin conditions, as well as infections, trauma and swellings. Hardly any other agent has such a breadth of topical application with the research to support it.
Turmeric essential oil is available in commerce, and is credited with these functions:
American aromatherapists use essential oils topically for the most part. This entails diluting the oil substantially (1 to 30 drops per ounce depending on the individual oil and treatment) and its application on a specific area. European doctors often prescribe essential oils for ingestion, and turmeric is suitable in each capacity. Two things to bear in mind are that essential oils are extremely potent and should not be prescribed internally without extensive education, and that topical application can cause stained skin and clothing.
Up to three grams daily, powdered or decocted into a tea. Fresh rhizome can be used as well, but beware of the tenacious oleoresin dyeing everything it touches.
Cautions and contraindications
Some sources advise caution in cases of bile duct obstruction and gallstones, while others indicate the herb for this. While safe during lactation and helpful for infantile colic, its blood-invigorating properties make it a risk to consume during pregnancy. This caution does not convince millions of pregnant women to abstain from curry, I imagine.
As overwhelming it can be to take in a list of this magnitude, other adaptogenic herbs can boast this volume of functions. Remember that these are non-toxic, food-like herbs that we as a species have evolved with, and that they should be close personal friends. No prescription drug could offer this breadth of benefits with so few side effects. My guess is that an herb of this stature will only reveal its gifts over millenia, like the length of time that we have already shared a relationship.
Good-quality curry pastes and powders. The less-gourmet yellow mustard gets its glow from turmeric.
My favorite is the tincture of fresh rhizome I make from organic Hawaiian-grown turmeric. Horizon Herbs in Williams, Oregon sells certified organic rhizomes by the pound for a reasonable price. The tincture is excellent for its shelf life, ease of use both topically and internally, and because it retains volatile essential oils much better than a dried or powdered product.
At our herb shop, we formulate our own version of Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang, the liver and kidney tonic that removes dampness and cold. We have taken to augmenting this formula with turmeric extract and find it extremely helpful for a wide range of musculoskeletal disorders, ranging from acute tendonitis to sciatica and of course arthritis.
CO2 extracts are an interesting way to extract herbs for aromatherapy or internal use. This product is available for turmeric.
Cooking with turmeric is another excellent way to reap its benefits. With an affinity for nearly every organ involved in digestion, pairing the herb with food means you will be speaking the appropriate language. Grains, vegetables, legumes and meats all taste good with this slightly bitter and pungent spice. My Grandmother even makes cookies that contain turmeric! Ginger rhizome, in the same plant family, shows excellent anti-inflammatory action as well. They are a wonderful spice pairing in cooking.
Pertinence of Turmeric in American Culture
This herb has a certain luxury in its status as a culinary herb: it will more likely enter the mainstream consciousness. Perhaps marketers will embrace this plant, to have it take hold as the only agent yet known to give us the joint pain relief that we need with additional cardiovascular-protective and anti-carcinogenic function we could only dream of in a drug. People with disorders involving multiple organ disorders could benefit from a single non-toxic agent. Let’s hope that their drug regimens do not get in the way.
According to John Chen, a Chinese herbalist and pharmacist who is a leading expert on herb-drug interactions, using herbs and drugs together is not the blind gamble that medical doctors would have us believe. Analgesics in particular have a poteniating effect when used with herbs. If you have any doubts about safety or protocols, consult with a professional herbalist. It is a wonder that this ancient time-honored herb addresses so many modern American ails gently and effectively.
Looking toward the future
We who use, know, trust and prescribe herbs are their stewards. Big business and government beaurocracies do not have the time or inclination to understand turmeric in all its facets and subtleties. For instance, ecological growing and harvesting practices are all the more crucial in a root or rhizome herb, since the plant gives up its life for this. The scarcity of American ginseng in Eastern forests is a sad reminder of this fact. We need to educate people about the value of using the whole non-standardized, non-patented herb, and the elegance of nature’s formulations. Each herb is a formula in itself, hundreds of constituents creating checks and balances that minimize harmful side effects. It is up to us to disseminate knowledge about the depth of the art of herbalism. Western science is one lens to focus with, and as we have seen, it uses herbs for functions other than the Ayuvedic and Chinese applications. Each culture has its own take, all are valid, and even considered together, lack absolute completeness. Such is the finite nature of our comprehension of this planet we call home.
Dastur, J.F.. Medicinal Plants of India and Pakistan. Treasure House of Books. Bombay: 1970
Sheppard-Hanger, Sylla. The Aromatherapy Practical Manual. Tampa, Florida. 1998.
Chen, John K. & Tina T. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press. City of Industry: 2004.
Laurel studied Chinese Medicine, including Acupuncture and Herbology at The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. Her study of Herbalism was conducted over a period of sixteen years, four of which she spent living in Hong Kong, participating in the founding of Cheryl’s Herbs. She has studied with international leaders in Chinese and Western Herbalism, as well as aromatherapy and mycology. She has taught classes on subjects from cooking to pulse diagnosis, and written for and edited herb and aromatherapy books. She lives and works on an herb farm in the Baraboo Hills, and maintains a practice and herb shop in Madison. Her Red Sage Classical Chinese Herb Formulas are available exclusively through Cheryl’s Herbs.