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Turmeric - Botany And History

Turmeric is a plant closely related to the ginger family - typically grown, much like its 'brother', as both a culinary and medicinal spice. While turmeric commonly appears in markets and stores ground into a fine, yellow powder, in actuality, raw turmeric is actually a rhizome (root) much like ginger, albeit with a richer, deeper orangey colour (see pic below left).

Much of the turmeric grown today comes from India, Pakistan, or several places in South and Southeast Asia, where it has featured much in both their medicine and cooking for more than a thousand years. The turmeric plant is propagated from its rhizomes, which eventually sprout leaves. The plant grows or 'multiplies' underground, especially if planted in ideal climates. While some cultures consume the leaves of the turmeric plant, it is the rhizome that is most prized, and is commonly the only thing harvested and employed for medicine or cuisine. When fresh, turmeric rhizomes look very much like ginger rhizomes, albeit with a darker hue and a more pronounced aroma – although, if meant for long-term storage, or if employed for supplementation or for cooking, it is usually boiled, oven or sun-dried, and then ground, either mechanical or manual means, into a very fine, aromatic (some would say even pungent) powder. [1]

Turmeric: Herbal Uses

The most common uses of turmeric include its being a very popular culinary spice, especially in Asiatic countries like India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Arabic countries like Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon. Nearly all Middle Eastern and Asian cultures (with the exception of the Japanese and the Filipinos) use turmeric as an integral part of many of their cuisines, especially warming or spicy dishes, as it imparts a mild kick to many foodstuffs, and can be integrated into various dishes or employed in a nearly unlimited number of ways.

It is often integrated into soup-based dishes like curries, or mixed with rice dishes for added colour, aroma and flavour, either by itself, or as part of a mixture of a wide range of herbs and spices. Turmeric powder was even used in the past as a type of dye due to the rich yellow to orange-hued colour it imparted on anything it touches. To this day, turmeric is still employed as both a colourant and a culinary spice, earning it the name 'Indian saffron', a moniker alluded to it due to its being employed as an alternative to the far more expensive saffron – an herb that is, to this day, still a very valuable and pricey commodity.

Turmeric is also employed as a flavouring for dishes such as pickles and relish, or as a general additive and food colouring in a variety of different commodities such as imitation mustard, butter, margarine, salad dressings, yoghurt, and nearly everything else with a yellow-hue, imparting a nice 'cheesy' colour to what would otherwise be colourless foodstuffs.

Turmeric has possessed a long-standing reputation for being a medicinal plant in the East and is gaining popularity in Western alternative medicine practice. These days, the most popular use of turmeric in the West is as a food supplement, usually taken in capsule form as part of alternative therapeutic practices, due to the fact that turmeric, like ginger, is a natural pain-reliever – making it a perfect alternative to over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol in treating minor aches and pains. The active substance found in turmeric is called curcumin, a potent and much-studied compound that has been attributed several astounding benefits, among them being anti-histaminic, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti-microbial properties.

Long used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as a diuretic (usually taken in large, concentrated doses via a decoction of the fresh or dried un-ground roots), it has also been used to provide quick relief for rheumatoid arthritis, usually by being drunk in moderation as a tea, or by consuming foods containing turmeric. [1] In Chinese medicine, the roots of turmeric, ginger, and the seeds of chili peppers are usually combined and macerated in sesame oil, to be used as a liniment for arthritis and rheumatism. [2]

To make a Turmeric Tea, simmer 2 teaspoons of turmeric in 4 cups of water for 10 minutes, then strain using a cheesecloth, add honey (or stevia) to sweeten. You can also add lemon when serving, and the tea can be refrigerated to drink later.

Image source -
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Turmeric-powder.jpg - lic. under CC

Traditional Indian practice has also attributed skin lightening as among the miscellaneous benefits of turmeric, since ground turmeric is often made into a paste and smeared unto the body in the belief that it reduces skin pigmentation. [2] While this may not always be effective (especially for Caucasian skin, or for individuals with an already light skin tone), the employment of turmeric for cosmetic uses are in fact effective and beneficial in the long-term.

The true powers of this simple root are in its anti-cancer and anti-mutagenic properties – a feature still being studied in depth by nutritionists and biochemists alike. It is now widely believed that turmeric is a 'superfood' possessed of many beneficial properties that help strengthen the body and protect it from disease. Turmeric decoctions, when drunk as a tea may protect the body from certain types of cancers as it aids in the alleviation of general aches and pains. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine are both in accordance that regulated general consumption of turmeric-based dishes, or the regular integration of turmeric in cooking can help ward off common illnesses like fevers, coughs, colds, and flu. The use of turmeric tea as a simple gargle or mouthwash may even protect the teeth from dental caries caused by bacterial infections due to its anti-microbial action. When employed with other foods like cauliflower, or if used with other spices, it may even help to allay the progression of certain types of cancers, if not altogether reverse or cure it. Turmeric may even help to improve liver function, and protect the heart from cardiovascular problems [3][4].

Due to these many benefits, turmeric, either in capsule form, or in readily available powdered from is a good addition to anyone's diet and a great way to enhance one's culinary horizons and gustatory range – not to mention one's overall health.

Turmeric: Scientific Studies

Several investigations have demonstrated curcumin's medical value against a few diseases; however, clinical studies in humans are still few. [5] Illustrated below are some of the conditions to which turmeric's curcumin may have a preventive or curing effect according to recent clinical research.

Gastric Cancer and Ulcers

Mahady, Pendland, Yun, and Lu (2002) demonstrated that curcumin in turmeric deters the growth of Helicobacter pylori cagA+ strains in vitro. [8] It should be noted that Gram-negative H. pylori has been linked to the development of duodenal ulcers and gastric carcinoma and is associated with an increased risk of gastric mucosa–associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma. [7][8] In the research of Mahady, Pendland, Yun, and Lu (2002), a methanol extract of the dried powdered form of the turmeric rhizome and curcumin were tested against 19 strains of H. pylori. Both inhibited the growth of all H. pylori strains in vitro at a minimum inhibitory concentration range of 6.25–50 micrograms/ml. [6]


In 2006, Funk et al. conducted translational studies to determine the in vivo efficacy of turmeric against arthritis using an animal model. In these studies, a turmeric extract was isolated and administered to rats either before or after the onset of streptococcal cell wall-induced arthritis. The inhibition of joint inflammation and destruction in a dose-dependent manner was observed. This led the researchers to conclude that turmeric extract treatment may have a positive preventive effect on joint swelling, which is distinct to arthritis. This study also supports further clinical evaluation of turmeric dietary supplements in rheumatoid arthritis treatment. [9]

Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia:

Among the unique features of Alzheimer's disease (AD), a progressive neurodegenerative condition, is the chronic inflammation of neurons and the formation of amyloid-β plaques. Since curcumin may aid macrophages, the white blood cells (WBCs) primarily in charge for fighting invading pathogens, to eliminate these plaques, turmeric has also been implicated in the treatment of AD and dementia. In a study by Zhang et al. (2006) wherein six patients with AD were treated with curcumin and three controls were not, the macrophages of those treated with curcumin manifested improved plaque uptake and ingestion (p<0.001 to 0.081). [10]

Esophageal Cancer:

According to a recent research by Subramaniam et al. (2012), curcumin is a "potent inhibitor of esophageal cancer growth that targets the Notch-1 activating γ-secretase complex proteins." In their study, curcumin's ability to slow down the development of esophageal cancer through a mechanism mediated by the Notch signaling pathway has been shown. [11]

Prostate and Breast Cancer:

In addition to esophageal cancer, curcumin also has a chemopreventive role against prostate cancer. Killian et al. (2012) recently demonstrated this in a study wherein they analyzed the effects of curcumin on prostate carcinoma growth, apoptosis, and metastasis. The study shows that curcumin hampers the metastasis of prostate cancer cells in vivo by preventing the expression of cytokines CXCL1 and CXL2. This inhibitory mechanism in turn results in the diminished metastasis of breast cancer cells. [12]


In Indian system of medicine (Ayurveda), the curcumin in turmeric is also associated with the treatment of the following conditions or diseases:
• Cystic fibrosis
• Hemorrhoids
• Atherosclerosis
• Inflammation
• Liver diseases

Turmeric - Esoteric Uses

In Indian magickal practices, turmeric is a spice sacred to the god Ganesha, which is why powdered turmeric is often used to make effigies of the god during festivals. It is even employed as an offering, and as an incense. Turmeric root also plays an integral role in some traditional Indian weddings, taking the place of wedding rings – a practice more western than it is Indian. In Western ceremonial magick, turmeric, like ginger, is usually attributed to fire and is burnt (either whole or in powdered form) as an incense to promote vitality, vigour, and to invoke power and banish spirits.

Turmeric - Contraindications And Safety

Turmeric may be unadvisable to take alongside antiparasitic medicines of the ivermectin group. Ivermectin is highly toxic but prevented from entering the brain in humans by the blood brain barrier. If it were not for this barrier, ivermectin would be potentially fatal. Turmeric, it is reported, may influence the blood brain barrier in a manner that permits some ivermectin to cross. This drug interaction is not well publicized and appears to have been deleted from the web (2020). Further research needed.

Names of Turmeric, Past and Present

Chinese: pian jiang huang / yu jin
Hindi / Sanskrit: halada / rajani / haldi
Arabic: haridra / nisha / halda
French: safran bourbon / safran de batallita / safran des Indes
Filipino: luyan'g Indiano (lit. 'Indian's ginger') / tormeriko (lit. 'turmeric', adapted with dialectic spelling and pronunciation) / turmeric (adapted from English)
English: Turmeric / curcuma (adapted into English usage) / turmeric root / Indian saffron
Latin (esoteric): curcuma / radix curcumae
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Curcuma longa / Curcuma domestica (two most common varieties)


[1] Turmeric. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turmeric

[2] http://www.bewellbuzz.com/general/benefits-of-turmeric-for-skin-and-more/

[3] http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=78

[4] Curcumin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curcumin

[5] Bengmark S., Mesa M.D., Gil A. (2009). Plant-derived health: the effects of turmeric and curcuminoids. Nutricion Hospitalaria,24(3): 273–281. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19721899

[6] Mahady G.B., Pendland S.L., Yun G., and Lu Z.Z. (2002). Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and curcumin inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a group 1 carcinogen. Anticancer Research, 22(6C): 4179–4181.Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12553052

[7] Atherton J.C. (2006). The pathogenesis of Helicobacter pylori-induced gastro-duodenal diseases. Annual Review of Pathology, 1:63–96. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18039108

[8] Helicobacter and Cancer Collaborative Group. (2001). Gastric cancer and Helicobacter pylori: a combined analysis of 12 case control studies nested within prospective cohorts. Gut, 49(3): 347–353. Retrieved February 11, 2013,from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11511555

[9] Funk et al. (2006). Efficacy and mechanism of action of turmeric supplements in the treatment of experimental arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 54(11): 3452–3464. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17075840

[10] Zhang et al. (2006). Curcuminoids enhance amyloid-beta uptake by macrophages of Alzheimer's disease patients. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease,10(1):1–7. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16988474

[11] Subramaniam D. (2012). Curcumin induces cell death in esophageal cancer cells through modulating Notch signaling.PLoS One, 7(2):e30590. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030590. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22363450

[12] Killian P. (2012). Curcumin Inhibits Prostate Cancer Metastasis in vivo by Targeting the Inflammatory Cytokines CXCL1 and -2. Carcinogenesis, doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgs312. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23042094

Turmeric: Further Reading

Author Dr. David Frawley, in the foreword of Prashanti DeJager's book on turmeric, states: "If I had only a single herb to depend upon for all possible health and dietary needs, I would without much hesitation choose the Indian spice turmeric. There is little that it cannot do in the realm of healing and much that no other herb is able to accomplish. Turmeric has a broad spectrum of actions, mild but certain effects, and is beneficial for long term and daily usage. Though it is a common spice, few people, including herbalists know of its great value and are using it to the extent possible. It is an herb that one should get to know and live with."

DeJager's book on Turmeric:

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. Scientific studies researched and created by Dan Ablir.
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