“The earthy herb of the sun.”
Vibrant orange turmeric root, native to Southwestern India, is having its moment in the sun these days. This ancient spice, celebrated for thousands of years as both food and medicine, has recently emerged within the health and nutrition communities mostly due to curcumin, the healing substance that gives it its bright golden color. Increasing studies and evidence suggest that curcumin’s broad range of power is a promising preventative for a wide range of diseases, due largely to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, digestive and circulatory stimulating properties and its anti-microbial and immune strengthening qualities.
In Combination with Black Pepper
As prized as turmeric’s curcumin is, it is interestingly not bioavailable or utilized effectively in the human body. Once ingested, curcumin is rapidly metabolized in the liver and intestinal wall. However, adding a dash of black pepper to turmeric increases its bioavailability and effectiveness. Black pepper contains piperine which is responsible for the pungent flavor of pepper. Piperine is a potent inhibitor of metabolism. One of the ways our liver gets rid of foreign substances is making them water soluble so they can be more easily excreted. However, the black pepper molecule inhibits that process. It slows this metabolism and increases the ability of the curcumin to be absorbed and made more available to the body. A study in 1992 reported that when curcumin was given to rats in combination with piperine, its bioavailability increased by 154%. When human volunteers were given a combination of curcumin and piperine, instead of pure curcumin, the bioavailability of curcumin increased by 2000%! Moreover, the addition of piperine was found to enhance the serum concentrations of curcumin and the extent of its absorption, both in the test animals and the human volunteers. Besides curcumin, piperine is also under study for its potential to increase absorption of selenium, vitamin B12, and beta-carotene. Black pepper has historically been used in combination with turmeric and they are both native to India.
Turmeric As Medicine
Of all of the constituents of “the earthy herb of the sun,” it seems the greatest healing power is delivered by its essential oil and by the curcumins. Turmeric’s essential oil, taken internally or externally is strong antimicrobial and is also responsible for lowering triglycerides and it has anti-inflammatory activity in the body. Even more potent than its volatile oil is the yellow or orange pigment of turmeric, which is called curcumin. Curcumin is thought to be the primary pharmacological agent in turmeric. In numerous studies, curcumin's anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be comparable to and even stronger than the potent drugs hydrocortisone and phenylbutazone as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory agents such as Motrin and Ibuprofen. Curcumin’s action in the body blocks NF-kB, a molecule that travels into the nuclei of cells and turns on genes related to inflammation. NF-kB is believed to play a major role in many chronic diseases. Because of this action, curcumin inhibits many molecules known to play major roles in inflammation. And, unlike drugs, curcumin has no toxic effects on the body.
Antioxidant and Anti-Cancer
Curcumin is also an antioxidant, DNA protectant, and antimutagen. It has been shown to protect healthy cells, particularly those found in the stomach, breast, colon, mouth and skin from cancer-causing agents. The curcumins aid the body in destroying mutated cancer cells and tumors before they have a chance to spread to other areas.
Internal and External Anti-microbial, Immune Booster and Lung Tonic
Turmeric’s essential oil and curcumin extracts taken internally or externally show anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal anti-parasitic, and anthelmintic (anti-worm) activities. Curcumin interferes with the ability of microbes and viruses to replicate and it strengthens the immune system to help with the fight against the infection. It is clearly proven to kill many bacteria in vivo and in vitro including staph and salmonella. Therefore it is effective against staph infections and food poisoning. And, it can be applied directly as an anti-biotic to wounds or whenever an antiseptic is needed. Turmeric is a lung tonic and is also very effective in preventing and treating coughs, colds, flu and other respiratory infections.
Turmeric has been getting a lot of attention for the treatment of both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. It protects joints from inflammation and blocks some of the pain and inflammation reactions and pathways and can deplete the neurotransmitters of pain. Curcumins also inhibit the 12-lipoxygenase and cyclooxygenase activities in human platelets that remove stiffness in the body from whatever source: old age, arthritis, or over exertion.
HIV & Aids
Published research done at Harvard Medical School has found that curcumin is one of three inhibitors of a viral replication that has been shown to be effective against HIV in both acutely and, unlike most other anti-HIV drugs, chronically infected cells, too. Curcumins have also been shown to help the Immune system’s T-cells survive and thrive.
Heart and Liver Stimulant
Turmeric also stimulates and strengthens the liver and heart. It’s liver stimulating action gently promotes the flow of bile, purifies the blood, relieves emotional tension and depression, and can prevent or control adult onset diabetes if taken regularly. It also strengthens the heart and is a natural blood thinner, helping lower cholesterol and preventing heart disease, strokes and heart attacks.
Improves Brain Function
Curcumin can increase brain levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is a type of growth hormone that functions in the brain to increase the growth of neurons and their ability to form connections. Many common brain disorders including depression and Alzheimer’s have been linked to decreased levels of this hormone. Interestingly, curcumin can increase brain levels of BDNF. By doing this, it may be effective at delaying or even reversing many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function. There is also the possibility that it could help improve memory and make you smarter.
Black Pepper as Medicine
Black pepper has been used as a spice and medicine for at least 4000 years. Historically it has been a warming stimulant, useful for a variety of cold and flu symptoms such as for fevers with chills and for mucus congestion. Black pepper quickens the circulation by increasing blood vessel size and was used for signs of stagnant circulation (such as cold hands and feet) and for arthritic pain. Promoting and stimulating digestion, it is said to have a gentle laxative effect, especially for those with signs of cold or stagnant digestion.
Turmeric’s Appearance and Preferred Growing Conditions
The turmeric plant reaches barely three feet in height and produces both a flower and a rhizome, or stem that is found underground. The rhizome has an appearance similar to ginger; it is a root-like stem that produces the yellow turmeric spice. The leaves are wide and deep green, pointed and oblong, growing from a central stalk and the flowers, which blossom out of the center of the leaves, are white to yellow red and bloom in the fall and winter. The leaves turn brown and die back in the spring when it is time to dig the roots to harvest. Turmeric loves growing in hot, moist tropical climates and prefers moist rich soil and shade. India has been the largest producer of turmeric since ancient times.
The History and Culture of Turmeric
The use of turmeric goes back thousands of years. It was used to worship the Sun during the Solar period of India, a time when the Lord Rama walked the Earth around 10,000 years ago. Perhaps it is because of its golden color that it is used in the worship of the sun even today. Especially in South India, people still wear a hard dried turmeric root bead the size of a large grape around their neck to ward off evil and grant healing and protection to the wearer. Evidence and documentation suggest that it’s been used daily in India for 6000 years as a medicine, beauty aid, cooking spice, and a dye. Analyses of pots discovered near New Delhi uncovered residue from turmeric, ginger and garlic that dates back as early as 2500 BCE and it was around 500 BCE that turmeric emerged as an important part of Ayurvedic medicine.
The Hindu religion sees turmeric as auspicious and sacred. There is a wedding day tradition in which a string, dyed yellow with turmeric paste, is tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. This necklace, known as a mangala sutra, indicates that the woman is married and capable of running a household. The tradition still continues in Hindu communities and has been compared to the Western exchange of wedding rings. The vibrant yellow natural coloring of turmeric has also been used to dye clothing and thread for centuries. Saffron-hued Buddhist robes have been dyed with turmeric for at least 2000 years, and the only spice they carried was the black pepper. Interesting, did they know that black pepper was needed to make tumeric bio-available?
Turmeric has also been used for at least 1000 years in Chinese medicine. And in 1280 Marco Polo mentioned turmeric in his diary: “I have found a plant that has all the qualities of saffron, but it is a root.” So Europe has used turmeric as a substitute for saffron for at least 700 years.
One of the 25 most valuable plants that the ancient Polynesians brought with them on their voyage to Hawaii was turmeric or “olena” in the Hawaiian language. It was prized not only for food and medicine but also for ceremonial purification. Prayers are chanted as the mixture of fresh turmeric juice and sea water is sprinkled on people, places and objects to remove negativity and restore harmony. It is used this way to cure someone who is very ill or to consecrate a newly built house.
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