Turmeric root is the rhizome/root of Curcuma longa, a potent health-promoting herb that originates from India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and is now cultivated extensively in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. The popular spice that gives curry powder its yellow color, turmeric is considered by many to be the most powerful disease-fighting herb on the planet.
Turmeric is one of the most extensively researched herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, and has been used for centuries in both traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for digestive health and treatment of liver ailments, inflammation and pain.
Extensive research and clinical trials have demonstrated the therapeutic properties of turmeric and its potential against a wide range of diseases. Turmeric’s volatile oil and curcuminoids (which give turmeric its bright yellow-orange color) are believed to be its primary active ingredients. Cell culture and animal studies suggest that curcumin has extensive activity as antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic agent. Human clinical trials also suggest its potential therapeutic role in numerous chronic diseases such as cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.
One of curcumin’s most powerful activities is its ability to control inflammation. Turmeric is used in both Ayurveda and western herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory to help relieve joint pain and other pain symptoms tied to inflammation in the body. Similarly, its main actions in TCM are to facilitate the movement of blood and Qi (vital energy or life force) to relieve pain.
Inflammatory conditions and arthritis are among the most common human diseases for which curcumin is being evaluated, and numerous clinical studies have demonstrated its potential. One study that compared a number of anti-inflammatory compounds, including aspirin and ibuprofen, found that curcumin was one of the most anti-inflammatory agents. In another study, dietary curcumin's action in reducing colon inflammation was demonstrated using an animal model of human inflammatory bowel disease.
In light of curcumin’s established anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties, one study evaluated the effectiveness of curcumin alone, and in combination with an anti-inflammatory drug, in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The curcumin-only group showed the highest reduction in disease activity, tenderness and swelling of joints, highlighting the need for future large-scale trials to confirm these findings in patients with arthritic conditions.
Clinical studies have also demonstrated the use of curcumin to help treat osteoarthritis. In one study, curcumin significantly improved pain and physical function scores in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Similarly, in a number of other osteoarthritis studies, curcumin significantly reduced knee pain and improved quality of life. These studies suggest that curcuminoids represent an effective alternative treatment for arthritic conditions.
Curcuminoids have been shown to possess powerful antioxidant activity, as demonstrated in many cell and animal model tests and even human trials. Antioxidants, compounds which play a vital, health-protecting role in human life, have been shown to help protect against various metabolic diseases, heart disease, brain disorders and age-related syndromes, as they help the body combat cellular damage caused by free radicals (reactive chemicals containing oxygen).
Some researchers have suggested that curcumin’s anti-inflammatory activity may be in part due to its antioxidant activity, as free radicals have been implicated in the inflammation process.
Turmeric is used in herbal medicine to support digestion and help relieve gas and bloating, an action which is supported by clinical studies. It’s also used in herbal medicine to increase bile excretion by the liver and to stimulate contraction of the gallbladder. These are both key elements of healthy digestive function, as the gallbladder acts as a reservoir for bile produced by the liver, which it releases into the small intestine to digest fats. One study found that curcumin effectively reduced gallbladder volume, demonstrating that it induces gallbladder contractions.
In TCM, turmeric's ‘tastes’ are bitter and pungent, determinant of its action in the body. Bitter ingredients like turmeric are thought to have a cleansing action on the body by promoting elimination via urination or bowel movements. Turmeric is also thought to target the spleen, which assists with digestion, and the liver, which regulates the movement of bodily fluids.
As a bitter herb, turmeric’s actions on digestion are similar to ‘digestive bitters’ in general: herbs that support digestive function by stimulating bitter receptors throughout the digestive tract, and in turn, promoting digestive juices such as stomach acid, bile and digestive enzymes to help break down food and facilitate the absorption of nutrients.