What do Worcestershire sauce, mustard and Middle Eastern cuisine have in common? All feature turmeric, the yellow, peppery spice commonly associated with Indian curries. And new research suggests that turmeric may be good for more than just spicing up your diet.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a tropical perennial plant that belongs to the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. Turmeric is native to Asia and thrives in clay-like soil in warm, wet climates. Turmeric was first cultivated over 5,000 years ago in what is present-day Pakistan, but it wasn’t introduced to the Western world until the thirteenth century. Today, 90 percent of all turmeric is produced in India – not surprising, since India is the world’s largest exporter and consumer of the spice.

Commercial turmeric is produced form the plant’s rhizome, a horizontal underground stem with knobby fingerlike branches. The rhizome is cleaned, boiled, dried and ground into powder. Turmeric powder has been used for thousands of years as a seasoning, as a preservative, as a dye and as a medicine.

An Ancient Cure for Modern Times

Turmeric is an important herb in Ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing tradition that is one of the oldest medical systems in the world. According to Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric has many uses: relieving pain, regulating menstruation, aiding digestion, supporting liver health and more.

Turmeric also plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), where it is used to regulate the qi, or life force. Chinese healers use turmeric to provide topical pain relief and to support blood flow, bile production and digestive health. TCM practitioners also consider turmeric a powerful anti-inflammatory.

Curcumin, the main active constituent of turmeric, is a powerful antioxidant, and many of turmeric’s health benefits are linked to antioxidant activity; in fact, researchers from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute evaluated the antioxidant activity of 36 Asian vegetables and found turmeric to be the most potent. But modern research has also found turmeric to have anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and antibacterial properties. Turmeric may even heal wounds and fight rumors.

Turmeric and Cancer

In 1992, researchers from the Cancer Research Institute in Bombay, India, studied the effects of curcumin on cancer in mice. Their findings showed that curcumin could inhibit cancer initiation, promotion and progression.

In the same year, researchers from India’s National Institute of Nutrition examined the effects of curcumin on mutagens in smokers. (Mutagens, molecules that alter genetic information, are frequently carcinogenic). After giving 16 chronic smokers 1.5 grams of turmeric daily for 30 days, the researchers reported a reduction in the smoker’s urinary mutagen excretions.

Research on turmeric and cancer is not limited to India. In 2005, researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester investigated the potential use of curcumin for humans with colon cancer. For seven days, patients with colorectal cancer received a capsule containing curcumin (some received 450 milligrams, some 1.8 grams and others 3.6 grams). The researchers reported that 3.6-gram dose of curcumin reduced levels of M(1)G (a biomarker for cancer) in colorectal tissue.

Turmeric and Digestive Health

In 2001, faculty from the department of pharmacology at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, used turmeric to treat 25 patients with peptic ulcers. The researchers gave each patient five 600 milligram doses of turmeric per day: before each meal, at 4 PM, and at bedtime. After four weeks, ulcers had healed in 12 patients (72 percent); and after 12 weeks, ulcers had healed in 19 patients (76 percent) – a significant improvement over the typical 40 percent of spontaneous healing for untreated ulcers.

In 2003, after finding that curcumin reduced symptoms and inflammatory markers in mice with inflamed colons, researchers at the Institute of Chemical Biology suggested curcumin as a treatment for irritable bowel disease.

In 2004, the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine published the results of a randomized pilot study of the effects of turmeric extract on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. In this study, researchers gave 207 subjects with IBS one or two tablets of turmeric daily for eight weeks. After treatment, symptoms improved in roughly two-thirds of the subjects.

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