"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and several other species of the curcuma genus grow wild in the forests of Southern Asia including India, Indonesia, Indochina, nearby Asian countries, and some Pacific Islands including Hawaii.  All of these areas have traditional culinary and medicinal uses going back to pre-history. 


In the Indian Ayurveda system of herbal medicine, turmeric is known as strengthening and warming to the whole body.  Traditional uses in India include to improve digestion, to improve intestinal flora, to eliminate worms, to relieve gas, to cleanse and strengthen the liver and gallbladder, to normalize menstruation, for relief of arthritis and swelling, as a blood purifier, to warm and promote proper metabolism correcting both excesses and deficiencies, for local application on sprains, burns, cuts, bruises, insect bites and itches, for soothing action in cough and asthma, as antibacterial and anti-fungus, and in any condition of weakness or debility.    (42 and 44)


According to Michael Moriarty, “The ancient Hawaiians used this herb for many things, including the prevention and treatment of sinus infections (it is very astringent and appears to pull mucus out), ear infections (swimmers ear) and gastrointestinal ulcers.” (44)


Turmeric is eaten as a food both raw and cooked throughout Asia.  While turmeric root looks much like ginger root, it is less fibrous and is more chewable, crunchy, and succulent.  The fresh root (not the powder) has a somewhat sweet and nutty favor mixed with its bitter flavor.  As a result, it is not unpleasant to eat and not difficult to chew.   It is sometimes chewed plain or chopped up and put in salads raw.  Traditional use includes mashing/grinding it in a mortar to make a paste to mix with other spices for flavoring in curries.  In modern times, the most common use is of the dried root powder as the base of most curries in India and other nearby countries.  (personal observation)


Another traditional use of turmeric is as a food colorant and dye for cloth – in both cases a cheaper alternative to saffron.  It was and is used in religious ceremonies and offerings – often representing life, purity, and prosperity. 


The old herbals of Europe make little if any mention of turmeric.  Marco Polo refers to turmeric as Indian saffron used for dying cloth.  Michael Castleman writing in 1991 says: “The ancient Greeks were well aware of turmeric, but unlike its close botanical relative, ginger, it never caught on in the West as either a culinary or medicinal herb.  It was, however, used to make orange-yellow dyes.  In the 1870’s, chemists discovered turmeric’s orange-yellow root powder turned reddish brown when exposed to alkaline chemicals.  This discovery led to the development of turmeric paper … to test for alkalinity.”  (5)


European and American herbalists up until the late 20th century had little interest in turmeric.  For example, in all of Dr. Christopher’s writings the only mention of turmeric I can find is that it is listed as an alternative tonic. In Jethro Klauss’s book Back to Eden, I can find no mention of turmeric at all.  This indicates to me that the herbal schools Dr. Christopher and Jethro Klauss went to were not aware of the potential of turmeric which was well known to Asian herbalists.  I also suspect that there was a disconnect between Asian and western herbalists.  Michael Castleman comments: “American chemists used turmeric paper, but not even the botanically oriented 19th century Eclectic physicians had much use for turmeric itself, except to add color to medicinal ointments.”


In one western herbal from the early 20th Century, I do find a discussion of turmeric.  This is in Maude Grieve’s book A Modern Herbal.  She gives a botanical description and the constituents of the herb as if the herb was of some importance, but then under Medicinal Actions and Uses she says: “Turmeric is a mild aromatic stimulant seldom used in medicine except as a coloring.  It was once a cure for jaundice.  Its chief use is in the manufacture of curry powders.  It is also used as an adulterant of mustard and a substitute for it and forms one of the ingredients of cattle condiments. … Turmeric paper is … used as a test for alkaloids and boric acid.”  This disregard of turmeric as an important nutritional and medicinal herb continued in western herbalism up until the late 20th Century.


However, even as Maude Grieve was writing, the roots of turmeric’s emergence as a prominent healing herb were starting to grow.  Daniel B. Mowrey tells the story: “Serious research on turmeric began in Germany, in the early 1920’s.  Sesquisterpenes in the essential oil of turmeric were isolated in 1926 and to them was ascribed the therapeutic activity.  Later, a team of scientists compared the effects of whole extract, the essential oil, and the water-soluble extract. … In 1936, … curcumin was compared to whole extract and several isolated constituents.  … The results of the experiment show that turmeric acts in the following ways:

·         Turmeric stimulates the flow of bile; several constituents have this property.

·         The increased flow of bile depend in part on the contraction of the gallbladder and in part on the increase in bile secretion;

·         The stimulation of bile depends mostly on the presence of essential oil;

·         The flavonoids cause the contraction of the gallbladder and thereby increase the effective emptying of this organ.”


“While studies were being pursued in European, primarily German laboratories, Asian researchers were independently validating the same properties of turmeric.  But their interest extended to the liver protective and curative principles of turmeric and in a series of brilliant papers they reported important findings in that area. 2

  So far what has clearly been demonstrated is that turmeric possesses anti-hepatotoxic activity on the order possessed by other liver-protective herbs such as milk thistle and licorice. …  Other research has helped establish the effects of turmeric on the blood.  For example, as many of the common curry herbs do, curcumin prevents large fluctuations in blood cholesterol after meals.    The potent anti-inflammatory activity (in the essential oil and in curcumin) of turmeric has been substantiated in other research.   Like other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (such as licorice root), curcumin appears to act through some sort of adrenal mechanism (when the adrenals are removed, turmeric has no effect).” (28)


In the mid-20th century, western herbalists began taking note and considering turmeric for herbal use – initially in Germany.  In Rudolph Weiss’s book, Herbal Medicine, first published in 1961, discusses the potential use of turmeric for the digestive system: “Its usefulness as a gallbladder remedy in the narrower sense has been demonstrated.  The cholagogue and choleretic action is quite powerful.…  The people of Java call this plant temoe lavak.  In India and other Asian countries it has a long tradition as a popular remedy for jaundice and liver disease.  There is no doubt that it can be effective, particularly where bile flow needs to be thoroughly stimulated….”   However, Dr. Weiss then discourages the use of turmeric and makes comments which appear to me to reflect hearsay and not personal use: “…but it is doubtful if it achieves more than our native drugs….  The yellow pigment has marked irritant effect on the gastric mucosa, so that caution is indicated where there is a tendency to hyper acidity or where there is simple irritable stomach….  Observations made in India have shown the powerful and lasting irritant effect of curry on the stomach.”   This discussion obviously ignores the potential other causes of gastric irritation such as excessive use of oils (which are often rancid) and overcooking literally for hours at very high temperatures – typical of Indian curries.  This type of attitude (arrogance?) may have delayed western use of turmeric for several decades.


Few contemporary herbalists recommended turmeric through the 1980’s and when they did it was for limited or special uses such as liver tonic or menstrual regularity.  However, by the early 1990’s a chorus of prominent western herbalists (including Murray, Hobbs, Castleman, Mowrey, Duke, Clark, Tierra, and Pederson), began promoting the use of turmeric for several major health problems.  As Michael Castleman put it: “Western herbalists, wake up. Turmeric is a healer.”


For a discussion of contemporary uses of Turmeric, see section F. Known Herbal Formulas with Turmeric and section G. Dosages and Applications of Turmeric.








Family:                                              Zingiberaceae

Genus:                                              Curcuma

Most common species:                Curcuma longa

Number of Curcuma Species:    70

Part used:                                         Rhizome (Root)

Names in Other Languages:

            Hindi:                                     Haridra

                Mandarin                               Jiang Huang

Japanese                              Kyoo

Tahitian:                                Re’a

            Marquesan:                           ‘Ena

Samoan, Tongan:                Ago, Ango

            Cook Islands                         Renga

Hawaiian:                              ‘Olena (Curcuma domestica)

Literal English Translation:                     “Yellow Ginger”

Habitat:                                             Southern Asia and Polynesia

Maude Grieve provides the following botanical information: 

Description:  A perennial plant with roots or tubers oblong, palmate, and deep orange inside; root-leaves about 2 feet long, lanceolate, long, petioled, tapering at each end, smooth, of a uniform green; petioles sheathing spike, erect, central, oblong, green; flowers dull yellow, three or five together surrounded by bracteolae.  It is propagated by cuttings from the root, which when dry is in curved cylindrical or oblong tubers 2 or 3 inches in length, and an inch in diameter, pointed or tapering at the end, yellowish externally, with transverse, parallel rings internally deep orange or reddish brown, marked with shining points, dense, solid, short granular fracture, forming a lemon yellow powder.  It has a peculiar fragrant odor and a bitterish slightly acrid taste, like ginger, exciting warmth in the mouth and coloring the saliva yellow.  It yields its properties to water or alcohol.” (19)

by Dean Alter
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