The cuisine of India is a colorful, flavorful delight, filled with vegetables and redolent with aromatic spices and hot chilies. Pungent curries are among the best-known dishes, and here in the United States we tend to think of curry as a single flavoring, thanks to the marketing of a rather bland (by comparison) product known as curry powder. But in India, you’d be hard pressed to find curry powder: Every good cook has her own tin filled with individual spices and herbs — coriander and fennel seed, cumin and black mustard seed, cinnamon and cardamom — and these spices are blended differently into each dish.
One of the stars in this panoply of spices is goldenrod-hued turmeric, the spice that gives Indian curries and many other dishes their distinctive color. Turmeric is a root — a cousin to ginger — that’s been used in India and other parts of Asia for centuries as a medicinal agent, a beauty aid and a culinary spice. Although it actually has very little flavor on its own, turmeric is valued for its vibrant color and gentle earthy quality.
Beyond its culinary value, though, turmeric is now the subject of several medical research studies examining whether it’s an effective treatment for diseases ranging from cancer to arthritis to Alzheimer’s. And the studies are uncovering some amazing things about the spice’s ability to reduce inflammation and encourage healing in the body.
“There are over 200-some studies on [the National Institutes of Health’s site] PubMed looking at the benefits of turmeric,” says Dr. Renu Sinha, a surgeon at Rockwood Clinic’s Cancer Treatment Center who specializes in breast cancer and thyroid disease. She’s following the studies because she’s interested in ways that diet and lifestyle can help treat and prevent cancer — and also because she was born in India and remembers turmeric being used as a traditional remedy for everything from cuts and scrapes to the common cold.
Western medicine’s studies of turmeric began after researchers noted the unusually low rates of certain cancers — colorectal, prostate and lung cancers in particular — in India. Yet studies of Indian immigrants to the United States and other Western societies show that rates of those cancers and other chronic diseases rise to the average level of the host country within a generation. That led researchers to examine lifestyle factors, including diet, and much of the interest focused on turmeric.
Current clinical trials in this country are testing the effects of turmeric extract on adults with cystic fibrosis; the use of curcumin — the component of turmeric that’s believed to be responsible for the spice’s medicinal qualities — to treat chronic psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease; and the pairing of curcumin with standard chemotherapy to treat both metastatic colon cancer and advanced pancreatic cancer. Two earlier studies, published in the journal Anticancer Research, showed that turmeric destroyed blood cancer cells, suppressed tumor development and inhibited growth of Helicobactor pylori (H. pylori), bacteria in the upper stomach that is implicated in ulcers and increases risk of stomach and colon cancers.
The anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric have been known for thousands of years to practitioners of Indian ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Traditional Asian practitioners may not know turmeric’s science, but they have thousands of years of anecdotal evidence behind them.
“It is not a magic pill, but its usefulness is really becoming clear to Western civilizations, which Eastern civilizations have known for 5,000 years,” Sinha says, adding that, in Asia, “They don’t know why or how it works — they don’t have the money to look at it under a microscope or to do double-blind studies. But they know it works.”
The key to the ayurvedic philosophy of healing is balance, she says. “Imbalance causes disease — that’s really the Eastern philosophy,” she explains. “[Western medicine] is disease-oriented, whereas Asian medicine is more wellness-oriented. And that’s where the two together can be holistic.”
In true American fashion, turmeric supplements are now appearing on health-food store shelves, right next to megadoses of vitamins. Also, researchers have isolated curcumin, so concentrated curcumin supplements are now available as well.
An article from the University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that turmeric may be useful for digestive disorders, osteoarthritis, lowering cholesterol, liver disease, wound healing and cancers. (The article also clearly states that these possible health benefits of turmeric and curcumin have been studied in laboratories and animal studies, but not yet in people.) Based on early research, the writers recommend an adult dose of 400 to 600 mg of standardized powder three times per day.
Even though turmeric has been a safe part of Indian food and medicine for thousands of years, young children and pregnant women should be cautious of the supplements, says Sinha, because the effects of such concentrated amounts of the spice on these patients have not been studied. Also, high doses of turmeric may exacerbate the effects of blood-thinning medications. But as a food, it’s safe for anybody. “Come on down, eat some curry,” she says. “You can’t eat enough [to reach unsafe levels].”
Sometimes things have a way of coming around full circle, Sinha says.
“It’s fascinating, considering that I’ve studied medicine and been trained in medicine, yet [ayurvedic healers] are able to read things that we [in Western medicine] can’t see,” she says. “After all this time, I’m coming back to what I grew up with.”