Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
Haldi, Haridra, Manjal, Haldar, Pasupu, Halad, Ariśina, Haluda – Indians know Turmeric by many names. It is ubiquitous in Indian households. Prominent as a kitchen spice, and a key ingredient in ayurvedic medicines and household remedies. It is cited in many Sanskrit texts dating back to the 4th and 5th century. It has significance in social, cultural, and religious traditions, and is used in cosmetics and as a dye for clothing. India has known and used it for a few millennia, and it’s been an important component of Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. The western world has begun to recognize the benefits of turmeric and study its properties over the past forty years. Its popularity has risen for a variety of uses from health supplements to turmeric chai lattés.
What makes turmeric so special?
History and Origin
A native to tropical South Asia, turmeric is the rootstalk of the plant Curcuma longa that belongs to the ginger family. It can be traced back to 2500 BC and Vedic culture. One of its more than fifty Sanskrit names is Haridra (dear to Hari – Lord Krishna). The name turmeric derives from the Latin terra merita, and is a reference to its golden-yellow mineral coloring. It is called “yellow root” in some languages. It is a rhizome – a subterranean plant stem or rootstalk, like lotus and ginger. The turmeric rhizome is processed, dried, and ground to the familiar powder with its complex bitter, acrid and sweet taste. India produces nearly all of the world’s turmeric crop today and consumes 80% of it.
Role in Culture and Tradition
The Haldi Kumkum ceremony is a prime example of the role of turmeric in Indian society. A social custom practiced widely in western and southern India, it can be traced back to the rule of Marathas and Peshwas in Maharashtra. Married women gather to exchange haldi and kumkum (vermilion powder) as a symbol of their married status, and to wish for long lives, health, and prosperity for their families.
Turmeric is considered auspicious and is used in other religious traditions: wedding invitations are marked with it; the groom and bride are often anointed with turmeric paste; the bride’s Mangalsutra is strung on a turmeric-dyed string, and Buddhist monks wear robes dyed in turmeric.
Uses for health and traditional medicine
Ayurvedic medications have utilized turmeric for 4000 years. Its antiseptic and anti-infection properties make it a key ingredient in household remedies for the treatment of common ailments such as coughs and colds, wounds, jaundice, skin infections, and liver and urinary tract diseases. It’s also an important component of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Turmeric pastes and formulations are widely used for the treatment of skin-related ailments as well as for beautifying and nourishing the face, hands, and skin. Women have used turmeric paste on their faces and hands for generations, and it is an ingredient in many of today’s toothpastes, face washes, and shampoos. I’m certain many readers remember and use their mother’s Haldi Milk recipe!
Composition and properties
Turmeric has been a subject of study in modern medicine since the 1950s and is now one of the most thoroughly researched plants. More than a hundred components have been isolated from turmeric; important among these are organic compounds called turmerones and curcuminoids. The latter are natural polyphenols – micronutrients that naturally occur in plants. Curcumin is the principal biologically active polyphenol in turmeric. It has established anti-inflammatory choleretic, and antimicrobial properties and the ability to boost the body’s immune system to fight various autoimmune illnesses. An average turmeric rhizome is about 2-5% curcumin.
Turmeric in modern medicine
Research studies have demonstrated the efficacy of turmeric and curcumin in combating a variety of diseases including cancer and neurogenerative diseases. In one study, turmerones were found to be effective in controlling the propagation of cancer cells, having substantial efficacy as anticancer drugs in multi-resistant cancer cells and colorectal cancer. Neuroprotective effects have been demonstrated in different neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders such as epilepsy, anxiety and depression, cognitive deficits, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington, and multiple sclerosis. Curcumin is believed to act via its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies have indicated it has the ability to combat hair loss. It has the potential for healing and potentially reversing disease. A 2011 summary of peer-reviewed research including in-vitro in-vivo and human-subject studies concludes that its numerous pharmacological properties indicate the potential for its use in the treatment of diseases:
“The beneficial effects of turmeric are traditionally achieved through dietary consumption, even at low levels, over long periods of time. A precise understanding of effective dose, safety, and mechanism of action is required for the rational use of turmeric in the treatment of human diseases. Further clinical studies are warranted if turmeric is to be employed in meeting human needs and improving human welfare. The activities of turmeric include antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antioxidant, antiseptic, cardioprotective, hepatoprotective, nephroprotective, radioprotective, and digestive activities. Phytochemical analysis of turmeric has revealed a large number of compounds, including curcumin, volatile oil, and curcuminoids, which have been found to have potent pharmacological properties.”
Turmeric is indeed a wondrous substance, and we can expect more benefit from it in the future.
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at [email protected]
With sincere thanks to Tammana Rumee at Unsplash and Steve Buissinnea at Pixabay for the use of their images.