Turmeric, that warm, bitter spice with a golden color, is a common ingredient in curry dishes, mustards and cheeses. Aside from its place in some of our favorite meals, the spice is renowned the world over for its health benefits.
The first use of turmeric dates back about 4,000 years to India, where it was used as a spice for cooking and had some religious significance in Vedic culture. Turmeric has a long history of medicinal use in South Asia, where it appeared in Sanskrit in Ayurvedic medical texts. One of those, the Sushruta Samhita, dating to about 700 B.C., recommends a turmeric ointment to relieve the effects of consuming poisoned food.
Use of the golden spice is also common in traditional Chinese medicine. Both practices have used turmeric to aid with digestion and liver function, relieve arthritis pain and regulate menstruation. Today's uses include aiding with heartburn, stomach ulcers, gallstones, inflammation and cancer.
"Turmeric is used daily throughout India as a cooking spice, and this would be the best way to incorporate it into your life," says Ayurvedic practitioner Kathy Gehlken, MA, RDN, CMP. "Modern science likes to extract what it thinks are the active agents from herbs and then distill them into supplements for people to take. Ayurvedic medicine is based on the use of whole, intact herbs, with all of their components working in concert to synergize and, when necessary, counterbalance one another, to achieve the desired effect."
What does Western medicine have to say about turmeric? Research shows that taking turmeric by mouth might help improve an upset stomach. There's also some evidence that turmeric extracts, alone or in combination with other herbal ingredients, can reduce osteoarthritis pain. In one study, the spice worked as well as ibuprofen for reducing osteoarthritis pain. Curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric, may have anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antioxidant properties, according to early findings from animal and lab studies (the findings have not been confirmed in humans). While other studies suggest benefits for Alzheimer's disease, colorectal cancer, gum disease, Crohn's disease and diabetes, among others, it's too soon to rate the effectiveness of turmeric in providing relief for these conditions, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
To reap health benefits, Gehlken recommends cooking with turmeric rather than taking a supplement. "It would not be recommended, in an Ayurvedic sense, to take the large doses that people currently take in supplements because of the heating and pungent qualities, which can be drying in the body."