Wonder herb

Tags: Knowledge

It is a case of one remedy ‘fits’ all. New studies testify that turmeric is more than effective in preventing and fixing a host of illnesses, big and small

Revered as a holy powder for centuries, turmeric (curcuma longa) has been used for ages in both ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as an anti-inflammatory agent and digestive remedy, besides liver disorders and skin diseases, including wound healing. It’s volatile oil acts like an external antibiotic, preventing bacterial infection in wounds. Studies suggest that turmeric also hastens the healing process in wounds when applied as a topical agent. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin — which also stimulates the production of bile, while promoting the ‘emptying’ of the gallbladder.

This wonder herb, a relative of the ginger family, is actually a perennial plant that grows 3-5 feet tall in tropical south Asia. It is characterised by trumpet-shaped, dull yellow flowers. A fragrant turmeric has a bitter, and to some extent, sharp taste.

The root, or rhizome, is used in medicinal and food preparations. It is generally boiled and then dried, following which you get the recognisable yellow powder. Curcumin, from turmeric, as well as other substances in the herb, have pain-relieving and antioxidant properties, primarily because of the herb’s high content of vitamins C and E — two celebrated antioxidants.

Curcumin is the colouring principle of turmeric — it is the element that gives the herb its yellow hue. Aside from being the most important component of turmeric, curcumin is responsible for the herb’s anti-inflammatory effects. Research suggests that curcumin, like cayenne, another medicinal spice found in chillies, depletes substance P, the pain receptor and neurotransmitter, in the nerve endings (nociceptors). Research also suggests that curcumin and related compounds suppress pain through a mechanism similar to conventional coxib-2 inhibitors — the ‘new’ class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

As is well known, turmeric has been used externally as a beauty aid and poultice for sprains and sore joints — as also osteoarthritis (OA) and other inflammatory conditions — since ancient times. Inflammation is the body’s response to irritation, injury, or infection. It usually presents with pain, redness, and swelling in the area of damage. It can arise within body tissues as well as on the surface of the skin.

In India, turmeric is popularly known as haldi. Ayurvedic physicians testify the use of turmeric powder not just in arthritis, liver disorders, loss of appetite, cough, colds and sinusitis, but also in diabetes and diabetic wounds. Turmeric is also recommended extensively in the treatment of swellings caused by injury too.

Turmeric powder, it is reported, protects the gastric mucosa against irritants, aside from being a potent pain remedy. In one study, Fan Zhang and colleagues from Cornell University, US, bared gastrointestinal (GI) cells to two known tumour promoters — bile acids or phorbol, a cancer-causing alcohol. The study found curcumin’s coxib-2 action was accompanied by a ten-fold increase in the fusion of inflammation-causing prostaglandins, a group of lipids that appear at sites of tissue damage or infection involved in dealing with injury and illness. They control processes such as inflammation, blood flow, formation of blood clots and the induction of labour. This was a shot in the arm — and, evidence enough why ancient wisdom is timeless, quantifiable and replicable.

Other studies have reported the efficacy of oil extracts from curcumin longa against malarial parasites — this makes it a potential natural remedy in the treatment of certain dreadful ‘mosquito-triggered’ illnesses, including dengue. Not surprisingly, a combination of the volatile oils of turmeric, citronella, and holy basil, with the addition of vanillin — an extract of vanilla bean, used as a flavouring agent — is reported to be a useful alternative to commercially available mosquito repellents.

The oil extracted from turmeric (curcuma oil) was successfully tested against cultures of staphylococcus albus and staphylococcus aureus — bacteria that cause a multitude of diseases. Researchers have also investigated the activity of turmeric fractions against some intestinal bacteria in vitro; the results have been encouraging. While the use of the whole herb, it is said, showed better results over extracts used, other laboratory studies suggest that curcuminoids, or curcumin-like substances, in the herb, may diminish the unfavourable effects of some parasites, including roundworms.

A potent turmeric anti-venom was tested against snakebite — the ingredient neutralised both the haemorrhagic (bleeding) activity and toxic effects of venom in mice. The study found that the ingredient (ar-turmerone) was capable of abolishing the bleeding activity of Bothrops venom and some of the poisonous effects of Crotalus venom too. Experts suggest that ar-turmerone could be used as a potent enzymatic inhibitor in venom enzymes, and with good effect too.

A study has demonstrated curcumin’s anti-viral activity in HIV. Experts suggest that curcumin analogues may be developed as anti-AIDS drugs too. While research has shown that curcumin inhibited the duplication of HIV-1 integrase protein, reports also suggest that curcumin holds promise to stall both HIV-1 and HIV-2 activity.

The administration of curcumin powder in respiratory diseases — especially asthma — is evidenced to provide relief in breathlessness, cough, and sputum, or physical signs of respiratory distress. Studies indicate strongly that patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) treated with the herb found substantial improvement too.

Scientific studies and laboratory research suggest that turmeric is equally useful in the following conditions: tummy upset, gas problems, abdominal colic, including cramps, as also obesity, as it helps to breakdown fats, or treat inflammation (gastritis) of the intestinal walls, or ulcers caused by certain medications (pain-killers), including benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH).

According to a new study, curcumin may also help reduce tumour growth in prostate cancer patients receiving androgen deprivation therapy (ADT). Most important, turmeric is suggested to reduce emotional and physical stress, including the bad effects of alcohol.

Early studies show that turmeric may be useful in preventing the build-up of atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries, a trigger for heart disease and heart attack. Research has also demonstrated that an extract of turmeric lowered cholesterol levels and inhibited the oxidation of LDL, or ‘bad,’ cholesterol. It is reported that turmeric may prevent platelet build-up and arterial blockages too. Clinical studies have also shown that curcumin has a protective effect on the liver, with its anti-tumour action, including the ability to decrease inflammation and fight infections.

Laboratory and animal studies suggest that curcumin has the potential to prevent and treat various forms of cancer: colon, prostate, breast, and skin. As a matter of fact, there has been a substantial amount of research on turmeric’s anti-cancer potential and the results are promising. In one clinical study, researchers examined the pain-relieving properties of curcumin and/or whether it could suppress coxib-2 expression in human colon cancer cells. After exposing colon cancer cells to curcumin, they found the compound not only subdued cell growth, but also downgraded the expression of coxib-2 on the basis of a time- and dose-formatted chart. In addition, researchers observed that curcumin appeared to be a safe, natural coxib-2 inhibitor in human patients.

A study on a group of people with uveitis (inflammation of the uveal tract: iris, ciliary body, and choroids), and the retina, suggests that curcumin may be as effective as corticosteroids — a medication usually prescribed for such eye disorders. Inflammation of the uvea, which is supplied with several blood vessels, can affect the cornea, the retina, the sclera, and other important parts of the eye.

Turmeric is available in natural and commercial forms, such as capsules (containing powder), fluid extracts, and tincture. It may be mentioned that most turmeric products are formulated with bromelain, a natural enzyme derived from pineapple. Bromelain is said to enhance the absorption and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin — the best studied, and the most famous, active ingredient of turmeric.

Clinicians also suggest that a tasty soup, generously laced with turmeric and fresh ground black pepper, for its piperine content, makes curcumin — and, hence its coxib-2 inhibitory activity — more available in patients afflicted by arthritis. Piperine is said to augment curcumin’s coxib-2 inhibitory effects, no less.

Turmeric is relatively safe. However, its excessive use may produce tummy upsets and, in extreme cases, ulcers. Hence, the herb should not be taken by individuals or patients who have been diagnosed with gallstones, or have obstruction of the bile passages. Pregnant women may take turmeric in food; but, they need to exercise caution while taking medications, or supplements, prepared from the herb. Turmeric should be avoided by individuals who are on blood-thinning medications, like aspirin or warfarin, or prior to surgery, because the former is reported to increase the latter’s blood-thinning effects — and, therefore, bleeding. The silver-lining, on the other hand, is turmeric has shown stomach-protecting properties in individuals, or patients, on NSAIDs, including reserpine, a medication used for high blood pressure.

(The writer is a wellness physician and author)


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