TurmericBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
October 19, 2010
Aging has been very strange. I find that my inside has no clue what my outside is doing. It was surprising to me when I tried to climb the ladder to clean the debris from my gutters to find that the ladder was no longer as stable as it once was. And suddenly I could not dig in my garden for as many hours as I did only a few years ago. I thought it must be because of a change in the soil. I never used to nap during the afternoon. Now, somehow I wake in the recliner and it's time for dinner, before I even know the afternoon has come and gone. And I will not mention that old lady I see in the mirror.
I have to talk about aging because I am reading about supplements and vitamins and exercise, something the printed media tells those of us my age we need. "Not me," I tell myself, but of course being curious, I keep reading. Suddenly I might have a vitamin deficiency, or better yet, I should be taking two more capsules of this in order to prevent my body from collapsing in upon itself from the same dreaded affliction I find myself reading about. Such was the case when I read about turmeric.
Curcuma longa, or turmeric, flourishes in the rich, moist soils of Java, China, India and Bangladesh and is a valuable cash crop in many other tropical areas of the Far East. When I started researching this plant, I was surprised to find that its foliage looks very much like the foliage of some in the lily family. Pictures are somewhat deceiving, though, because turmeric may grow as high as 5 feet. Its leaves are large, about one and a half feet long and 8 inches wide. Funnel shaped flowers are borne in pairs from the leaf axils. It is the rhizome that is the most important part of the plant. Dried and ground to a powder, it yields the spice curcumin. It is this yellow orange spice and coloring agent that is responsible for the distinctively warm, bitter taste of curried foods, and that's because it is the chief component of curry powder. It is a common ingredient of prepared mustards as well, and is often used in making pickles. Itslife as a coloring agent is limited to foods, however, because it is very weak as a fabric dye, and tends to fade quite rapidly.
Turmeric is a perennial native to tropical South Asia, it needs temperatures betweem 20 C and 30 C degrees, and a considerable amount of annual rainfall to thrive. The plants are gathered annually for their rhizomes, which are then boiled for several hours and dried in hot ovens. After the drying process, they are ground into an orangey yellowish powder for dyeing, and to impart color to mustard condiments. It gives the mustard its peppery taste as well as its color.
In medieval Europe, it became known as Indian Saffron, since it was widely used as an alternative to the far more expensive saffron spice. It's culinary uses are many. It's sometimes used as a colorant in canned beverages, popcorn, sweets, cake icings, cereals, gelatins, and the list is endless. It is also used fresh, much like ginger. It has numerous uses in Far East recipes simply as a spice.
I have no idea how I got on the mailing lists of those who send out literature to the geriatric set. I am sure it must be a computer glitch, but one thing I have noticed in those mailings is that turmeric seems to have great medicinal value. Of course they also tell me that peanut butter and prunes have great value, too, but I feel just fine without them, so they could be wrong about turmeric. At any rate, you know already how curious I am, so I continued to read about turmeric, just in case I ever got old and might need it.
Ayurvedic medicine is a system of traditional herbal medicine native to India. It is best known in the western world as complementary and/or alternative medicine. The greatest theme running through that particular system is "moderation in all things." Turmeric plays a huge role in this type of health care. It is a readily available antiseptic for cuts, burns and bruises. Some say it has fluoride which is essential for teeth, and it is used as an antibacterial agent. It is taken in some Asian countries as a dietary supplement, to help with stomach problems, and it is a popular tea in Japan.
Of particular interest to most of us, whether we have reached that golden age or not are these facts: Currently it is being investigated for possible benefits in Alzheimer's diseases, cancer and liver disorders. It is only recently that western scientists have recognized the medicinal qualities of turmeric. According to a 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal, research activity into curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric is exploding. The U.S. National Institutes of Health had at that time four clinical trials studying curcumin treatment for Alzheimer's and pancreatic cancer. At Yale it was being studied as a treatment for cystic fibrosis. Anti-tumoral effects against melanoma cells have been demonstrated. Studies show that it reduces the spread of breast cancer into lungs and other body parts. Presenting their findings at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting in San Francisco in June 2008, researchers stated that evidence shows less susceptibility to type 2 diabetes as a result of turmeric treatment.
As if that isn't enough information for you, along a lighter vein, here is a little more. Turmeric is currently used in the formulation of sunscreens. It is used by Indian women to keep their bodies rid of unwanted hair. Turmeric paste is applied to the bodies of the bride and groom before marriage in some Far Eastern countries to give glow to the skin and to keep harmful bacteria away from the body. And finally, turmeric can be used in your garden to deter ants.
And yes, exactly like you, when I read that last sentence, I had to laugh. I realize this is a ton of serious information about one exotic plant, but isn't it interesting that it might someday become a major medical miracle? It really has no side effects, except it is thought to cause minimal hair loss if used in great quantities. I have decided that I don't mind all this literature I am getting through the mail these days. It seems to contain excellent information that I might need someday when I get old. Actually, after reading all I could find about it, I bought a bottle of Turmeric capsules at my pharmacy today. I plan to get a head start on the aging process. Just in case it ever happens.
And too, I could always sprinkle it in my garden if I ever see any ants.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers in order of the image appearance: Kennedyh, Mez, Michaelp, Getrich.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, the Reader's Digest, Inc. New York, 1986
Complementary & Alternative Medicines, Third Edition, C.W. Fetrow, PharmD, Juan R. Avila, PharmD; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004