Monday, 27 June 2011

Yellow gold : Turmeric and its promise

Growing up in Southern India, we cultivated several vegetables and spices in our backyard, one of which was turmeric. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) belongs to the same family as ginger. It is rhizomatous herb and normally pieces of the rhizome are planted in the rainy months of July. In our hands, the plants did not require much care at all. No artificial fertilizers were used nor were the plants watered but only left to the mercy of nature. But our part of South India is blessed with rains anyway, at least then, before the global warming and stuff but that’s another story.

The rhizomes were harvested in the following summer. One signal that it was time for harvest was the death of the leaves. Once this occurred, the root tubers were all plucked out from the soil. This often coincided with the latter half of the summer vacations and was a joyous occasion for us when we were children. The tubers were then washed in water to remove the soil. By the time the mud was washed off our little palms would all be yellow. Imagine our delight when our hands turned read when we tried to wash it away with soap (Turmeric is a PH indicator turning from yellow to red in alkaline conditions). The tubers were then sun dried and pulverized to be used for culinary purposes.

Turmeric occupies a lofty place in Indian culture, well almost like gold. In fact nearly most of South Indian dishes use it as a seasoning. In Ayurveda, it is associated with a manifold health benefits. Apart from using turmeric powder to spice dishes, the fresh root tubers are ground and used as masques on the skin which issupposed to prevented sun induced damage and blemishes. It also plays an important role in auspicious ceremonies like weddings. In many sections of the Indian society the prospective bride and bridegroom have ritual baths with turmeric due to its edifying properties

For the last decade or so, turmeric has moved from the spice cupboards in Indian kitchens to the laboratory benches where researchers are investigating the overwhelming evidence of its' beneficial effects. It is estimated that turmeric has about 100 constituents. 5% of the rhizome comprises of essential oils and 5% curcumin, the latter is the best studied active substance. Curcumin is identified as responsible for most of the biological effects of turmeric although whether turmeric as a whole or curcumin is isolation is most effective is debated. Some believe that turmeric as a whole is superior than curcumin for some conditions ( Indeed, most research activity has centred around curcumin in isolation. Imagine the complexity if the labs were to investigate the individual compounds that make up turmeric.

Turmeric can rightly be called ‘ the mother of all spices’ . In fact evidence indicates that it is anti inflammatory, anti carcinogenic and anti diabetic to name a few of its health benefits. How turmeric exerts is manifold benefits is only starting to unravel as several labs around the world are investigating the molecular mechanisms of curcumin. Limited evidence suggests that turmeric and its active compound, curcumin, are effective for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), inflammatory eye disease and familial adenomatous polyposis. Other inflammatory diseases where turmeric might play an important role are neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis. Indeed these diseases are less common among people living in the Asian subcontinent, where people regularly consume spices.

More in a future post

Check these links that review therapeutic roles curcumin:

Howes MJ, & Perry E (2011). The role of phytochemicals in the treatment and prevention of dementia. Drugs & aging, 28 (6), 439-68 PMID: 21639405

Rajasekaran SA (2011). Therapeutic potential of curcumin in gastrointestinal diseases. World journal of gastrointestinal pathophysiology, 2 (1), 1-14 PMID: 21607160

Wilken R, Veena MS, Wang MB, & Srivatsan ES (2011). Curcumin: A review of anti-cancer properties and therapeutic activity in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Molecular cancer, 10 PMID: 21299897

Park J, & Conteas CN (2010). Anti-carcinogenic properties of curcumin on colorectal cancer. World journal of gastrointestinal oncology, 2 (4), 169-76 PMID: 21160593

Pocernich CB, Bader Lange ML, Sultana R, & Butterfield DA (2011). Nutritional Approaches to Modulate Oxidative Stress in Alzheimer's Disease. Current Alzheimer research PMID: 21605052

Huang J, Plass C, & Gerhäuser C (2010). Cancer Chemoprevention by Targeting the Epigenome. Current drug targets PMID: 21158707

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