Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your Health: Why is everyone raving about turmeric?

6 comments
Turmeric added to food is generally ok, but highly concentrated extracts should be used with caution. Photo / iStock
Turmeric added to food is generally ok, but highly concentrated extracts should be used with caution. Photo / iStock

Hi Sandra, everyone seems to be raving about turmeric, why? What are the benefits and what's the best way to consume it? I'm told Mike Hosking puts it in his coffee, is this a good idea? Rebecca

Hi Rebecca, great question! Turmeric has been used as a medicine, spice and colouring agent for thousands of years. It was listed in herbal texts as far back as 600 BC. Part of the ginger family, the root is used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Modern scientific research is now confirming what traditional medicine has known - turmeric (and curcumin, the active constituent) has beneficial actions on many bodily systems. Recent studies have revealed turmeric has a wide range of pharmacological and clinical properties, including as an antioxidant, digestive, anti-inflammatory, antiplatelet (decreases clotting), cholesterol lowering and anti-carcinogenic.

This expanding knowledge is likely behind its rise in popularity. People are beginning to realise that healthcare begins in the kitchen and this is truly the essence of traditional medicine.

Turmeric is highly suited to the prevention of cardiovascular disease - extracts of curcumin have been shown to improve cholesterol ratios, thin the blood and protect against cellular damage. This is fantastic if you want to prevent heart disease, but caution is advised if you're already on blood thinning medication. Turmeric added to food is generally ok, but highly concentrated extracts should be used with caution. Seek professional advice in this instance.

Turmeric also assists in the management of arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease due to its ability to downregulate inflammatory processes. Many people trial it as an alternative to medicines such as Ibuprofen, as it has less adverse effects on the stomach lining.

Turmeric has also been found to have anti-carcinogenic activity. Current evidence suggests it is best in a preventative role. Early clinical trials showed it could help delay the transition of pre-cancerous cells to cancer, and population studies showed that there were lower rates of certain cancers in countries where turmeric was eaten daily.

When adding turmeric to your diet, you are limited only by your imagination. The Balinese add fresh turmeric to water, ginger and honey for a refreshing summer drink. It can be added fresh or dried to curries and stir-fries, or mixed with milk and cinnamon for a warming winter beverage. Adding black pepper increases the absorption of the active constituent curcumin, as does the addition of fat, such as in a coconut curry.

The latest craze is adding it to coffee that contains fat in the form of milk, cream or coconut oil to enhance bioavailability. There is some sense in this, however, we're not likely to ever get a clinical trial to confirm it! Whatever the delivery mechanism, it is better to have a daily dose of turmeric than none at all.

I'm a triathlete and have a recurring hip injury. My doctor says it is wear and tear and that I need a hip replacement but I've just turned 40 and want to avoid this if possible. Firstly, do you have anything that could help? And secondly, is it a tea? My wife drinks your Deep Sleep Tea but I don't like hot drinks. Simon

Traditional medicine advocates healing from the inside out. Photo / iStock
Traditional medicine advocates healing from the inside out. Photo / iStock

Hi Simon,

It's great that you're looking into self-care options for your hip injury. The phrase "wear and tear" translates to mean a degeneration of cartilage and joints. Most commonly, the synovial membrane of weight bearing joints (usually hips, knees, spine and ankles) begins to degenerate and a loss of the protective cartilage between the joints allows them to become damaged.

In answer to your first question: yes, herbal medicine can help to manage these conditions and sometimes delay the need for surgical intervention. The plants most likely to assist have tissue mending, regenerating and pain-relieving qualities.

Some of my favourites:

• Comfrey promotes the healing of joints and helps repair damage to connective tissue.
• Willow Bark, meadowsweet and birch leaves all contain salicin or its derivative, salicylic acid, which has a mild analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect. They're excellent for helping to relieve the pain that so often accompanies joint degeneration.
• Arnica will help with pain and inflammation.
• Nettle is a fantastic plant for joint conditions and athletic injuries of all kinds. It has a gentle diuretic action that aids with the removal of inflammatory compounds from the joints via the kidneys; a high mineral and vitamin content to re-mineralise wasted cartilage and connective tissues; and formic acid and histamine traditionally used for their anti-rheumatic effect.

The great news for those with an aversion to tea drinking is that clinical trials confirm these plants can still deliver medicinal benefit when used as a remedial cream. A professionally compounded cream will need to have around 30 per cent fresh-plant extract in order to deliver the desired effect, so make sure you only buy a cream that has this therapeutic level of actives.

I would recommend applying a thin layer to your hip three to four times daily, or more frequently as required, to support joint mobility and soothe discomfort.

Traditional medicine advocates healing from the inside out. For this reason, better results are often achieved by combining topical applications of a remedial cream with an internal preparation that supports tissue healing and provides natural pain relief.

A professionally compounded oral liquid containing the medicinal plants mentioned above would be best in your case. A small amount (5ml) is taken two to three times daily, mixed with a little water. Liquids are more easily assimilated by the body and contain no excipients or tableting agents. I wish you all the best in managing your sports injury naturally, so that you can keep enjoying the great outdoors!

Further reading:

Alwi et al, (2008). The effect of curcumin on lipid level in patients with acute coronary syndrome. Acta Medica Indonesiana, 40(4):201-10.

Cheng et al, (2001). Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemopreventive agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anticancer Research; 21(4B):2895-900.

Taylor, R., & Leonard, M. (2011). Curcumin for inflammatory bowel disease: a review of human studies. Altern Med Rev, 16(2):152-6.

Predel, H. G., Giannetti, B., Koll, R., Bulitta, M., & Staiger, C. (2005). Efficacy of a Comfrey root extract ointment in comparison to a Diclo-fenac gel in the treatment of ankle distortions: Results of an observer-blind, randomized, multicenter study. Phytomedicine, 12(10), 707-714. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2005.06.001

- NZ Herald

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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