All About Turmeric

By David Bunting, Herb Pharm

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Turmeric is probably best known for its spicy flavor and the bold yellow color it gives to curry. Along with coloring foods, it has been used as a dye for both skin and clothing. From some of the earliest records it has also been used topically and internally as a medicinal herb. Turmeric is a quintessential example of standardization gone wrong by taking a botanical medicine to the drug-like extreme of single constituent isolation. It is also a classic example of an ancient herb that has found entirely new uses, and gained a new reputation, in the face of modern medical theory and research.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the Zingiberaceae, or ginger family, and like ginger, it too is a tropical plant. To the best of our knowledge, turmeric originated in southern India and this region continues as the world’s largest producer. As a seedless plant, its movement to new locations throughout the tropics has been dependent upon people. By 800 AD turmeric had spread across much of Asia, including China, and across Africa. This is testament not only to its wide esteem as a useful plant, but also to its trade and relocation in early history. By the 18th century Turmeric made its way to Jamaica and it is now cultivated throughout the tropics, including Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Turmeric appears in some of the earliest known records of plants in medicine. It was reportedly listed in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt, circa 1500 BC, for use as a dye and in healing wounds. This is one of the earliest surviving records of medicinal plant use. It is believed to have been cultivated in the Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, possibly as early as the 8th century BC. Closer to its origin, turmeric was an important herb in Ayurvedic and Unani medicine and was listed in an Ayurvedic compendium text around 250 BC. Some four centuries later it was included in what is considered to be the world’s first pharmacopoeia, the Tang Materia Medica, compiled in China around in 659 AD.

Ayurvedic medicine employed turmeric for the digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems. Here it is used to treat indigestion, purify the blood and quell intestinal gas, cough and arthritis. Chinese medicine uses turmeric for moving Qi and blood in the treatment of epigastric and abdominal pain, various menstrual irregularities and swellings and trauma.

As medical theory continues searching for the root of many chronic health issues, modern research is recognizing the value of turmeric. Significant research to support its use in gut and joint problems has been carried out on curcumin, a single component of turmeric. This has led to the production and marketing of extracts very high in curcumin, some as high as 95 percent, or what is essentially isolated curcumin. These ultra-high levels of curcumin are typically achieved by extracting with acetone. Acetone is a toxic solvent widely used in industry and one of the chemicals used to denature ethanol, where it is rendered unsuitable for drinking.

Current research is focusing on the whole herb and its extracts and finding these to be even more effective than isolated curcumin. This scenario is common where a single chemical entity is thought to be “the” active phytochemical in an herb. It is often difficult in scientific research to move outside of the single chemical entity model, especially when a given herb contains hundreds of plant compounds. Known active compounds in turmeric include curcuminoids, a family of curcumin and related compounds and the volatile oil fraction, characterized by turmerones. As research continues, turmeric has become one of the most popular dietary supplements.

Herb Pharm is proud to carry a vegetarian Turmeric softgel. It contains a broad-spectrum, water (polar) extract containing quantified curcuminoids and a supercritical carbon dioxide (non-polar) extract of the volatile oil fraction with quantified turmerones. Together, these polar and non-polar fractions create a very broad-spectrum turmeric product. A small amount of supercritical extract of black pepper enhances the turmeric. The Turmeric softgel is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and non-GMO, and features all-organic ingredients.

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