Modern scientific research has now revealed what has been known for thousands of years in traditional medicine practices such as Ayurveda, about the powerful health benefits of turmeric (curcuma longa)[1]:

· Promotes digestion

· Potent anti-oxidant

· Supports the brain and nervous system

· Maintains good joint movement

· Supports proper liver function

· Nourishes the heart and circulatory system

· Boosts immunity

· Maintains normal blood sugar levels

The modern findings have created an avalanche of advice, often conflicting, about how to use turmeric to cure disorders and for general well-being. Modern nutritional advice on the use of turmeric ranges from taking two tablespoons, twice a day to drinking turmeric tea 4 times a day, or even drinking the fresh juice of turmeric! As a result, many of us just feel confused.

So, the real question therefore, is HOW to use it …

To know how to use it, we must first embrace the whole understanding. Ayurveda has vast experiential knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants that goes back for thousands of years. It is here we can find the answers.

Modern and traditional medicine agree that turmeric is very powerful. However, just as with any powerful machine if we don’t know how to use it properly, we can easily cause an accident. In the same way, when we start using any herb which is very powerful without proper understanding, it is likely to create accidents or unwanted side effects which may show themselves immediately or emerge with time.

We need to have some understanding of two principles in Ayurveda — samyoga (combination) and sanskara (preparation). So, in order to use turmeric, we need to know both what to combine it with and how to prepare it. Don’t worry, we don’t need be an Ayurvedic doctor to know this! Traditionally, the way it has been used for centuries has good reason behind it. The guidance on how to use it can all be found there.

Combination and preparation

Ruksha (drying) and ushna (heating) are two predominant qualities of turmeric in addition to its medicinal properties. Therefore, when we consume turmeric it can create a heating or drying effect in the body and can aggravate certain kinds of disorders such as vata and pitta conditions. It is worth noting here that so many of the predominant disorders in the West are the cause of imbalance of pitta and vata, such as hormonal imbalances, urinary tract disorders, IBS, arthritis, fertility issues, and skin disorders to name but a few.

This is also why you will never hear of anyone in Asia consuming two tablespoons of turmeric twice a day. When turmeric is used in Asia it is always used in combination with something unctuous (oily) to counteract the drying effect and something cooling to balance the heating effect. The most common ways of using turmeric in Asia involve combinations with other spices, vegetables, lentils, milk or ghee (clarified butter) and so on. In this way there is some molecular interaction with other elements which reduces the heating and drying effect of turmeric whilst allowing us to benefit from its medicinal effect. This is because turmeric used alone goes straight into the stomach and liver creating the drying and heating effect. Used in cooking with other spices and ingredients, we are practising safe efficacy.

In stark contrast to the advice given by modern nutritionists, there is no example of the use of turmeric on its own as a single herb in any of the great Ayurvedic texts. Ayurveda has the largest compilation of medical literature and pharmacopoeia of medicines in the world, said to be at least three times the size of modern medicine. This is the natural effect of the great age of Ayurvedic knowledge. So we can definitely learn something from its advice on using such herbs.

Once again, modern medicine is slowly confirming what has been known in Ayurveda for a long time. Modern studies on turmeric have now discovered that turmeric has low bioavailability — meaning that it gets excreted or metabolised before the active ingredients can reach the bloodstream and have beneficial effects. The search then began for other substances which could help absorption. In short after more research the conclusion is that other spices can help absorption and that other parts of the turmeric root are critical to proper absorption. In other words … Ayurveda has always known that the extraction of the single active ingredient (which is the basis of so many preparations in Western medicine) is not what nature intended. This is because the root itself (and sometimes the leaves used in certain preparations) contains chemicals that have a synergistic and antagonistic effect (meaning here that it suppresses unwanted effects in the body).

The other shortcoming with advice on the use of herbs such as turmeric when it comes to the treatment of serious disorders is that it may not be applicable to everyone. According to Ayurveda, we are each unique in our constitutional make-up, which affects how we digest and assimilate food. Ayurveda has always had an individualised approach to nutrition. Whilst there have been some developments in modern nutrition towards a more individualised approach, the time-tested methodology and natural science of thousands of years of clinical observation of Ayurveda will always be the most reliable body of knowledge. Modern medicine doesn’t take into account, that turmeric can have varying effects on an individual based on their constitution, age and a multitude of factors such as the strength of the digestive power, immunity levels etc. What this means is that as with any herb or food, especially when used to treat serious disorders, what is medicine for one may be poison for another

Turmeric administered as a medicine in the treatment of serious disorders in Ayurveda requires proper medical diagnosis of the imbalance and constitution from a sufficiently experienced Ayurvedic physician. The advice given below in this article is suitable for minor disorder and general wellbeing.

So we want to capture the special properties of turmeric (prabhava). This is contained within its volatile organic component (VOC) and has the most powerful vibrational action to help detoxify and restore the intelligence of the liver. The special property of turmeric is that when dried in natural sunlight it particularly good at retaining the goodness in the sunlight more than most other foods. Once ingested in the body it releases the energy of the sunlight. This is also why raw turmeric is rarely ingested in Asia, as it hasn’t had the benefit of natural sun drying.

Here are some great ways to harness all its power, prabhava, without unwanted side effects:

1. Always use turmeric (heating) in combination with other spices such as cinnamon, ground coriander and cumin (cooling effect). The proportion of turmeric to the other spices can vary between one pinch to a half a teaspoon in one dish.

2. Use turmeric in cooking with vegetables, lentils and even meat and fish dishes.

3. When using turmeric in curries, stews and other dishes, a little coconut milk together with other spices helps to counteract the heat as coconut milk has a cooling effect on the body.

4. A delicious night-time drink, which will encourage a restful sleep and aid digestion and detoxification, is warm milk (or almond milk) with anything between a pinch to a quarter of a teaspoon of turmeric, 2 cardamom pods, a pinch of cinnamon and ginger. Best to drink 1/2 hour to an hour before bedtime.

[1] Top evidence-based findings in current medical research:

i. Turmeric contains curcumin, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

ii. Chronic inflammation is known to be a contributor to many common Western diseases. Curcumin can reduce inflammation by inhibiting many molecules known to play a major role in inflammation.

iii. Curcumin has powerful anti-oxidant effects. It neutralises free radicals on its own and stimulates the body’s own anti-oxidant enzymes.

iv. Curcumin boosts levels of the brain hormone BDNF, which increases the growth of new neurons and fights various degenerative processes in the brain.

v. Curcumin has beneficial effects on several factors known to play a role in heart disease. It improves the function of the endothelium and is a potent anti-inflammatory agent and anti-oxidant.

vi. Curcumin leads to several changes on the molecular level that may help prevent and perhaps even treat cancer.

vii. Curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to lead to various improvements in the pathological process of Alzeimer’s disease.

viii. Arthritis is a common disorder characterised by joint inflammation. Many studies show that curcumin can help treat symptoms of arthritis and is in some cases more effectice than anti-inflammatory drugs.

ix. A study in 60 depressed patients showed that curcumin was as effective as Prozac in alleviating the symptoms of depression.

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