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Turmeric: The Golden Spice

For centuries turmeric has been revered, and recent clinical trials are highlighting its innate healing properties, garnering it evermore popularity in the Western world. Filippa Harrington explores the history and benefits of this potent and powerful rhizome.

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For centuries turmeric has been revered and utilised extensively throughout the world. However, in recent years, science and clinical trials have bolstered the healing power of this plant to inarguable status – a shift that has led many of us in the West to take a new interest in this enigmatic rhizome.

This scientific breakthrough has led to a surge in the popularity and availability of turmeric – you’ve probably notice ‘golden lattes’ or turmeric teas on the menu at your local cafe. But, before studies gave it their stamp of approval, turmeric had long been treasured for its anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and blood-cleansing properties in both healing and culinary practices across Indian, Thai, Malaysian, South-East Asian and Hawaiian cultures.

In India, its use has a history that dates back nearly 4000 years. Within Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical practice, it is an integral ingredient in many remedies and preparations. In the home, it is the ‘heal all’ substance. It has a role in ritual, in the medicine cupboard, and in the kitchen. There are at least 53 different names for turmeric in Sanskrit, including Haldi (that draws attention to its bright colour), ratrimanika (as beautiful as moonlight) and vishagni (killer of poison).

In many Indian households, turmeric lends itself to mark the ritual in nearly every milestone of one’s life. Soon after birth, newborns are massaged with a turmeric and flour paste, and the day before marriage turmeric paste is applied to the skin of the bride and groom. Invitations too are marked with a dot of the powder, as its characteristic yellow hue symbolises good fortune and its connection to the sun god, Suraj. In some states, following the death of a loved one, individuals will refrain from adding turmeric to food for 10 days, to symbolise loss and grief.

Photo: Julie Johnson

Ayurveda is not the only ancient healing system to call upon the potency of turmeric in its healing remedies. Traditional Hawaiian healing practices have also revered the plant, known locally as ‘olena’, for its life force or spiritual power; the root is mashed up to a pulp or juice and consumed for its blood purifying properties, and to treat sinus issues and ear aches. Turmeric is also known as one of the ‘canoe plants’ – a family of carefully chosen plants, roots and herbs that Hawaiian voyagers would take with them on their long and extensive explorations of the Pacific Ocean.

‘Curcuma longa’ is the botanical name of this deep orange rhizome, and it is curcumin, the main active ingredient within turmeric and one of three curcuminoids within the plant, that is responsible for its medicinal benefits.

Extensive research has reinforced curcumin’s therapeutic potential against a wide range of human ailments. These include significant anti-inflammatory benefits and, for Ayurvedic doctor, Dr. Shivani Gupta, this is one of curcumin’s most powerful and helpful benefits for humans today.

Turmeric also has the potential to assist with mental health issues and neurological disorders. With major depression predicted to be the second most prevalent human illness by the year 2020, there is an ever-increasing need to explore and harness the anti-depressant qualities of natural supplements. The brain-curcumin relationship is still not fully understood (despite years of clinical research) but in relation to its antidepressant qualities, there are two key ways that curcumin has been proven to interact with our mental wellbeing.

The first of these is its positive relationship to serotonin, colloquially known as ‘the feel good hormone’. Serotonin acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, and low levels of this chemical are often connected to mood disorders, anxiety, fatigue and depression. Curcumin has the ability of readily crossing the blood-brain barrier to balance the release of serotonin and dopamine, which leads to healthier and more stable levels of serotonin. This, in turn, supports a balanced and at ease neurological state.

The second connection is through curcumin’s relationship to DHA. DHA is the primary Omega 3 fatty acid in the brain and it’s critical for brain function. Brains with low or deficient levels of DHA present manifestations of anxiety, depression, and memory and cognitive disabilities. Curcumin has been shown to create more of the specific enzymes involved in the synthesis of DHA in the liver and brain, which translates to higher levels of DHA in the brain. This is great news for individuals that choose a plant-based diet, as it’s largely believed that we need to consume fish and organ meat for DHA.

The list doesn’t end at mental health. Ancient and contemporary medicine systems are seeing curcumin’s positive impacts in the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes, digestive issues, pain relief and blood cleansing.

There is a caveat, however, to all this goodness. The effectiveness of curcumin and the key to unlocking its healing powers is in its bioavailability, i.e. our ability to actually uptake the curcumin internally. Curcumin, when ingested alone, is not readily available to be absorbed by the body.

We spoke to Zoe Lind van’t Hof, from innovative turmeric brand, Wunder Workshop, to understand this a little better, “as with many of nature’s powerful nutritional plants it is not always straightforward to reap their benefits. Turmeric is most bioavailable when used as powder, and must be consumed in conjunction with piperine (found in black pepper) and a fat (such as coconut or olive oil).”

In many of the culinary traditions that have long made use of turmeric, there is often ritual or rules of its use, where we see this symbiotic relationship of turmeric to fat and black pepper maintained. Take the preparation of a simple curry as an example; turmeric is fried with the onion, in oil, and mixed into a masala or spice mix combining black pepper. It seems that, without study or scientific data, there has been an innate understanding or relationship with this plant, that echoes throughout Indian cooking.

In our fast, information-driven world, what are we missing out on by taking the easy route; skim reading the headline by buying a bottle of curcumin pills and stopping the investigation there? Many curcumin supplements do not contain piperine, and many of us ignore the instruction on the labels when they say ‘take with food’, and so will miss out on pairing curcumin with its fat-soluble counterpart. However, the simple act of integrating turmeric powder into the aromatic base of a soup, stew or curry, allows is, by default, to be bioavailable to us.

And so, when looking for turmeric, or products containing curcumin, whether that’s in pill form or in a golden latte, it’s important to do a little bit of research to make sure that the brand itself has provided a complete product, with the synergistic compounds included. Or, make a plan to enjoy them alongside a fat, or with a grind of black pepper.

Wunder Workshop, one of IKIGAI’s founding brands, have a deep understanding of this plant, and have ensured that turmeric is bio-available in each of their products. Zoe explains that “all our recipes are prepared in such a way that they reap turmeric’s benefits the most efficient way. So as well as having a creamy Golden Mylk (that contains black pepper and coconut), one can also reap its benefits by having some turmeric honey in your porridge or on top of your pancakes.”

It is also important to source turmeric products with integrity. When science shines a light on the powerful benefits of certain foods or plants, it can sometimes cause a sudden spike for their demand. Commerce rushes to cash in on the latest health trend and may exploit land and farmworkers in the name of low costs, quick turnarounds and high markups. At times, it can have negative consequence on the communities that have been utilising these foods or plants for generations, or on the integrity of the food or plant itself.

Once again, doing your research and asking questions is important.. Not only for the bigger picture, but to ensure that you are ingesting a genuine and high-quality product.

As Wunder Workshop’s Zoe explains, “by using organic turmeric, naturally, the curcumin content is higher than conventional non-organic turmeric.”  Wunder Workshop exclusively sources high quality, single origin, organic turmeric from small community farms in Sri Lanka. “This farm grows their turmeric using a technique known as Analog forestry. This technique imitates the original native biodiversity of the region’s flora and fauna, by planting in the shade of tree canopies to assist in replenishing the nutrition and moisture of the soil. This farming style goes beyond the conventional monoculture techniques and even beyond our organic logo. Besides guaranteeing pesticide- and chemical-free production, Analog forestry helps to rebuild a sustainable ecosystem and empowers rural communities.”

A plant as powerful and as healing as turmeric deserves our time, and our attention. Here, as with many other healing foods, the more we get to know our ingredients – our medicines – the closer we get to the nourishing quality of them. As with many of the most special things in life, turmeric comes with its own lesson: If we take the easy way, or cut corners, we won’t get to experience the full spectrum of benefits this plant has to offer. Each step we take closer to the root, of this root, we find another layer of gifts.

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