Meet the Golden Goddess

Turmeric

by Mollie Doyle

Turmeric

Sybil Teles

It was winter when turmeric caught my eye. My husband had just told me that he was over lentil soup, a weekly winter staple in our house, and wanted to move on. My heart was broken. I love lentils—their flavor, texture and nutritional value. And I love my soup. This got me thinking about other ways to cook with lentils. Daal came to mind and then my mouth flooded with the memory of the curries, chutneys, and raitas that I
used to eat on a weekly basis (if not daily) when I lived in New York City. While I truly love living on the island of Martha’s Vineyard,

I do miss New York food, especially, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese. And though I am a pretty good cook, I am more well-versed in Mediterranean than Asian food. Fortunately, Jan Buhrman was game
to introduce a few friends and me to the principles of Indian cooking, particularly curries. And that is when I first met turmeric, which I’d always seen around, but had never really gotten to know. I had written
turmeric off. It was too mellow for me. Generally speaking, I like spices and flavors that punch my palate: cumin, lemon, cilantro, garlic, chili and fresh basil. But Jan told us that turmeric has other unseen virtues: it is as effective in relieving joint pain as 800 mg of ibuprofen, it can reduce the chance of Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer, and it is a great digestive aid.

When I got home, I Googled turmeric and found many studies done by distinguished institutions to back Jan’s statement up. I also learned from Michael Castleman’s book, The Healing Herbs, that Ayurvedic
medicine has used kanchani (the sanscrit word for turmeric, which means “the Golden Goddess”) for thousands of years to treat fever, infections, dysentery, arthritis, acne, jaundice and other liver problems. Likewise, for thousands of years traditional Chinese physicians have also used turmeric for gallbladder and liver problems, to stop bleeding, for treating chest congestion and menstrual discomfort. And while sharing this news with friends, I learned that Caitlin Jones of Mermaid Farm has recently begun growing turmeric, which is native to South Asia, and selling it at the Farmers’ Market. Caitlin told me, “I am just beginning to work with this plant—learning how to prune it, get the soil right. But it is beautiful and so different than the stuff you get at the supermarket with the tough skin.”

But I still wanted to talk to an expert to get a better understanding of why and how turmeric works in the body to help it heal. So I called Dr. Janet Funk, an endocrinologist\ at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. In 2006, with the help of a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH), Dr. Funk and her research team found the “preventative effects of turmeric in rheumatoid arthritis.” Since then she has become one of the country’s leading researchers and experts on turmeric, looking at how it can help with osteoporosis and cancer. She told me, “On a gross level, we understand that turmeric’s power is in its curcuminoids.

Curcuminoids are the essential oils of the plant that give it its yellow orange-ish color. And we know that that piperine found in black pepper is what helps our bodies to absorb and use the curcuminoids. But it is not
so simple.” She explains, “The fact that it is a plant makes it very complex. There are 50 active variables and we don’t know which ones are the effective parts of the plant. There is some suggestion that because the
plant is a natural combination of these 50 parts may be why it works so well.”

When I ask her if she cooks with turmeric or takes capsules of it for anything, she laughs and says, “No. We haven’t done clinical trials. We still don’t know how this plant will interact with other drugs when taken in
significant doses. Moreover, turmeric supplements are power packed—their chemical makeup is about 98% enriched with curcumin versus the 3% found in a culinary powder. In other words, the supplements are much, much stronger than eating something with turmeric in it. So I am cautious.”

But other doctors disagree. In their book You Staying Young, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael F. Roizen advise their readers to “take as much as you want.” And health expert Dr. Andrew Weil is a huge advocate
of turmeric, writing about it and selling it on his website. I emailed Dr. Weil to get his take on turmeric for the average person.

He referred me to his colleague, Dr. Wendy Kohatsu, who is an integrative physician and chef and has used turmeric with her patients and clients for more than a decade. She told me, “Since inflammation
has become more widely recognized as the pathophysiologic mechanism behind many chronic diseases—heart disease, asthma, cancers, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s dementia— it behooves us to find natural ways to reduce inflammation in the body to prevent such diseases. I believe that if people have active inflammatory disease, then a trial of a turmeric supplement may be warranted as a specific medical intervention.”

When I asked her what first convinced her of its power she told me, “Interestingly, Dr. Weil and I many years ago traveled to my ancestral island of Okinawa—home of the longest-lived people on the planet, and
many elderly folks there (80, 90-plus years old) enjoy full health and drink a tea made of turmeric daily.”

That memory got Dr. Kohatsu and me talking about how all this turmeric researc began: scientists found that there were lower incidences of cancer and Alzheimer’s in India and narrowed one main reason down to the turmeric in the food. And when we talked about the average person, she agreed that given the healing potential of turmeric, having a weekly or bi-weekly date with a bowl of curry seems like just the thing to do.

Writer’s note: Cancer.org says that turmeric is contraindicated for some. “People taking blood-thinning medications, drugs that suppress the immune system, or nonsteroidal pain relievers (such as ibuprofen) should avoid turmeric because of the risk of harmful drug interactions. In animal and laboratory studies, turmeric made certain anti-cancer drugs less effective. Antioxidant supplements can interfere with the effectiveness
of chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Patients who are in cancer treatment should talk to their doctor before taking vitamins, minerals, or other supplements.”

Additionally, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use turmeric supplements, but the quantities of turmeric found in food are safe for those who are not allergic to it.