Turmeric has become increasingly popular over the last decade, first for blood purification and then for joint pain. As it’s hit the mainstream, its uses have narrowed at the same time. While turmeric is a fabulous herb with many beneficial applications, it’s also quite powerful and can strongly imbalance the body if over-used or misused. Most people aren’t aware of this and definitely should be.
THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT TURMERIC
First for the good news. Although both turmeric rhizome and tuber are considered medicinal, the rhizome is the part most commonly used both as a spice (especially in Indian cooking) and an herb in Western herbalism. It has a warm energy with a spicy and bitter taste and enters the spleen, stomach and liver. It invigorates the blood and qi and has analgesic, emmenagogue, cholagogue, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Although both tubers and rhizomes serve as storage organs, tubers can grow in any direction whereas rhizomes grow horizontally under the ground plus sprout new growth from nodes along that stem.
Turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) treats so many conditions it creates an enormous list. First of all, it’s terrific for all sorts of pain. It treats sports injuries, traumatic injury, pain and swelling, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, joint pain and any painful obstruction, particularly that in the arms and shoulders. It also treats menstrual pain and disorders such as amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, and uterine tumors. As a cholagogue, it stimulates the secretion of bile, making it effective for gallstones, hyperlipidemia, cholestasis, cholecystitis, poor digestion, flank, abdominal or epigastric congestion or pain, hepatitis, liver congestion, fat intolerance, and food allergies.
If that’s not enough, turmeric rhizome treats wounds, bruises, abscesses, sores, toothache, bilious headaches, bacterial infections in the stomach, IBS, enteritis, dysbiosis, intestinal parasites, eczema, psoriasis, and ringworm/athlete’s foot,
The rhizome is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and purifies the blood and liver. It also strengthens digestion, improves intestinal flora, and aids in digestion of protein. The curcuminoids in turmeric rhizome are phenolic compounds that protect the liver and are responsible for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties. As a condiment for cooking, turmeric rhizome is one of the main ingredients in curries.
Turmeric tuber (Curcuma aromatica, C. longa) has a cold energy and acrid and bitter tastes. It affects the lungs, heart and liver. It invigorates blood, moves qi and stops pain, including pain in the chest, abdomen, flank, and costal regions, plus dysmenorrhea. Since it clears heat and cools the blood, it stops all sorts of bleeding, especially nosebleeds at the onset of menses.
As well, it dissolves phlegm heat misting the heart orifices, as Traditional Chinese Medicine so poetically describes. What does that mean in Western terms? Probably it refers to plaque in the brain causing such symptoms as agitation, anxiety, and mania. In the same vein, it’s used for seizures. Lastly, it treats jaundice due to liver imbalances.
Turmric rhizome vs. tuber
First, note that both turmeric parts may come from different species. Overall, turmeric rhizome (jiang huang) is warming while the tuber (yu jin) is cooling. Both promote the flow of qi and blood, but the rhizome treats painful obstruction (arthritic conditions) while the tuber does not. Both herbs relieve gallbladder jaundice, but the tuber is stronger than the rhizome. Only the tuber relieves heart heat and constraint.
THE BAD NEWS ABOUT TURMERIC
With all these great uses, what could be harmful about turmeric? Well, now for the bad news. Turmeric is very bitter and so strongly dries the blood and yin (yin includes the cooling, moistening fluids in the body needed to counteract heat, like oil circulating in an engine). If taken for extended periods, overdosed, or given to those with blood and/or yin deficiency, it can cause dizziness, blurry vision, insomnia, dry eyes, burning in the hands and feet, steaming bone disorder, and night sweats.
I have had many a patient come in with such symptoms and uncertain what caused them. Because they didn’t have a typical yin deficient constitution, we investigated further and found high doses of turmeric supplements often the culprit.
Because it is so highly touted in the Western marketplace for pain relief, people tend to take tons of turmeric. It’s not unusual for folks to take supplements indiscriminately. If such and so is good for this or that, then people automatically take it and for extended periods of time. As well, they think if some is good or helpful, then more is better. And then they continue to take it preventatively when it may no longer be necessary. While either of these approaches is fine for many supplements, with turmeric it is not.
Turmeric does indeed reduce pain and swelling, but overdosing with it or taking it for prolonged periods depletes the blood and yin. This is especially true for vegetarians, vegans and women during menses and so these folks should be particularly careful with this herb. It takes a long time to nourish Yin again, and the dampening herbs that do so put the digestive system at risk.
As when using all herbs and supplements, it’s important to first consider a person’s constitution along with all their signs and symptoms before making your choices. Further, it’s best to not use most herbs for a single commercial use. This may cause subsequent negative impact on other parts of the body, which in turn, can give a bad reputation to that herb because it now has “dangerous side effects.”
Most herbs are mild in nature and don’t have side effects, just improper use. Narrowing an herb’s use to one famous commercial application not only loses the knowledge of the herb’s other uses but also can cause harm, endangering herbalism. Let’s keep our traditional knowledge of herbs alive and use them within the context of the whole person’s needs and not just support its one commercial use. This not only benefits people, but also supports herbal medicine for us all.
Turmeric Rhizome Curcuma longa; Jiang huang (Chinese), Haldi (Ayurveda)
Also named: Curcumae longae Rhizoma
Energy and flavors: Warm, spicy, bitter
Organs and channels affected: liver, spleen, stomach, gallbladder
Chemical constituents: Curcuminoides, curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, bisdemethoxy-curcumin; volatile oil: tumerone, curcumol, terpinene, limonene, linalool, camphene, isoborneol and others
Properties and actions: Anti-inflammatory, emmenagogue, carminative, antilithic, aromatic stimulant, cholagogue, alterative, analgesic, astringent, antiseptic, anti-parasitic; invigorates the blood, breaks up blood stasis, moves qi, expels wind-damp
Contraindications: Pregnancy; absence of stagnant qi or blood, yin deficiency Caution: Overuse can cause blood and/or yin deficiency
Dosage and preparation: Standard decoction. Standard tincture (1:2 @75% ABV). Standardized extract of the power at 95% cucurminoids, 250-600mg TID.
Turmeric Tuber Curcuma aromatica, C. longa
Energy and flavors: Cold, acrid, bitter
Organs and channels affected: Lung, Heart, Liver
Chemical constituents: Curcuminoides, curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, bisdemethoxy- curcumin
Properties and actions: Analgesic, anti-inflammatory; breaks up blood stasis, regulates qi, cools the blood, clears damp heat, calms the liver
Contraindications: Pregnancy; absence of signs of stagnant qi; blood or yin Deficiency
Dosage and preparation: Standard decoction. Standard tincture (1:2 @75% ABV).
Preparation: Turmeric tuber is stir-baked to reduce its cold nature and toxicity; with rice wine or vinegar to increase the circulation of Qi.