Advances in Anthropology
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 91-95
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/aa) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aa.2013.32012
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 91
A Touch of Turmeric: Examining an Ayurvedic Treasure
Prianca Madi Reddi
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Gillings School of Global Public Health,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, USA
Received February 17th, 2013; revised March 23rd, 2013; accepted March 30th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Prianca Madi Reddi. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a perennial root plant of the ginger family. This plant originates from
Asia and is widely grown and used in India. South Asians have used turmeric for its medicinal purposes
for centuries and it has become integrated into spiritual life as a symbol of protection and purity (Ravin-
dran et al. 2007). Turmeric acts as a powerful healing tool because of the phytochemicals it contains. The
main phytochemical in turmeric is curcumin. Research shows that curcumin provides anti-cancerous,
anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial health effects, among others. Curcumin may not be as beneficial as
turmeric in its entirety due to variation in bioavailability (Martin et al., 2011). This extrapolation should
be taken into consideration when attempting to reap the benefits of turmeric in the West.
Keywords: Alternative; Medicine; Ayurveda; Ayurvedic; Curcuma longa; Curcumin; Phytochemical;
From afar, human-plant interactions serve the mere purpose
of sustenance; the ability to provide the body with necessary
amounts of caloric energy to produce adequate levels of ATP
for daily functions. This attitude towards diet is a prevalent one
in modern society. Moreover, the West is further detached from
nutrition in that the purpose of eating is centered on enjoyment
and palatable satisfaction. Meat is available, cut, cleaned, and
packaged in plastic, ready for cooking. Produce is grown miles
away from home and covered in pesticides to increase shelf life.
Most consumers in the US have never set foot onto a farm,
never seen the animal that their meat comes from, and never
touched the soil where their vegetables and fruits were once
rooted. The cognitive disconnect between food and sociocul-
tural aspects of life are ever growing. The idea of nourishment
in its most holistic form is diminishing.
But upon closer examination of the importance of food, it
becomes apparent that sustenance is just one facet of human-
plant co-evolution. These interactions are steeped in cultural
significance and medicinal value that enrich health when used
with well-informed knowledge. For example, turmeric is a plant
that is integrated into a myriad of aspects within South Asian
culture, but also contains many phytochemicals that serve a va-
riety of medicinal purposes. It is no coincidence that this plant
has simultaneously been revered in this region of the world and
provided wondrous health benefits to users. Through human-
plant co-evolution, turmeric has become a revered societal staple,
but it also comprises of many biochemical properties that are
beneficial to human health.
Methods and Materials
This paper was written in order to understand the human-
plant interactions of turmeric, a spice of South Asian origin.
The University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Library system
was utilized to search for journal articles on turmeric and its
history, chemical composition, and health effects and conduct a
meta-analysis of these data. Key search terms included turmeric,
curcumin, curcuminoids, anticarcinogen, antimicrobial, and anti-
inflammatory. The comprehensive book, Turmeric: The Genus
Curcuma, by Ravindran et al. (2007) was used for a review of
historical and cultural related information. Several studies were
reviewed that provided analysis of research showing the bene-
fits of curcumin in various forms and tests. Lastly, the benefit
and use of this plant was put into context of use in Western
The Turmeric is known as the “golden spice” and has strong
sociocultural ties to the people of India and its surrounding
sister countries. Many South Asian cultures have been using
this earthy spice for thousands of years for medicinal purposes
as well as cultural uses (Rathaur et al., 2012). The ancient Vedic
societies of India regarded it as “the herb of the sun” because of
its yellow-orange rhizome. In fact, there is at least 6000 years
of documented use of the spice (Ravindran et al., 2007).
Also known by its Latin classification, Curcuma longa, tur-
meric is part of the Zingiberaceae or ginger family (Majeed et
al., 1996). Its geographic origin is not agreed upon; though, the
plant most likely originated in Cochin, China and was brought
to the Indian subcontinent through either Chinese migration to
the Northeast Indian region or by Buddhist monks traveling
through the region. Once introduced into the subcontinent, Cur-
cuma longa most likely replaced most of the indigenous vari-
ants of the species (Ravindran et al., 2007). Ravindran et al.
(2007) document 53 synonyms for turmeric, all referring to its
P. M. REDDI
various benefits and characteristics in Sanskrit. Today, there is
a word for turmeric in various languages across the globe from
Burmese to Portuguese. Even though many cultures from dif-
ferent world regions knew of turmeric, only recently has it
come into the lime light of research and American marketing.
Turmeric is currently grown in several Asian countries and
parts of South America. However, India remains the largest pro-
ducer, producing over 500,000 metric tons annually and ex-
porting nearly half (Bengmark et al., 2009). Major importers of
Indian turmeric include the United Arab Emirates, followed by
US, Japan, United Kingdom, Iran, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and
South Africa (Ravindran et al., 2007).
Turmeric is used in countless aspects of Hindu culture. These
sacred implications are likely related to the health benefits of
turmeric. Ancient inhabitants may have been attracted to the
vibrant saffron color of the root; subsequently, the health bene-
fits that followed the use of the root led to the belief that the
plant was sent from the heavens (Ravindran et al., 2007).
In Hindu weddings the women wear a mangalasutra, or nup-
tial necklace. This necklace is usually made of black and gold
beads. However, in several regions of India, including Andhra
Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, a raw piece of turmeric can be
threaded and worn around the neck to symbolize the manga-
lasutra. Both the wealthy and poor use the turmeric, differing
only in the material of the chain, i.e. gold or thread. When worn
as an amulet or charm, turmeric is believed to ward off evil
spirits (Ranvindran et al., 2007). Newlyweds perform many ri-
tuals to deter the evil eye of jealous onlookers.
Another use of turmeric in marriage rituals is from the Pun-
jabi tribe of the Dandasis. Here, the elder most patriarchal fig-
ure of the community places a nut cutter and areca nut (Areca
catechu) into the hands of the bride and groom and ties the nut
seven times with a thread that has been dyed with turmeric. The
parents then proceed to pour turmeric from either a conch shell
or leaf over their hands, signifying the end of the ceremony
(Ravindran et al., 2007). In the Tamil tribe of Tareya, the front
door of every household invited to the wedding is painted with
fresh turmeric paste.
At almost every Hindu ritual a yellow and deep-red powder
are present at the altar. These two powders are used for holy
rites. The yellow powder is turmeric in its basic ground form,
and the red is the alkalized for of turmeric, which turns a vi-
brant red after reacting with acid (Aggarwal et al., 2007).
In India, particularly in the southern regions, turmeric is in-
corporated into the daily diet through cooking. Bengmark et al.
(2009), estimates, “that adult Indians consume daily 80 - 200
mg curcumin per day”. Many staple dishes like lentils are pre-
pared using a sautéed seasoning of spices. Of this seasoning,
turmeric is a common ingredient. The spice adds flavor and
also gives the food a pleasing golden color (Ranvindran et al.,
According to Aggarwal et al. (2007), curcumin, the active
component in turmeric, is hydrophobic but soluble in ethanol,
dimethylsulfoxide, acetone, and oil. This solubility in oil would
make turmeric easier to digest in a cooked form. Furthermore,
Bengmark et al. (2009) explains, “It is also reported to be dra-
matically elevated by co-ingestion of peperine (a component of
pepper (Piper longum)), demonstrated both in experimental
animals and humans.” (p: 275). Thus the effectiveness of tur-
meric is amplified due to its use in cuisine as shown by the
benefits of co-ingestions with pepper.
The Many different traditional healing systems, such as Ay-
urveda, Sidha, Unani, and Tibetan, have incorporated the use of
turmeric in their practices (Ravindran et al., 2007). Ayurveda is
still heavily practiced in modern India, and turmeric is still used
to treat “biliary disorders, anorexia, cough, diabetic wounds,
hepatic disorders, rheumatism, and sinusitis” (Shishodia et al.,
Turmeric is used in other industries beyond traditional house-
hold and medicinal purposes. In India, for centuries, turmeric
was used to dye cloth yellow. In fact, the yellow color of the
cloth was considered sacred and purifying, as it was yellow/
orange like fire, an element symbolic of eradicating impurities
(Ravindran et al., 2007). The British tried to use the dye for
non-clothing purposes but had no luck in that the dye was too
dull and not permanent enough for heavy commercial use. In-
dian calico painters later developed a paint that was a mixture
of turmeric, pomegranate, and aluminum. Currently, use of
turmeric for commercial dyeing has ceased but it is still used as
a common food additive to reach the desired yellow tinge in
many dishes (Ravindran et al., 2007). In America, the food in-
dustry uses curcumin as a coloring agent in “cheese, spices,
mustard, cereals, pickles, potato flakes, soups, ice cream, and
yogurt” (Shishodia et al., 2007).
The chemical composition of turmeric is vital to fully com-
prehending turmeric’s benefits. According to Rathaur et al.
(2012), the structure of turmeric is comprised of protein (6.3%),
fat (5.1%), minerals (3.5%), carbohydrates (69.4%) and mois-
ture (23.1%). The essential oil (5% - 8%) obtained by steam dis-
tillation of rhizomes has α-phellanderene (1%), sabiene (0.6%),
cineol (1%), borneol (0.5%), zingiberene (25%) and sesquiter-
pines (53%) (p: 1988). One study in India conducted by Nayak
et al. (2011) that examined the properties of extracted oil of
turmeric rhizomes found the chemical composition of the oil
through gas chromatography mass spectrum analysis. The oil
examined was predominantly composed of r-tumerone (49.1%)
followed by curlone (16.8%), a-phellandrene (5.3%), ar-curcu-
mene (3.5%), eucalyptol (2.6%), b-sesquiphellandrene (1.8%),
b-caryophyllene (0.8%), b-bisabolene (0.6%) and d-3-carene
(0.3%) (Nayak et al., 2011). The complexity of the chemical
composition of turmeric, as with many other foods, is essential
to the health benefits it provides.
Of the ingredients listed above, the group to be cogitated is
curcuminoids. Curcuminoids (see Figure 1) are a group of poly-
phenols found in turmeric that have been shown to provide
numerous health effects. Polyphenols are a group of phyto-
chemicals found in various plants, such as cabbage (Brassica
oleracea), tea leaves (Camellia sinensis), chili peppers (Capsi-
cum annuum), and turmeric (Curcuma longa). These phyto
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
P. M. REDDI
Chemical structure of curcuminoids.
chemicals reduce inflammation and therefore reduce suscepti-
bility to a multitude of diseases (Bengmark et al., 2009).
Curcuminoids have many different mechanisms within the
body that prevent and aid in the treatment of several diseases.
Some of these include, a reduction in LDL oxidation, cell mem-
brane stabilization, and an increase in antioxidant plasma con-
centrations, which aid in the treatment of atherosclerosis (Beng-
mark et al., 2009). Another disease that has seen promising bene-
fits from curcumin use is cancer. Cancer is also positively af-
fected by curcuminoids through induced apoptosis of harmful
cells and inhibited metastasis (Bengmark et al., 2009).
Several curcuminoids are found in turmeric, but of these
polyphenols, the most isolated and studied compound is curcu-
min. The presence of curcumin in turmeric has been known for
some time, however only recently has interest spiked in ex-
ploring its benefits through extensive studies (Bengmark et al.,
In its isolated form, curcumin has a low bioavailability due to
the fact that it is highly stable in acidic solutions and is poorly
soluble within water (Martin et al., 2011). Normally, foods are
digested in gastric acid within the stomach but curcumin stays
stable throughout this process.
These chemical properties give turmeric the ability to heal
many different types of diseases and are the reason that ancient
societies venerated turmeric as a holy substance. There are
many studies proving the anti-disease properties South Asian
societies have known for thousands of generations. The studies
reviewed in this paper look at anti-cancerous, anti-inflamma-
tory, and anti-microbial properties.
Anti-Carcinogenic Effects of Turmeric
As mentioned, curcumin has been shown to be a powerful
natural agent in cancer treatment. Carcinogenesis occurs by
means of several biological pathways and through the deregula-
tion of hundreds of molecules. Curcumin reduces cancer growth
by targeting several of these pathways and preventing deregula-
tion of molecules (Shishodia et al., 2007). One example of a
biological pathway that curcumin protects is the transcription
factor, NF-kB. NF-kB translocates to the nucleus from the cy-
toplasm on contact with free radicals, cytokines, tumor promot-
ers, and other harmful stimuli. Here, at the nucleus, NF-kB is
thought to induce the expression of over 200 genes that sup-
press apoptosis and induce cell proliferation and chemoresis-
tance. These changes are extremely harmful for both early and
late stages of cancer. Research by Shishodia et al. (2007) shows
that curcumin suppresses the activation of this transcription
Another biological pathway that is aided by curcumin use is
the p. 53 tumor suppressor. p. 53 regulates many biological
processes including cell signal transduction, cellular response to
DNA damage, genomic stability, cell cycle control, and apop-
tosis (Shishodia et al., 2007). This tumor suppressor also in-
duces the p. 21 gene, which regulates apoptosis of cells with
damages DNA and cancer cells. The mutant p. 53 protein loses
its ability to induce action of the p. 21 gene and therefore in-
creases the risk of cancer. Curcumin, however, induces apop-
tosis independent of the mutant p. 53 gene, therefore making up
for any loss from silencing of the p. 21 gene (Shishodia et al.,
2007). These examples illustrate how curcumin fights cancer-
ous cells through mediation of various biological malfunctions.
Inflammation is an underlying issue in an array of diseases,
from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease (Berkeley, 2008).
Gingivitis is a form of periodontal disease that stems directly
from inflammation of the gums. When plaque and tartar are not
removed from teeth, they irritate gums and cause inflammation
(PubMed Health, 2012). A study conducted by Behal et al.,
(2012) observed 60 subjects of ages 15 and up for 21 days. Half
the study population rinsed their mouths with a turmeric mouth
wash, while the other half used a chlorohexidine wash. Chloro-
hexidine is a standard wash used in dentistry offices. The sub-
jects were instructed to rinse for approximately one minute, 30
minutes after brushing their teeth.
Both rinses showed significant reduction in plaque on the
14th day and further reduction on the 21st day. Behal et al. (2012)
explains, “anti-inflammatory action of turmeric was evaluated
on clinical parameters using the gingival index, which showed
significant reduction. This suggests that turmeric has an anti-
inflammatory property.” Furthermore, there were minimal side
effects like staining and bitter taste with use of turmeric mouth-
wash, but chlorohexidine also showed these side effects in users.
Both the turmeric wash and chlorohexidine wash showed anti-
inflammatory, anti-plaque and anti-microbial properties, but the
turmeric wash had fewer adverse side-effects, therefore further
research should be conducted to implement the use of turmeric
Turmeric is believed to have anti-microbial properties. For
centuries it has been used to help heal open wounds and infec-
tions (Aggarwal et al., 2007). A study performed at Siksha O
Anusandhan University in Orissa, India by Nayak et al. tested
the anti-microbial properties of turmeric oil. The study strived
to evaluate the effects of turmeric rhizome oil on eye infections,
in hopes that the essential oil could replace the use of conven-
tional antibiotics (Nayak et al., 2011). The experimental me-
thod started by harvesting the leaves and rhizomes of the tur-
meric plant from a medicinal plant garden in the Centre of Bio-
technology, Bhubaneswar, Orissa. These harvests were then
immediately put through a distillation process for oil extraction.
*Figure 1: http://www.sabinsa.com/newsroom/paper_curcumin.html.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 93
P. M. REDDI
The plant material was cleaned and cut into slices and mixed
with distilled water. This mixture went through hydro-distilla-
tion using Clevenger’s apparatus. The extracted oil was then
put through gas chromatography testing for initial analysis and
then was tested with test microbes. The microbes being moni-
tored were Staphylococcus aureus (MTCC-3160), Pseudomo-
nas aeruginosa (MTCC-424), Candida albicans (MTCC-183)
and Aspergillus niger (MTCC-281). The four microbes were
chosen, as they are indicator microbes for common human in-
fections. These microbes were plated and turmeric rhizome oil
was loaded on the plates in volumes of 2, 5, and 10 microliters.
These plates were then incubated at 37˚C overnight (Nayak et
The GC-MS analysis showed that the primary component of
the essential oil to be r-tumerone (49.1%). The ratios of the
various components in the rhizome oil differed from study to
study because various studies use turmeric cultivated from dif-
ferent regions. This study predicts that turmeric roots from the
high altitude regions of Orissa will be very sought-after in na-
tional and international health markets due to the high content
of r-tumerone which increases the medicinal value of the oil.
Of the indicator microbes S. aureus saw the most reduction.
P. aeruginosa, C. albicans, and A. niger saw lower levels of
reduction in decreasing order. The results of this study show
that turmeric essential oil may hold significant bactericidal pro-
perties but weaker fungicidal properties (Nayak et al., 2011).
When attempting to market essential oil for ocular infections,
bacterial infections should be targeted over fungal infections.
This is the first study that showed curcumin as a potential
anti-microbial agent for pathogens of ocular infections. In re-
cent times, the public has become concerned over synthetic
antibiotic use. Additionally, conventional antibiotics for sensi-
tive organs such as ears and nose are having serious side effects,
even at low concentrations (Nayak et al., 2011). Therefore, this
may be the perfect time to introduce turmeric oil as a potential
Consequences of Curcumin Extraction
The discovery of curcumin is promising to so many medical
fields. Therefore, in recent years, the health industry of the
West has marketed supplements of curcumin extract. According
to Bengmark et al. (2009), the standard dosage of curcumin is
400 - 600 mg of curcumin a day. This is the equivalent of 60
mg of fresh turmeric root.
Martin et al. 2011 of the University of Louisville School of
Medicine performed a study aimed to “compare and contrast
the bioavailable distribution of curcumin and turmeric as well
as to look at the molecular effects these compounds have on
pro- and anti-inflammatory markers” (p: 228). The study ob-
served 35 rats that were put on a control, curcumin, and tur-
meric diet. The curcumin group was fed 700 pmm or 0.7 g/kg
diet of curcumin, and the turmeric group was fed 14,000 ppm
or 14 g/kg diet of turmeric for a total of 3 months. It is impor-
tant to note that the dosages of curcumin and turmeric given to
rats in the experiment are much higher than the recommended
dosages for human intake.
Throughout the study, all rats showed a stable weight relative
to the other groups. Both curcumin-fed and turmeric-fed rats
saw a steady increase for the first half of the trial and a steady
decrease for the second half. Analysis suggested that turmeric
has a higher bioavailability. The turmeric group saw a signifi-
cant increase in the degree of fold change of key molecular
markers. Specifically, the turmeric diet increases the levels of
IL-6 (1.9-fold, p = 0.05), iNOS (4.39-fold, p = 0.02), IL-8
(3.11-fold, p = 0.04), and COX-2 (2.02-fold, p = 0.05). How-
ever, the curcumin group saw no significant change in the de-
gree of fold change in any molecular markers (Martin et al.,
2011). The results from this study show that the turmeric diet
was more bioavailable than the curcumin diet and therefore had
more of an effect on pro-inflammatory genes (Martin et al.,
Further deduction from this study suggests that prescribed
use of turmeric incorporated into the regular diet or supplement
of whole turmeric may demonstrate more positive results than
curcumin alone. As opposed to recommending the standard 400
mg of curcumin supplementation a day, health specialists could
recommend using the 60 mg of fresh turmeric. The issue with
incorporating turmeric into the diet is a lack of knowledge in
the U.S. on how to cook with the spice and a matter of lifestyle.
With less time to prepare food, Americans are more likely to
take the easy route and use curcumin. However, the best option
in this case may be to promote turmeric powder supplements as
opposed to curcumin capsules.
Integrating Ayurvedic Knowledge into Western
As the West becomes more acquainted with Eastern culture
through the proliferation of inter-continental exchanges in a
modern global economy, the realization that Western medicine
in its current form is not meeting all the needs of its patients is
becoming increasingly apparent. According to Francis C. Assisi
(2007), a writer for India Currents magazine, Americans have
been questioning the fundamentals of traditional allopathic
medicine for over thirty years. Ayurvedic advocates like Dr.
Vasant Lad and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi have initiated an in-
terest in discovering better ways to prevent and treat disease
which align with the pillars of Ayurveda. In other words, treat-
ing the individual from a perspective of amalgamating the body,
mind, and spirit. More frequently, patients turn to alternative
forms of therapy like acupuncture, diet-based treatments, and
even meditation for chronic and non-chronic illnesses alike. In
fact, in 2003, California passed the Health Freedom Act (SB
577), which allows for non-traditional medicine practitioners to
consult with patients without fear of violating the Medical
Practice Act, which prohibits non-physicians to provide medi-
cal services (Assisi, 2007).
Many physicians are becoming aware that a combination of
allopathic and alternative medicine is the most effective way to
treat patients. In regards to a nationwide clinical trial of curcu-
min supplementation for 30 days in patients showing levels of
pre-cancerous biomarkers, Dr. Frank Meyskens of UC Irvine
(2007) remarks, “Though it has been used for centuries in tradi-
tional medicine, we’re very early in the clinical development of
curcumin as a chemopreventive agent” (Assisi, 2007). One of
the foremost cancer researchers in the United States, Dr. Bharat
B. Aggarwal of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer
Center in Houston believes that expanding knowledge of alter-
native medicine is the only thing that will decrease cancer rates.
He explains, “Recent statistics indicate that the overall cancer
incidence in the United States, in spite of billions of dollars
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
P. M. REDDI
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 95
spent on research each year, has not changed significantly in
the last half-century... Ayurveda can be used in combination
with modern medicine to provide better treatment of cancer.”
(Assisi, 2007). This realization put into practice could poten-
tially decrease cancer rates that have remained stagnant.
An issue that arises in bringing Ayurveda to America and
other western societies is striking the right balance between
making the art marketable to a new audience as well as staying
true to the colors of an ancient teaching. Ayurveda is rooted in
a holistic treatment of body, mind, and soul, and this spiritual
approach cannot be totally eliminated to reach an American
audience, or the art will chance degradation. Americanizing the
teachings of Ayurveda may risk losing essential elements of
prescription that require a holistic, complete understanding. For
example, turmeric shows a propensity to cure many different
ailments, but Ayurveda may prescribe that turmeric be con-
sumed with different foods for different health problems.
However, forcing a completely untouched version of Ay-
urveda in a foreign, modern culture may only repel potential be-
neficiaries. Alakananda Devi is a British-borne physician earn-
ing her medical degree in London and currently directing the
Alandi Ayurvedic Clinic and its gurukula in Boulder, Colorado.
She comments, “In offering Ayurveda to the West, there is no
need to bring about conversion to either Hinduism or Buddhism.
However, we must always walk in the spirit of sanatana dhar-
ma (Universal righteousness), honoring its essential teachings
of truth and ahimsa (non-violence), of reverence for the in-
dwelling mystery within all things animate and inanimate, and
of striving for loka sangraha, the welfare of the Whole” (Assisi,
In essence, Ayurvedic treatments, including that of turmeric
use, are very valuable to Western societies. They may even fill
some of the many holes that allopathic medicine has not been
able to. While this ancient practice is being introduced into the
West, using it with a cultured understanding for its roots is
imperative. Nevertheless, Ayurveda will have to adapt to the
likings of American to make its way into our practices.
Many studies show promising results for the efficacy of tur-
meric and its active ingredient curcumin against many impor-
tant diseases. Bacterial and carcinogenic diseases alike can be
treated with this plant-based compound with apparently mini-
mal adverse side-effects.
Use of curcumin as compared to the use of turmeric should
be further studied to determine whether there is a loss of benefit
when extrapolating and using key ingredients in isolation.
The integration of turmeric into society started thousands of
years ago and the evolution is continuing today. Integration of
the plant into modern Western society will undoubtedly reveal
new understandings and uses for an age old plant.
Special thanks go to Dr. Fatimah Jackson as well as my fel-
low colleagues in Anthropology 699: Human-Plant Coevolu-
tion at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill for inspira-
tion and guidance for this paper.
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