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Aids digestion, relieves arthritis, treats dysentery, protects the liver, combats heart disease, wards off ulcers, prevents certain cancers

Most Americans are only vaguely aware of turmeric as an ingredient in Indian curry. We certainly don't think of it as a healing herb. Indians do, however.

A great deal of scientific research — almost all of it Indian — shows that turmeric aids digestion, prevents ulcers, protects the liver, helps prevent heart disease and may one day be used to treat cancer.

A relative of ginger, turmeric has held a place of honor in India's traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It was used as a digestive aid and treatment for fever, wounds, infections, dysentery, arthritis, jaundice and other liver problems. The Chinese adopted turmeric and used it similarly.

"Turmeric stimulates the flow of bile," says Pi-Kwang Tsung, Ph.D., former assistant professor of pathology at the University of Connecticut Medical School in Farmington and currently editor of The East-West Medical Digest. "This means it helps digest fats, confirming its traditional use as a digestive herb."

"Turmeric has strong liver-protective properties," agrees Bernie Olin, Pharm.D., editor of The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, a St. Louis-based newsletter that summarizes scientific research on medicinal herbs. If you drink alcohol regularly and/or take high doses of many pharmaceutical drugs — including the common pain reliever acetaminophen (Tylenol) — medical researchers say you may be at risk for liver damage. Using turmeric may offer a degree of protection.

The latest studies show that turmeric also protects the stomach lining and helps prevent ulcers, says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a Baltimore physician who practices nutritional and natural medicine and is president of the American Holistic Medical Association."Turmeric's anti-ulcer effect should be cause for celebration among curry lovers with Type-A personalities, like myself."

And several studies show that curcumin, an active chemicalin turmeric, has anti-inflammatory action, lending credence to the herb's traditional use in treating arthritis.

Like most culinary herbs, turmeric helps retard food spoilage because it has antibacterial action. In laboratory tests, turmeric also fights protozoa-microbes that cause a multitude of human ills. These tests lend credence to the herb's traditional use in treating dysentery, which is caused by this type of microorganism.

Powerful protection

Several medical studies now suggest that turmeric may also help prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol and preventing the formation of the internal blood clots that trigger heart attack (and many strokes). These findings come from studies done with laboratory animals and cannot necessarily be applied to people. But turmeric is a tasty spice that does no harm, and these studies suggest it might do some real good.

After a while, you begin to wonder if there's anything turmeric can't do. Sure enough, it even has potential as a cancer fighter. Several studies on laboratory animals show that curcumin has anti-cancer activity, probably because it is a powerful antioxidant. (Antioxidants are substances that counteract naturally occurring toxic substances called free radicals.)

Evidence from a recent study, a human trial in smokers, makes this herb look even more beneficial. Smokers' urine contains substances (mutagens) that cause genetic mutation. Mutagens are often carcinogens, or cancer causers. Indian researchers added 1.5 grams of turmeric a day (about a teaspoon) to the diet of 16 smokers for a month. The result was a significant reduction in urinary mutagens.

Putting the herb to work

Since Indian research shows that even a teaspoon of turmeric has medicinal value, it makes a lot of sense to enjoy turmeric as the Indians do — as a seasoning in foods.

Turmeric tastes pleasant, but in large amounts it becomes somewhat bitter. If you'd prefer to make a medicinal drink to aid digestion and possibly help prevent heart disease, use one teaspoon of turmeric powder per cup of warm milk. Drink up to three cups a day. Unusually large amounts of turmeric may cause stomach upset. If you find the drink doesn't agree with you, discontinue use.

Ulcers, arthritis, liver disease, heart disease and cancer all require professional treatment. If you'd like to use turmeric in addition to standard therapies, discuss it with your doctor. Medicinal turmeric preparations should not be given to children under 2. For older children and people over 65, start with low-strength preparations and increase strength if necessary.

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