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Therapeutic use of turmeric in Ayurveda
Turmeric: a yellow miracle?
The use of turmeric has a long tradition. In the Vedic culture of India, about 4000 years ago, turmeric was already used in ceremonies and as a culinary spice. You may know it as the spice that turns meals yellow or from the many turmeric supplements found in drugstores. Turmeric is popular and sometimes promoted as the answer to all your problems. How does Ayurveda view this?
Therapeutic use of herbs
In Ayurveda, the focus is on treating the cause of illness or imbalance to address it at its core. Symptoms are manifestations of a disease process that we can see and experience. They provide useful information. Many people use herbs symptomatically: ‘I suffer from acne and I’ve read that turmeric is good for acne.’
However, only working on symptoms and using turmeric in that way can only give a short or reduced result. Or you may find yourself needing to keep using it: you become dependent on it. After all, we can see the same symptoms in very different syndromes. A good diagnosis can provide clarity about the underlying cause. To then use the right herbs and dose, as one of the components in a targeted treatment plan, to address the cause and restore or support balance.
According to Ayurveda, turmeric cannot simply be the answer to all your problems, because it is necessary to look very specifically at whether turmeric fits within the right treatment for you.
Qualities of turmeric
Turmeric is bitter, astringent and sharp in taste (Rasa) and warming. It balances Kapha and is suitable for all Doshas when used in moderation. Because turmeric is also dry, light and pungent, it can disrupt Vata and Pitta when consumed in excess. Do not use if Pitta is already highly elevated. The therapeutic effect (Karma) of turmeric is broad. It is best known for its anti-inflammatory and liver-supportive properties. It also stimulates correct digestion. In Ayurveda, turmeric is used for both internal and external use.
Whole plant versus extraction
Traditionally, the rhizome of turmeric has been used in Ayurveda. The whole of substances that the turmeric rhizome contains offers a broad spectrum of therapeutic effect. In a regular drugstore you will often find supplements based on an extract. The vision behind this is biochemical: an in vitro study discovers an active substance, in this case curcumin. This curcumin is then extracted from the rhizome and made into a supplement. The idea here is that the isolated curcumin would be better than the whole turmeric, because curcumin has been shown to have an effect. An in vitro study does not tell you what the exact effect is in your body. The now isolated curcumin has a completely different effect and qualities than turmeric and lacks the balancing and protective qualities of the entire rhizome. A classic Ayurvedic supplement uses the entire rhizome.
What’s the problem with black pepper?
Many turmeric supplements are supplemented with piperine: the pungent main ingredient of black pepper. Because supplements often consist of extracted curcumin that is difficult to absorb, piperine is added to increase absorption. However, from an Ayurvedic point of view, that is not very useful. The absorption may be increased, but the combination with piperine causes turmeric to lose its anti-inflammatory effect.
Need a high dose?
We sometimes tend to think ‘more is better’. Herbs, however, are very concentrated substances. Too high doses can imbalance your metabolism. It is wise to look at why you take something: do you need it? Can you digest it? And: which use is best for you? High doses of turmeric are not recommended in Ayurveda. Negative effects can occur above 6 grams per day.
Turmeric for you
Using turmeric in dishes or as a tea can be a wonderful addition of bitter and astringent, the flavors we use less in our diet. It mildly supports your metabolism and you can use it safely. For the use of large quantities, the right supplements or if there is high Pitta or pregnancy, the advice of an Ayurvedic therapist is recommended.
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Juliette Reniers is (with Frank Eijkelkamp) owner of Yoga & Ayurveda retreat center The Land of Now, and Ayurvedic therapist, psychosocial counsellor and yoga therapist & teacher.