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The journey from traditional to modern medicine with turmeric

28th June 2016

Materia medica is the Latin medical term for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing derived by the Ancient Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century AD. The term materia medica was used from the period of the Roman Empire until the 20th century, but has now been generally replaced in medical education contexts by the term "Evidence-based Medicine". Evidence-based medicine is being used to validate the use of modern drugs as well as time-honoured herbal remedies, including turmeric.

Turmeric derives from the rhizome of the plant Curcuma longa and has been used by the people of the Indian subcontinent for centuries with no known side effects, not only as a component of food but also to treat a wide variety of ailments. 

Today, turmeric is reaching new levels of awareness and respect. As is so often the case, extensive preclinical and clinical research on turmeric over the past few decades has confirmed most of its traditional uses and can be linked to its Ayurvedic actions described in the old texts of Charaka Saṃhitā. From the traditional Ayurvedic point of view, turmeric is popular for its ability to balance all three constitutional dosha to a healthy equilibrium making it a mainstay of everyday health.

Turmeric’s history goes back over 2000 years, to the heyday of Ayurveda. Sushruta Samhita, dating to about 200 BCE, recommends a turmeric ointment to relieve the effects of consuming poisoned food and for wound healing. Turmeric’s efficacy and safety was monitored through simply observing. Turmeric is prevalent in both formulations and oils, these have been adapted and developed on experience. As we have just seen, analytical and clinical research dates back at least to Avicenna (around 1000 CE) and as experimentation, science and technology became established, laboratory analysis gained momentum. Chemical analysis has so far uncovered hundreds of thousands of natural plant compounds. There are approximately 235 compounds in turmeric. By means of modern science based medical research, the benefits of these compounds found in turmeric are being confirmed and the mechanisms of its action more deeply understood.

Turmeric is chemically diverse: so far approximately 235 compounds have been identified including polyphenolic, terpenes and volatile oils; a strong argument for using whole-spectrum turmeric as opposed to isolated compounds. Curcumin is just one compound that gives the yellow colour to turmeric (Aggarwal et al., 2006). It was first isolated two centuries ago and has been extensively studied in the last century. Early on in the clinical research into turmeric all of the activities ascribed to it were associated with curcumin. However, more recent studies have identified that curcumin-free turmeric components possess also numerous biological activities. This comes as no surprise to traditional medicine; turmeric, known as jiang huang in China, has long been used effectively as a water decoction or ‘tea’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Good news for our Turmeric Gold tea drinkers…

Reflecting upon the information above, it is no wonder that turmeric has a long and safe history in disease prevention. Researchers are confirming the observations of our ancestors, thus inspiring health-conscious individuals. Isn’t it incredible that ancient knowledge dating back 4000 years, is suddenly starting to become validated by modern science? Moreover, we are able to better understand the mechanisms of action for how the whole spectrum of turmeric is an efficient ally for so many different diseases. Bringing all this information together not only supports the benefits of turmeric with research but also links to the basic Ayurvedic principles simply observed in nature.

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