The Times of India reports a “strong demand” for the spice known as turmeric. At an auction in the town of Erode, 70 percent of the supply was sold within a day.

Turmeric is a spice used in curries and other ethnic cuisines – but it is also gaining a reputation for its reported healing properties. Today, many stores in the U.S. sell turmeric supplements as demand for this common spice grows. But does it live up to its hype?

In fact, turmeric has long been a staple of traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Historically, practitioners have used this herb for detoxifying the body and treating various skin conditions. It has also been used for epilepsy, respiratory disorders, diabetes, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as a disinfectant for lacerations and increasing virility in men by raising sperm count. Small wonder that Indian physicians have been calling it the “Golden Goddess” for going on three millennia. But what does modern Western medical science have to say about it?

Current research indicates that taking turmeric orally may have therapeutic effects for some medical conditions. For example, clinical studies have shown that taking turmeric twice a day over a 90-day period can reduce LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides in obese people who suffer from high cholesterol. A few researchers have found that turmeric, taken in combination with other herbal supplements, can relieve pain and improve joint function for patients with osteoarthritis. Orally-administered turmeric also appears to have benefits for patients suffering from uraemic pruritus, a form of chronic kidney disease, who suffer from excessive itching as a result of their condition.

As far as digestive problems are concerned, research in this area has been unable to establish any benefits of turmeric for those suffering from stomach ulcers. Patients who took powdered turmeric four times a day for six weeks showed less improvement than those who used a conventional antacid medication.

There is clinical evidence showing that one of the compounds in turmeric, known as curcumin, has significant anti-inflammatory properties. However, the amount of curcumin in turmeric is quite low, making up no more than 3% of its makeup. It is also difficult for the body to absorb curcumin into the bloodstream. Naturopathic physicians, therefore, recommend that people take specially-formulated curcumin supplements containing black pepper, as piperine (the main compound in pepper) helps absorption of curcumin by 2000%.

Curcumin is also fat soluble, therefore it is helpful to take such supplements in combination with a high-fat meal (for example, a salad with olive oil dressing).

Turmeric as a skin treatment has been gaining in popularity in recent years. It is helpful for people with scars from conditions such as psoriasis and acne, but also has cosmetic uses; Indian brides have applied “turmeric masks” to their faces for hundreds of years in order to beautify themselves. Turmeric mask recipes are easily found online, but women who are considering applying one to their face should be aware that it does cause the skin to take on a bright, orange-yellow color. Although this can be scrubbed off with a bit of time and effort, removing it too soon will negate the benefits. Therefore, it is best to apply a turmeric mask at least a day before that special night out or other social event.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.