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4, 000 years of healing goes scientific

Publication Date : 11-12-2012


Alzheimer's prevention, arthritis easing, cancer control, weight loss and even hangover cures are as near as the garden or your local market.

According to recent medical research, spicing up your life with some turmeric could prevent or control all of the above and more.

The healing qualities of turmeric, known in Indonesia as kunyit, have been known across Asian nations for as long as 4,000 years, and are now being confirmed by hard science in the West and India.

A quick flick through Internet pages on the bright orange to yellow turmeric tuber from the ginger family shows research scientists from several US and Indian universities have unlocked at least one of the health secrets of the plant—its primary active ingredient, cucumin. This element has been shown to radically reduce cholesterol, acts as an anti-inflammatory stronger than many pharmaceutical agents on both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, appears to block the transfer of breast cancer cells to the lungs, and controls prostate cancer when eaten with, of all things, cauliflower.

The herb most often associated with Indian foods such as curries has also been shown to help with weight loss as cucumin appears to break down fat cells and is a powerful liver detoxifier.

Controlled studies in rats found cucumin significantly reduces alcohol-induced liver damage and also has the ability to cross brain membranes and protect the myelin sheaths protecting the nerves the brain depends on for healthy functioning — sheaths that in Alzheimer's are otherwise broken down.

For good health, turmeric should be taken at least once a week, according to Ayurveda practitioner Somvir of the Bali India Foundation, who points out turmeric is the go to medicine for Ayurveda doctors.

"Turmeric has been used in Ayurveda since this medical form was created. Turmeric was seen as so important it was also used in daily life in Bali and India. It is a powerful antibiotic so people give turmeric as the first medical step in illnesses," says Somvir.

How the herb is taken affects its behaviour, he adds. Taken with milk, turmeric strengthens bones and increases flexibility, taken as a powder it relieves joint pain, and mixed with boiled apples can relieve a hangover.

Modern research is suggesting turmeric may also be an effective anti-depressant, without side effects and with a mild mood enhancing ability.

Somvir says turmeric's value for mental problems has also been long understood by Ayurveda. "With mental issues, turmeric is mixed with butter then rolled onto a cotton bud. This is then lit and the smoke inhaled — this can play a great role in stress alleviation," Somvir says.

This ancient knowledge of turmeric has been understood in central Java for centuries and has made its way to Bali. Known locally as jamu, a glass of turmeric is available at many a warung or traditional market, and now hip health cafes.

But not all jamu is the real deal, according to jamu gendong producers Mbah (grandmother) Arif and her family. This family of women learned the art of jamu making from their female ancestors, says Mbah Arif, 50, who has been preparing jamu in her home for the past 37 years.

Daily she prepares her jamu from turmeric, tamarind and lime juice, then sets off to walk her 10-kilometre route carrying a load of 22 kilograms of jamu to loyal customers who buy a glass of the liquid gold for just 20 US cents.

"Our jamu is all natural — we don't mix any chemicals at all. We learned to make this from our grandmother — she was from near Yogyakarta. I came to Bali in 1975 to make a better life; I have been making jamu ever since," says Mbah Arif sitting in her garden that is also her jamu factory. Each female member of her family also prepares jamu daily, each with her own secret recipe.

Mbah Arif's daughter, Darwanti, explains the women have their own kitchens and prepare their jamu in privacy.

"Each of us make jamu, but it all tastes different, some is bitter, some sweet, some salty, we make our own style from our own recipes," says Darwanti.

Sister-in-law to Mbah Arif is 45-year-old Sarni, who again stresses the importance of all natural ingredients for quality jamu that will deliver on its health promises.

"Early each morning I wash then grind the turmeric roots. This is then filtered many times through water and boiled. For turmeric jamu, it takes a half a kilo of fresh turmeric for a litre and a half of jamu. So we use all fresh turmeric, fresh tamarind and fresh limes. Ours is a family business, here everyone knows how to make real jamu — our customers know what we make and they look for that quality. If we were to mix chemicals even just once into our jamu it would ruin our business," says Sarni, the palms of her hands stained yellow in testament to her daily preparations.

The women point out that turmeric jamu is just one of their products, they also make the powerful and intensely bitter sambiloto leaf that is a cure for respiratory ailments. "Sambiloto also cleans the blood, reduces high blood pressure, controls diabetes and eases stiffness," says Mbah Arif.

A jamu specifically for women is made from the sirih (betel) leaf mixed with temu kunci, another ginger-like root.

"Sirih and temu kunci can be used as an eye wash, to reduce itching, to stop sweat odours and also treats thrush. People believe it also helps women have a flat stomach," says Sarni, adding, "Turmeric is also good for staying young and losing weight. We learned from our ancestors that turmeric keeps the skin smooth and washes fat cells out of the body in urine and sweat."

Medical science is only just catching up with what these women and their ancestors have known for generations. "Turmeric since ancient times has been the herb of the forever young," says Somvir of this plant that scientists today are discovering has extraordinary antioxidant powers to destroy the free radicals believed to be the primary cause of aging, cancer, memory disturbances and joint inflammation.


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