Can Turmeric Cure Our National Inflammation?

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Photo: Westend61

Not long ago on the subway I saw a youngish, well-dressed woman drinking what looked like urine from a Poland Spring bottle. Watching as she unself-consciously tipped the deep gold liquid into her mouth, I thought: How about that, New Yorkers are still into freaky shit.

Then I realized it was probably not pee after all, but some kind of concoction containing turmeric, the superroot of the moment.

You might have noticed the starry rise of turmeric, which ranks as one of the most-searched foods by Google Trends this year, and has since become ubiquitous. There it is, at every trendy eatery: Sqirl in L.A., El Rey in New York. It’s hanging out in Karlie Kloss’s muffins, Shailene Woodley’s bone broth, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lattes.

To people from India, where Ayurvedic medicine has made use of turmeric for thousands of years, the sudden sexiness of this stubby cousin of ginger, which looks from the outside not unlike the hairy, gnarled fingers of the grandmas traditionally fond of dispensing it, is amusing and maybe a little gratifying. “My mom is so vindicated,” one Indian friend told me. “She’s always sending us photos of upsold turmeric beverages in trendy cafés.”

It’s also kind of confusing: Why now, after thousands of years, has turmeric become an “It” root? Partly, it comes with the overall trend toward clean eating, which has also swallowed Ayurvedic practices like juice fasting and “swishing” with coconut oil. “People are much more interested in simplifying what goes into their bodies, including what goes onto their skin,” says Roberta Weiss, a developer for Kiehl’s who created the company’s Turmeric and Cranberry Seed Brightening Mask, which came out last year. “They’re realizing the ancient ways of doing things have a lot of validity.”

To a layperson, the actual benefits of turmeric can be a little hard to discern: Ayurvedists use it to cure everything, from scrapes and burns to constipation and conjunctivitis — “It’s essentially to Indians what Windex is to the Big Fat Greeks,” says my friend — and this same attitude has taken root (sorry) in the West, where turmeric is currently being touted as not just an energy supplement and skin brightener but a potential weapon against Alzheimer’s and cancer. Scientists aren’t definitive on all that, but they do agree on one thing: curcumin, the chemical turmeric produces, is a powerful anti-inflammatory. And inflammation is a hot topic (sorry again) in wellness circles. “There’s this idea where if you have free-floating inflammation you are much more vulnerable to all sorts of things from heart disease to skin aging,” says Jean Godfrey June, the beauty director of Goop. Until recently, she points out, “The culture in skin care, and in medicine I think, has been to attack and fight. But now people are realizing that harsh treatment makes inflammation worse, and that soothing your system is more important.”

This, if anything, explains the popularity of turmeric in America in 2016: We are, as a nation, nothing if not terribly inflamed, vulnerable, desperately in need of soothing but all too prone to harsh overcorrection. Can we resist the impulses that have gotten us into trouble before, and change our behavior before inflammation takes us down for good?

As a journalist, I’m skeptical that turmeric will be able to quell our national inflammation. But because action begins with the individual — and because people at the Cut look like they have a lot of fun cataloging diets and stuff and I want in — I’ve agreed to spend seven days seeing if this developing-world root can soothe my first-world problems.

Day One

I pop by the New York Ayurveda & Panchakarma Center after work to see the manager, Nisha Saini, who’s been turning New Yorkers onto turmeric since Gwyneth was dating Brad. Like the recipe I’ve pinned from Goop, she suggests mixing the fresh juiced or grated root with a sweetener for easier drinking, along with a fat like coconut oil and some pepper, which works to boost the body’s absorbency of the curcumin. “After a week, you will notice a difference, definitely,” she says. “Your gut will feel very clear. But turmeric is very strong,” she warns. “I don’t recommend more than half a teaspoon of fresh turmeric to anybody.” In my head I know this is good advice, but I’m an American, and more is more. Twenty minutes later I’m at Apna Bazar in Jackson Heights, where a woman in an on-trend turmeric-colored sari is ringing up a massive bag of the roots for me, along with a huge bag of powder and a small tube of skin cleanser called Vita Turmeric. That’s right: I am doing this thing. I am going to be motherfucking soothed.

After the protracted negotiations required to put our toddler to bed, my husband flicks on a cable drama in which a crazed but handsome serial killer begins committing murders solely to spite the detective investigating him. But I don’t say, “Seriously? This plotline? Again?” because I know that I will soon float away on a cloud of Turmeric Calm. This Zen briefly falters in the kitchen, which I realize I’ve forgotten to procure the almond milk, coconut sugar, and sea salt the Goop latte requires, but I coolly improvise with a half a bottle of coconut water, a pinch of Morton’s and the last drops of honey from an old bear. With the pepper on top, it looks gross but is surprisingly tasty, and as I drink it I feel tender toward millennials for finding a way to make sweet caloric beverages into a healthy choice. It’s working already!

Day Two

I’m supposed to go on TV to talk about Ivanka Trump, and thus spend the day feeling nervous and running through various pissed-off arguments in my head. Then it’s canceled, which leaves me free to meet a young lady writer I know who has told me she wants to discuss this Really Crazy Situation she’s in. We meet at a bar in midtown, where I drink two glasses of wine and eat approximately six fried olives with she tells me the story, which I can’t get into except to say it involves a Much Older Man, His Girlfriend, and His Antiquities, and is indeed really freaking crazy, in addition to being also sad and enraging in a way that makes my stomach hurt. This feeling is exacerbated when I get a New York Times alert saying that Trump is “tied” with Hillary Clinton, and then on the way home accidentally read an article in which an idiot pop star says she has “never voted and has no desire to.” Fortunately, I have a cure at hand: I stumble into my kitchen and cobble together a version of the Sqirl tonic, and although I am forced to use one of our toddler’s juice boxes as a base and have failed to make a batch of cardamom ghee, holy shit, it is delicious! Is this my new side hustle, since as we all know, journalism is screwed? Alas no: It’s already the full-time job of Daniel Sullivan, whose company Temple Turmeric, which he founded in 2009 after a stint working on an organic farm in Maui, was “first in the bottled turmeric beverage space,” he tells me later. The company, which now produces seven types of turmeric elixirs, is next planning on “leveraging the apple-cider-vinegar trend,” he will go on to say, and is also “playing in probiotic and in the shot category.” Yeah, even the hippies these days are aggressive.

Day Three

The subway is running late which means my babysitter is too, so the toddler and I head to the coffee shop down the street for breakfast. The babysitter has just texted to say that she’s around the corner when a work phone call comes through unexpectedly early. I pick up, thinking she’ll walk in any second, at the exact instant the toddler announces with extreme urgency, “I have to POOP!” Feigning a service interruption, I hang up and attend to business, phone buzzing in my pocket. When I finally call back, several minutes later, I’m pretty sure the person on the other end can hear the denouement, as my son excitedly informs the babysitter and rest of the customers: “I POOPED in the muffin shop!” Later that day it will become clear exactly how precious and endearing this moment is when 84 people, 11 of them children, are killed by a truck-driving lunatic in Nice. That night, I get a horrible case of heartburn, related to the news or the olives, and remember that earlier that day, when all those people were alive and having fun, I’d bought a packet of Gaia TurmericBoost! powder at LifeThyme in the West Village. I dump it in a mug of hot water and sip it while unhealthily scrolling through the news on Twitter. Soon I realize that while the news remains terrible, the heartburn is totally gone.

Day Four

Find out that after seven months of back and forth with my insurance provider, Aetna has denied a claim for a D&C I had after a miscarriage, sans explanation. Crack open a bottle of Gratitude’s limited-edition Turmeric Kombucha, then promptly spill it all over myself while tipping it over to read the inspirational saying encircling the logo: You will never be as young as you are today. There’s now a large yellow stain above my left boob. Try to feel Gratitude.

Day Five

It’s the end of the week, and feeling in need of extra soothing I sign up for a yoga class at a new place, settling in behind a guy with a blond topknot and a shirt that says, “Sky’s Out, Thigh’s Out.” Normally, I might roll my eyes but I’m still feeling magnanimous toward millennials — after all, it’s harder than ever to be young — and I find it kind of endearing that this generation can’t yet see their future fashion regrets the way a person who wore Beetlejuice tights throughout the ‘90s can. By the end of class this feeling has faded, however, due to the instructors constant exhortations of “Make today your best day ever!” in between turning out the lights and letting us figure out what to do ourselves, like we aren’t taking a class for a reason. “Is today your day to do something amazing?” she chirps, as we lie in savasana. Jesus, lady. It’s Friday. Let’s just get through the day. On the way to dinner with my husband and his work friends, I stop at Juice Press and ask them to throw a teaspoon of turmeric in my water, just to calm down. “Does it work?” the girl behind the counter asks curiously. I don’t really know, I tell her, but I’m hopeful.

Day Six

Weirdly not hung-over, despite having spent the evening with people from an industry that treats drinking as a social sport, like golf or something. Turmeric! Gotta go back and tell the girl at Juice Press.

Day Seven

Wake up to the news of police officers being shot in Baton Rouge. Tomorrow, the Republican National Convention begins. After seven days, as Nisha at the Ayurveda Center predicted, my gut feels clear. Unfortunately, it’s also sending me a clear message: There is not enough turmeric in the world.