What is Turmeric Essential Oil useful for in a Clinical Aromatherapy setting?

The Latin name for this plant is Curcuma longa Linn and it is a member of the Zingiberaceae family (the same as Ginger oil). Native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, it is widely used in cooking. It is also cultivated in China and the plant has rhizomes roots very much like ginger except the turmeric rhizome root is a deep orange colour on the inside. The leaf of turmeric is also much wider than ginger but they are of course part of the same plant family, so we should see some similarities.

Turmeric has become very "fashionable" recently as a herbal supplement and cooking ingredient. There are numerous companies selling supplements and remedies that purport a cure all. It is its anti-inflammatory action, thanks to the main active ingredient of curcumin that have interested people suffering from inflammatory diseases. I recently put out a query on the Complementary Health Professional Facebook forum to see who had been using it successfully as an essential oil and how and people have also responded about how they are using the supplement too. One person said she uses it instead of Ibuprofen successfully to avoid digestive problems associated with ibuprofen; however, prolonged use of turmeric has been associated with incidences of ulcers, hyperplasia and inflammation in the forestomach, cecum and colon (Imrahim et al 2018), so it clearly needs careful monitoring. I have bought some rather expensive turmeric supplements for my own mother who has bursitis in her right hip, but there was no pain relief after 30 days.

Curcumin has several other biological activities including being anti-carcinogenic, anti-infectious, antioxidant, anti-apoptic and is vulnerary. People have reported adding turmeric to honey for wound healing. However, all of these studies were either topical dressing using the powdered turmeric or given orally. This article is about the essential oil and how aromatherapists might use it in a clinical setting so I wanted to find out what is in the oil when it has been distilled. I started with a GC/MS analysis of the essential oil that had been obtained via hydro-distillation from the rhizomes.

The essential oil distilled was used to test antimicrobial activity and was effective against Candida albicans, Staphylococcus aureus and Aspergillus niger. It was concluded that the high turmerone content was the reason (Singh et al 2011). The other constituent in high concentration in this GC/MS analysis is curlone. There are lesser quantities of curcumene, beta-sesquipellandrene, beta-bisabolene, alpha-phellandrene, beta-farnesene and eucalyptol.

Another GC/MS result was obtained from an essential oil distilled from the leaves as well as the fresh rhizomes by hydro-distillation. The leaf oil gave α–phellandrene as its main constituents and other desirable chemical constituents like eucalyptol, terpinolene, terpinene, β-pinene, zingiberene were also found in the leaf essential oil of both genotypes. The root oil yielded tumerone as its main constituent. In fact, from GC-MS analysis of essential oil, tumerone was identified as the major compound occupying maximum peak area in all genotypes of turmeric from different agro-climatic zones. Percentage of tumerone varied from 35.24% to 44.22% among all five elite genotypes (Akbar et al 2015).

In this result, the other consituents in the rhizome essential oil were eucalyptol, α-Curcumene, α-Zingiberene, Curlone, Bisabolene, Sesquiphellandrene, α-Pellandrene and δ-Cymene. I will put these in a table with their known therapeutic actions below:

According to S et al (2017), the essential oil (5.8%) obtained by steam distillation of the rhizomes contains α-phellandrene (1%), sabinene (0.6%), cineol (1%), borneol (0.5%), zingiberene (25%) and sesquiterpenes (53%), and curcumin (3–6%) is responsible for the yellow colour and is only found in small quantities in the essential oil and yet this is the compound everyone raves about in the supplements. So I think it is important to make this distinction. Tisserand et al (2013) states that there is no curcumin in Turmeric Essential oil. The steam distilled essential oils are composed mainly of sesquiterpenes and the aroma of this spice is principally derived from α- and β-turmerones or aromatic turmerone (Ar-turmerone). It is mainly made up of sesquiterpenes, which means its aroma will hand around longer and it will more likely affect the parasympathetic nervous system and have a more relaxing effect. What is clear from my research is that constituents will change depending on the usual conditions of cultivar, time of harvest, treatment and environmental conditions during growth. Volatile compounds from C. longa are assumed to differ with each development stage. With the gradual development of the rhizomes, their odour also changes (Kasai et al, 2017). Ar-turmerone is more likely in existence from ripened rhizomes and there is greater antioxidant activity when ripened.

Therapeutic uses

It would appear that this oil may have a place in treatment of dementia as postulated by Matsumura et al (2016) where the active principles were determined as α-turmerone, β-turmerone and ar-turmerone showed a high potency against beta-secretase. Possibly may be useful for various forms of brain injury and perhaps even eplilepsy since it is anticonvulsant as proven in research trials (Paucar et al 2013).

It may also be useful in the treatment of diabetes according to Lekshmi et al (2012) whose research indicated that the volatile oil of turmeric inhibited glucosidase enzymes more effectively than the reference standard drug acarbose.

Let's look at the potential emotional/mental effects. I find the aroma of this oil quite unpleasant on its own so it really does need to be blended. Curcumin has successfully exhibited antidepressant-like activities according to Samukhani et al (2014). This was not the essential oil though and yet literature on the essential oil do say that that it is meant to be good for anxiety and depression. Once source mentions that is "warms the heart and attracts positive energy" (Aromatics International website). My clients all felt relaxed after using it at a 2% dilution but did not feel it was warming in the same way as ginger does on the skin. I think blending it with ginger essential oil is good when you want to use it for arthritic conditions and if you want to help with depression, then blend it with oils that are known anti-depressants, such as Rose and Geranium. It is also nice blended with Neroli. Curcumin in the supplements has been shown to have some anti-anxiety action. Several of the therapists of the forum have reported success when using Turmeric essential oil for joint issues, especially on the knees. It does not seem to have an analgesic property from its chemistry so I would add analgesic oils. Lavandin would be a good idea and one therapist I spoke with also suggested Lemongrass with Ginger.

What is good about this oil, apart from the rather exciting possible neurological and anti-cancer potential, is that it is an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Other reports on the internet seem to mix up the therapeutic benefits of the supplement with the essential oil and bash on about curcumin, which is only present 3-6% in the steam distilled essential oil and not present at all when obtained by hydrodistillation.

It is a useful oil to add for blends when you are trying to stimulate the immune system and I quite like it added to citrus oils, such as Lemon and Lime and also with Eucalyptus and Rosemary. As stated above, it is good blended with Ginger oil and I also used it with Plai oil, which is also good for arthritic conditions (see an earlier blog I wrote on Plai if you are unfamiliar with this oil).

Safety Data

Possible skin irritation is indicated in books, so use in larger dilution concentrations in your base products (1% or 1 drop in 5mls). I have very sensitive skin so I tried it on myself at 3% dilution and did get a slight reaction. None of my clients reported any issues at 2% dilution in base oil. I would not use this essential oil on a facial treatment or in a face cream blend as I think it would be too much, despite articles that I have read recommending it for a health facial glow! - not nice!!. Ar-turmerone is indicated with a GHS classification H319 (100%): May cause an allergic skin reaction [Warning Sensitization, Skin] (PubChem website), so caution is advised, particularly in sensitive areas as turmerone is the main constituent. Therefore, I would not recommend it for facials as this is a very delicate area. It is also hazardous around the eyes and mouth, so this is another reason to avoid using on the face. We do see people taking essential oils internally these days, even though in reality specialist training is needed, so for those individuals I would highly recommend not taking this oil internally. The essential oil is hazardous around the mouth, it is clear that is should not be added into the mouth and taken orally. It will probably cause mouth soreness and sensitisation. There is a report of a person having a rash on their trunk after 2 days, that worsened after 7 days from taking the oil internally, which resolved immediately after stopping . Tisserand et al (2013) cites a study undertaken by Opdyke & Letizia (1983) where Turmeric was tested on 25 individuals at 4% dilution topically and was neither sensitizing nor irritating. It is not phototoxic.

One therapist asked about possible safety data for diabetes, blood pressure and anyone on blood thinning medication, such as Warfarin. There does not seem to be any reason why you would need to be specifically cautious when using Turmeric essential oil for these conditions. It is curcumin that is believed to help with type II diabetes in that it has been shown to reduce glycemia and hyperlipidemia in rodents with diabetes. Tisserand et al (2013) lists Turmeric as "may influence blood sugar levels and may cause hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia" and could affect anti-diabetic drugs such as glibenclamide, tolbutamide and metformin" but only when taken internally. As inflammation is now recognised as one of the main contributors to diabetes, the anti-inflammatory effects may be useful in the late stages of diabetes (Zhang et al 2013). However, the steam distilled essential oil has very little or no curcumin and the hydrodistilled type has none; as already mentioned, so topically, there is no cause for concern.

I am writing a an online CPD course for massage therapists and aromatherapist on diabetes, which will be available later this year on my website www.naturaltherapeutics.co.uk. As for blood thinning medications, curcumin may well inhibit drug metabolism processes and may also increase the concentration of the drug in the blood. It would only be an issue if there was long-term use of Turmeric though (Shruti 2019). So, it would seem that using turmeric in your diet is totally safe, but if using supplements, this needs care and you should discuss it with your doctor if you have a health condition. Turmeric supplements are also not recommended during pregnancy but I cannot see any reason why you could not use the essential oil in pregnancy in a 1% dilution, after the first 12 weeks if you felt it was suitable. To be honest, there are probably nicer oils to use in pregnancy that will elicit similar therapeutic benefits.

Several therapists recommended using Turmeric for wound healing. One suggested a blend with Honey, Geranium and Tea Tree oil for acne treatment to help reduce inflammation. She uses turmeric powder though and not the essential oil and leaves this on for around 10 minutes before washing off. Other therapists have used it successfully for digestive complaints in abdominal massages, coupled with stimilation of the appropriate reflex points on the feet and head. It is certainly nice to hear that therapists are using different modalities to best suit the individual needs of their clients and thinking laterally using all of their skills. I would like to thank all of therapists that sent me links and information about how they have used the essential oil in their practice.

You can purchase the essential oil at numerous places, but CHP members get 15% off essential oils and accessories at Base Formula. I would like to personally thank Base Formula for sending me a sample bottle of this oil to try and for the purpose of writing this article.

If you would like to recommend Turmeric Supplements to take internally to your clients, which of course will have the curcumin, send them this link from Lyfe Botanicals so that they can make an informed decision.

Reference List

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Ibrahim, N.‘.; Wong, S.K.; Mohamed, I.N.; Mohamed, N.; Chin, K.-Y.; Ima-Nirwana, S.; Shuid, A.N. Wound Healing Properties of Selected Natural Products. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2018, 15, 2360. available at https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/11/2360 <accessed 24/06/2019>

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Lekshmi PC, Arimboor R, Indulka PS, Menon AN 2012 Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) volatile oil inhibits key enzymes linked to type 2 diabetes International Journal of Food Science Nutrition Nov;63(7):832-4 available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22385048 <accessed 25/06/2019>

Matsumura S, Murata K, Zaima N, Yoshiioka Y, Morimoto M, Kugo H, Yamamoto A, Moriyama T, Matsuda H 2016 Inhibitory Activities of Essential Oil Obtained from Turmeric and Its Constituents against β-Secretase Nat Pod Commun Dec; 11(12): 1785-1788 available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30508333 <accessed 25/06/2019>

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Sanmukhani, J. Vimal Satodia, Jaladhi Trivedi, Tejas Patel, Deepak Tiwari, Bharat Panchal, Ajay Goel, Chandra Bhanu Tripathi Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res. 2014 Apr; 28(4): 579–585. Published online 2013 Jul 6. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5025 available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23832433 <accessed 24/06/2019>

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