Historians from all around the world have produced evidence to show that apparently all primitive peoples used herbs, often in a sophisticated way.
Quinine from Cinchona bark was used to treat the symptoms of malaria long before the disease was identified, and the raw ingredients of a common aspirin tablet have been a popular painkiller for far longer than we have had access to tablet-making machinery.
Indeed, today many pharmacological classes of drugs include a natural product prototype that we originally discovered through the study of traditional cures and folk knowledge of indigenous people.
There’s a plant in South Asia called Adhatoda (from adu meaning “goat,” and thoda meaning “not touch” because it’s so bitter even the goats won’t eat it). It has compounds that help open one’s airways and as such, Adhatoda tea has been used traditionally to treat asthma, with the leaves steeped with black peppercorns.
Leaves steeped with black peppercorns? That sounds gross to me. Why would they do that? Because they’re smart … Back in 1928, scientists discovered what the people evidently already knew, that adding pepper increased the anti-asthmatic properties of the leaves. Black pepper alone didn’t work: it was the combination. And now we know why.
Just like approximately five percent of the spice turmeric is composed of an active compound called curcumin, about five percent of black pepper by weight is comprised of this compound called piperine. Curcumin is responsible for the yellow color of turmeric and piperine for the pungent flavor of pepper.
Piperine is a potent inhibitor of drug metabolism. One of the ways our liver gets rid of foreign substances is making them water-soluble so they can be more easily excreted. But this black pepper molecule inhibits that process.
And it doesn’t take much. If people are given a lot of turmeric curcumin, within an hour there’s a little bump in the level in their blood stream. We don’t see a large increase because our liver is actively trying to get rid of it.
But what if the process is suppressed by taking just a quarter teaspoon of black pepper? Curcumin levels skyrocket (See Boosting the Bioavailability of Curcumin). The same amount of curcumin is consumed, but the bioavailability shoots up 2000 percent! Even just a little pinch of pepper – one-twentieth of a teaspoon – can significantly boost levels. And what common ingredient do you find in curry powder is besides turmeric? Black pepper!
Another way to boost the absorption of curcumin is to consume it in the whole food, turmeric root, either fresh or dried powder. This is because natural oils found in turmeric root and turmeric powder can enhance the bioavailability of curcumin seven to eight fold. When eaten with fat, curcumin can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lymphatic system thereby in part bypassing the liver.
And how is turmeric prepared in India? With fat and black pepper. Amazing how they could figure that out without double blind trials. (Though maybe it just tastes good, and it’s merely coincidence?) Their traditional knowledge certainly failed them with ghee, however, which is practically pure butterfat, which may explain India’s relatively high rates of heart disease despite all their turmeric.
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In some circumstances, traditional medicine wisdom seems incredible, Tomato Effect; in others, dangerous Get the Lead Out. But that’s what we now have science for!
Michael Greger, M.D., an author and internationally recognized speaker on healthy eating, has produced hundreds of nutrition videos available at NutritionFacts.org. Follow Dr. Greger on Twitter
 Anwarul Hassan, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Gilani, 8/22/2005
 Gupta A1, Prajapati PK. A clinical review of different formulations of Vasa (Adhatoda vasica) on Tamaka Shwasa (asthma). 2010 Oct;31(4):520-4.
 Atal CK, Dubey RK, Singh J. Biochemical basis of enhanced drug bioavailability by piperine: evidence that piperine is a potent inhibitor of drug metabolism. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 1985 Jan;232(1):258-62.
 Hutchins-Wolfbrandt A1, Mistry AM. Dietary turmeric potentially reduces the risk of cancer. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2011;12(12):3169-73.
 Jacobson MS. Cholesterol oxides in Indian ghee: possible cause of unexplained high risk of atherosclerosis in Indian immigrant populations. Lancet. 1987 Sep 19;2(8560):656-8.