Curcumin Provides Targeted Cardiovascular Protection
One way to improve heart health is to exercise. But what if you could achieve some of the benefits of exercise without stepping on a treadmill?
According to a recent study, that dream can become a reality with a supplement: curcumin.
One reason exercise is so good for the heart is because it improves endothelial function. When researchers compared exercise to curcumin supplementation, they found that curcumin was just as effective as exercise in improving endothelial function.
Curcumin combats numerous other heart disease risk factors, including suppressing chronic inflammation, reducing the impact of high glucose, and normalizing blood lipid profiles.
As a result, curcumin can mitigate the cascade of events that leads to heart attacks, heart failure, strokes, and even microvascular complications seen primarily in diabetic people.
In this article, we’ll review studies highlighting how curcumin can help combat the many underlying factors that lead to cardiovascular disease.
Multitargeted Heart Protection
Some of the complex changes in the circulatory system that lead to cardiovascular disease begin as early as the mid-twenties, long before symptoms arise.
A prime underlying factor in the development of cardiovascular disease is metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of abdominal obesity, hypertension, glucose intolerance, and lipid disturbances. Together, these factors contribute to chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which set us up for atherosclerosis, reduced blood flow to vital organs, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke.1
Metabolic syndrome and obesity raise risk for type II diabetes—an insidious condition in which damage caused by high blood-sugar levels rapidly accelerates, worsening vascular health.1
Curcumin, a polyphenol molecule derived from the root of the turmeric plant,2,3 has multiple modes of action. This makes it a multitargeted supplement capable of reducing many of these interrelated risks. Even apparently healthy individuals can derive cardiovascular benefits from regular curcumin supplementation.
Numerous studies in both humans and animals have demonstrated the powerful impact curcumin supplementation has on reducing cardiovascular disease risks.2-11
One of the reasons why obesity and metabolic syndrome are so harmful is because they contribute to chronic inflammation, which exposes tissues to continuous, low-grade oxidative stress. Inflammation also threatens the integrity of cellular DNA, proteins, and other fundamental structural and functional molecules essential to healthy biological activity.1
In short, chronic inflammation is an age-accelerating process.
That’s why one of the best ways to protect your heart is to suppress inflammatory changes. Doing so allows tissues to heal naturally and recover their lost function—ultimately helping to slow the very process of aging itself.1
Well-designed human studies have now demonstrated curcumin’s ability to combat chronic inflammation.
In a 2015 randomized controlled trial, subjects with metabolic syndrome took either a placebo or one gram a day of curcumin formulated with bioperine, a natural compound added to improve absorption. After 8 weeks, those taking the curcumin experienced significant reductions in markers of chemical stress while boosting natural protective enzyme systems. The end result was a reduction in overall levels of inflammation.1
Other recent studies have confirmed that taking one gram a day of curcumin enhanced with bioperine for improved bioavailability leads to significant reductions in levels of numerous inflammatory cytokines (signaling molecules) that mediate the myriad destructive effects of chronic inflammation.12,13
Another defining feature of metabolic syndrome is disturbances in lipid profiles, particularly elevations in triglycerides and reductions in protective HDL cholesterol.11 High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of atherosclerosis, which increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Curcumin supplementation favorably benefits lipid profiles.
A 2014 study showed that supplementing with one gram a day of a curcumin-bioperine formulation resulted in significant reductions in LDL and total cholesterol, reductions in triglycerides, and significant increases in HDL cholesterol.11
Curcumin’s effect on triglycerides is especially exciting considering they are minimally affected by statin drugs.2,10
Curcumin achieves these benefits because it influences almost all of the pathways by which cholesterol reaches the bloodstream and damages vessels, including absorption from the diet, removal of cholesterol in the liver, transportation of cholesterol out of cells, and removal of cholesterol from tissues throughout the body.2
In addition, curcumin’s ability to scavenge reactive oxygen species reduces the risk of oxidative damage to lipids, thereby limiting the resulting inflammatory damage that contributes to early plaque formation and arterial narrowing that limits blood flow.2
Curcumin also improves the oxidative stress-resisting properties of beneficial HDL cholesterol molecules, increasing their beneficial health effects.3
Curcumin’s Benefits for Diabetics
Diabetes imposes an enormous amount of oxidative and inflammatory stress on the heart muscle and blood vessels. People with diabetes are two to three times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than are nondiabetics.9
Curcumin can prevent—and even reverse—many of the harmful steps that contribute to cardiovascular disease in diabetics.
In a randomized, controlled clinical trial, subjects with type II diabetes took either curcumin capsules containing 1.5 grams a day of curcuminoids or placebo for six months.6 Those taking curcumin experienced significant improvements in measures of arterial stiffness, an important pathology of atherosclerosis that is dangerous because it reduces blood flow, raises blood pressure, and contributes to end-organ disease (e.g., heart, kidney, brain, and other tissues).
Curcumin-supplemented people also experienced reductions in insulin resistance, triglycerides, uric acid, and both visceral fat (abdominal fat that is stored around the organs and is particularly inflammatory) and total body fat levels—all of which represent major reductions in cardiovascular risk.6 These benefits were likely due to curcumin’s ability to significantly raise levels of beneficial adiponectin, while lowering levels of damaging leptin—two fat-derived signaling molecules that influence body fat distribution.6
Another cardiovascular complication of diabetes is damage to tiny blood vessels, or microangiopathy, which contributes to diabetic complications such as swelling of the extremities as well as retinal, kidney, and heart disease.4 Curcumin’s ability to help improve blood flow helps alleviate many of these complications.
In one study, subjects with type II diabetes received one gram a day of curcumin enhanced with lecithin for improved bioavailability, while control subjects followed usual care practices without supplementation.4 After four weeks, no changes were observed in the control subjects.
By stark contrast, the subjects taking curcumin experienced significant improvements in measures of blood flow in the capillaries of the skin, improvements in localized control of blood flow, and reductions in the foot swelling. They also experienced significant increases in measurements of tissue oxygen levels, a natural consequence of the improved blood flow.4
Finally, another serious consequence of chronically elevated blood sugar is that it produces significant damage in heart and blood vessel tissue.
Perhaps the most immediately threatening of such damage is that done to the heart muscle, which produces a condition called diabetic cardiomyopathy, in which both systolic (during the “squeeze”) and diastolic (during the relaxation phase) function of the heart is impaired.9 Cardiomyopathy leads to early heart failure and increased risk for heart attacks, and it is a major cause of diabetes-related deaths.9 Curcumin prevents glucose-induced death of heart muscle cells by inhibiting oxidative stress imposed by steady exposure to blood sugar.14
These benefits highlight the powerful effect of curcumin supplementation for those suffering from diabetes.
Curcumin vs. Glucose
Curcumin impacts numerous glucose-related mechanisms, which makes it of tremendous importance not only to people with diabetes, but to the large group of adults with “high-normal,” “borderline,” or “prediabetic” blood sugar.
Studies show that curcumin prevents high glucose-induced damage by activating PPAR-gamma, a metabolic regulator that increases insulin sensitivity and is anti-inflammatory.5
Most importantly, curcumin reduces the glucose-induced production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are age-accelerating compounds important even in nondiabetics and those with borderline-high blood glucose.15,16
AGEs form when sugar molecules react with proteins, resulting in structural changes to the proteins that impair their function.16 In structural proteins, such as the collagen that forms artery walls, AGE-induced damage stiffens and thickens those proteins, resulting in arterial stiffening and reduced control of blood flow and pressure.
Curcumin’s ability to reduce the formation of AGEs helps reduce these threatening events.
Why Healthy Adults Need Curcumin Too
Even seemingly healthy adults should be taking active steps to protect their heart health. Even in the absence of other known cardiovascular risk factors (such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes), aging alone can cause changes in the structure and function of your arteries, leading to endothelial dysfunction and arterial stiffness—both of which are key underlying factors in cardiovascular disease that are especially dangerous because they produce no symptoms of their own.
This highlights curcumin’s benefits for all adults—not just those with other known risk factors for heart disease.
The endothelium is the innermost layer of cells that line your arteries.8 It secretes myriad signaling molecules that control cell growth, blood vessel tone (relaxed vs. constricted), clotting function, and adhesion of platelets and white blood cells—all of which are intimately involved in vascular health and atherosclerosis.8
Impaired endothelial function has been implicated in a wide range of age-related disorders, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, heart failure, ischemia (inadequate blood flow), Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions.
Curcumin has numerous mechanisms that improve the structure and function of the endothelium, which predicts potent effects on all of these conditions.7,8 This has been clearly seen in studies that compare curcumin supplementation to exercise, which is a well-known way of improving endothelial function.
In a study of healthy postmenopausal women, even a low-dose (150 mg a day) of curcumin nanoparticles was found to be as effective as moderate aerobic exercise training at improving endothelial function. No changes were detected in control subjects.17
A similar study using the same dose of curcumin then showed that the combination of exercise and curcumin supplementation could reduce central (aortic) blood pressure, heart rate, and a measure of arterial stiffness, while exercise alone only reduced blood pressure measured in the arm.18
Finally, healthy young individuals who supplemented with 200 mg a day of a hydrophilic curcumin plus antioxidants for eight weeks demonstrated a statistically—and clinically—significant 3% improvement in flow-mediated dilation, a measure of endothelial function.19
Curcumin works by numerous mechanisms of action to improve arterial health. For example, it enhances nitric oxide (NO) production by activating an enzyme called endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS). This improves blood flow by promoting the relaxation of vascular smooth muscle and the dilation of vessels.5,7
Another way curcumin helps enhance blood flow and lower blood pressure is by reducing the receptor for angiotensin, a signaling molecule that triggers increased blood pressure by stimulating contraction of arterial muscles.20
Taken together, these findings demonstrate that curcumin is an extremely versatile nutrient capable of preventing cardiovascular disease through its impact on the physical and oxidative stress that promotes aging in the cardiovascular system.
Curcumin has long been prized for its potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-modulatory properties. Now we can add superior cardiovascular protection to its known benefits.2,3,9,20
Human studies have demonstrated the value of curcumin in reducing the cardiovascular risks associated with obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
By reducing the impact of chronic glucose exposure, lipid disturbances, and biochemical stresses, curcumin plays a central role in combatting many of the factors that contribute to heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.
Curcumin supplementation has also been shown to boost declining endothelial function, reduce arterial stiffening, and prevent the impact of chronic blood sugar exposure—actions that benefit healthy aging adults as well.
No drug can come anywhere close to the multitargeted heart health-promoting actions of curcumin, making this polyphenol one of the most versatile natural supplements available.
By Susan Cartwright