One in every three deaths in America is due to heart disease or stroke – equivalent to 2,200 deaths every day. Heart disease is also expensive - over $400 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs and lost productivity. High blood pressure, oxidized LDL cholesterol and atherosclerosis, chronic inflammation, and even other diseases such as diabetes and abnormal thyroid levels are associated with the development of heart disease.
Along with oxidation, inflammation is a primary cause of most chronic diseases, and is extremely damaging to the heart. It plays a strong role in the development of blockages in the arteries and weakening of the blood vessels. Higher than normal blood sugar levels drive the inflammation to higher and higher levels, which is one of the reasons people with diabetes have a much higher cardiac disease risk.
It often begins with an over-expression of our body’s own healing mechanisms. For example, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a) is an important component of the immune system that helps the body kill bacteria, viruses and parasites. However, TNF-a also becomes active during periods of inflammation, so in order to fight inflammation, some drugs inhibit TNF-a activity to extremely low levels.
But since TNF-a supports the immune system, you’ve effectively traded one problem by inducing another. Curcumin, on the other hand, may be the one healing compound that can effectively address inflammation and oxidation without compromising any system in the process.1
And, unlike drugs with potentially life-threatening side effects, curcumin reduces all arms of the inflammatory cascade safely and effectively. It also plays a role in reducing insulin resistance, a major feature of diabetes, and often seen in conjunction with cardiovascular health issues.1
Curcumin has been shown to help repair cardiac tissue and reduce the inflammatory markers that can otherwise interfere with the process following ischemia. The researchers concluded that curcumin has great potential for therapy for patients after a heart attack.2
Curcumin also provides excellent protection following coronary artery bypass grafting. Following this procedure, many people are at risk of myocardial infarction (MI), commonly known as a heart attack. In a clinical study, patients were randomized to receive curcuminoids or a placebo. The researchers were looking for two different things – incidence of MI and the effect of curcumin on C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers.
Incidence of MI decreased from 30% in the placebo group to only 13.1% in the curcumin group. C-reactive protein, and other markers were also lower in the curcuminoid group. Overall, curcumin was reduced the heart attacks and inflammation following coronary surgery. The researchers feel that the combination of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant abilities of curcumin may be account for these heart-protecting effects.3
Other scientific research has examined the some of the biomechanics -- the “how” – of curcumin’s protective effect on heart tissue. What they’ve found is that while curcumin inhibits a wide variety of damaging inflammatory markers and stops oxidative damage, it also promotes natural protectors of the cardiovascular system.
Some of the specific pathways that protect the heart and send a “survival signal” to the myocardial tissue include the Janus kinase 2 gene (JAK2) involved with blood platelet creation and the signal transducer and activator 3 of transcription gene (STAT3), which is involved in creating and maintaining healthy cells. Because curcumin is able to activate these proteins, it is actually doing more than simply defending against a threat – it is promoting a healthy alternative.4
Curcumin protects against cell death following heart attacks or other cardiovascular events. In scientific research, it was shown to stack the deck in favor of heart tissue by activating a number of “pro-survival” enzymes and inhibit other potentially damaging inflammatory markers including c-Jun N-terminal kinase, or JNK. (Overexpression of JNK is implicated in diabetes as well, and separate research shows that curcumin’s inhibition of this enzyme may help normalize insulin activity.)5
But curcumin’s value for the cardiovascular system isn’t only limited to preventing secondary heart attacks. It also helps balance cholesterol levels.
In scientific studies, curcumin decreased total cholesterol levels by 21%, and LDL (considered “bad cholesterol”) by 42%. Interestingly, curcumin boosted levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) by 50%. It also lowered the liver enzyme response, probably due to the lowering cholesterol levels, and because of the lowered inflammation overall.
The study’s author did not find evidence of anti-oxidant protection in this case, but did conclude that curcumin clearly had value in lowering cholesterol levels, despite the high-fat diet supplied to the rats in the study.6
Other research has validated the cholesterol-balancing effects of curcumin, showing that it significantly decreased LDL cholesterol and increased HDL.7
Narrowing and hardening of the arteries is one of the leading causes of heart disease. As the arteries become clotted, blood flow becomes dangerously low. Tissue Factor (TF), a protein that begins the sequence of blood coagulation is one of the components of blocked arteries. Normally, TF isn’t expressed in the endothelial cells that make up blood vessel walls, but inflammation can change that and induce the protein to act where it otherwise would not. Some of the first research on curcumin showed that it inhibits TF, and because of this, and its other anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, curcumin may provide a much safer route toward preventing clogged arteries.8-10
TF activity also leads to fibrin formation. This blood-clotting protein is formed from fibrinogen and ultimately forms a natural bandage over any of damage. The problem is, fibrin will also form in damaged blood vessels in response to inflammation.
Elevated fibrin levels are often seen in victims of stroke – the number three cause of death in the United States. Fortunately, curcumin has been shown to lower abnormal levels of this protein, so curcumin is considered a vital therapeutic agent in preventing stroke and the recurrence of stroke. Some of the researchers investigating curcumin believe it could either be used in a preventive regimen on its own, or as an adjunct therapy with other conventional medications. Either way, this compound, so revered in the past may represent the future of cardiovascular health.11-13
Eventually, curcumin may help reverse the statistics in the ongoing cardiovascular crisis in America – without the risks to health from prescription drugs. Further research and clinical tests could one day make curcumin the first option for heart health, rather than the alternative one.