A chemical that naturally occurs in turmeric root appears to protect the heart from aging as much as moderate aerobic exercise,
according to a trio of studies conducted by researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan.
Turmeric root has been an important component of traditional Asian medicinal systems for hundreds of years. In recent decades, scientific studies have confirmed the potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the trio of turmeric chemicals known as "curcuminoids," which give the root its distinctive yellow-orange color. Although only one of these chemicals is properly known as "curcumin," the name is commonly used to refer to all of them collectively.
The three new studies all compared the effects of exercise and curcumin on heart health and postmenopausal women over an eight-week period. All the studies were randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled. Curcumin was delivered by means of colloidal nanoparticles.
Can turmeric prevent heart disease?
In the first study, researchers assigned 32 women to either take a curcumin supplement, engage in moderate aerobic exercise training, or undergo no intervention at all. The researchers measured participants' vascular endothelial function - the responsiveness of the layer of cells that line the blood vessels, a key indicator of overall cardiovascular health - both at the beginning and end of the study. They found that while there was no improvement in the control group, endothelial function significantly increased in both the exercise and curcumin groups. Most surprisingly, the improvement in the two experimental groups was identical.
The second study examined curcumin's effects on the responsiveness of arteries to changes in blood pressure ("arterial compliance"), another key measure of cardiovascular health. In this study, 32 women were randomly assigned to receive either a curcumin supplement or a placebo pill, or to undergo an exercise routine plus either a curcumin or placebo pill. The researchers found no significant improvement in the control group, significant (and equivalent) improvements in both the exercise-only and curcumin-only groups, and the greatest improvement among participants who exercised and also took the supplements.
In the final study, researchers examined the effects of exercise and curcumin on the rate of age-related degeneration of the heart's left ventricle. 45 participants were randomly assigned into one of the same four groups used in the second study.
The researchers once again found that both exercise and curcumin produced significant increases in heart health. In this study; however, curcumin alone did not appear to provide any benefit. Specifically, brachial systolic blood pressure (SBP) decreased among participants who exercised, whether or not they took curcumin. In addition, heart-rate-corrected aortic augmentation index (AIx) and aortic SBP both decreased significantly only among participants who both exercised and took curcumin.
"Regular ingestion of curcumin could be a preventive measure against cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women," the authors of the first study wrote. "Furthermore, our results suggest that curcumin may be a potential alternative ... for patients who are unable to exercise."
Curcumin is best absorbed from turmeric root, rather than from supplements.