Sooner or later, just about everyone is told by the doctor to take a statin drug for high cholesterol. Curcumin for high cholesterol, however, can help you lower your risk for the cardiovascular disease associated with high cholesterol without the potential side-effects of Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, Pravachol, Les-Col, and other statin medications.
The Myth of the Cholesterol Myth
Much is made of the fact that total cholesterol levels don't really explain cardiovascular disease, and the simple fact is, too much of the wrong kind of cholesterol is potentially deadly. But the critics are right, total cholesterol levels (the number you are most likely to know) really don't tell you anything about your risk of cardiovascular disease. Many people have high cholesterol and don't have heart attacks, and many people have low cholesterol and suffer major heart attacks. Just about everyone who has a heart attack, however, suffers from high levels of a particular kind of cholesterol, or has high triglycerides.
The misunderstanding about cholesterol is built on the erroneous and seriously outdated notion that there is just one kind of cholesterol, and cholesterol is the only component of artery-clogging plaque. The simple truth is that your blood vessels aren't pipes, and cholesterol isn't some kind of mineral that can build up in your arteries the way calcium carbonate can build up in your hot water heater. The material that makes up an atherosclerotic plaque isn't just cholesterol. Artery-clogging plaques are a combination of calcium, dead white blood cells, and LDL cholesterol.
Moreover, the LDL cholesterol that finds its way into artery-clogging plaques isn't just any kind of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Any kind of cholesterol is analogous to a balloon. Fatty substances like cholesterol aren't soluble in water, so they couldn't travel through the bloodstream if they were not coated with a “balloon” of protein. Low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol is a bigger balloon, while high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol is a smaller balloon.
Remember, clogs in arteries aren't just cholesterol. They are a combination of cholesterol, a kind of white blood cell known as a macrophage, and calcium. Macrophages are the largest white blood cells. Their role in the immune system is to patrol the bloodstream looking for bacteria. They have to be larger than bacteria to swallow them whole. When a macrophage isn't feeding on bacteria, it feeds on cholesterol. (This means, by the way, that having at least some cholesterol is essential for a healthy immune system, among many other benefits of healthy cholesterol levels. )
The macrophage will ignore the smaller HDL cholesterol, but it can't feed on just any size of LDL cholesterol, either. Macrophages feed on a special kind of LDL cholesterol known as apo B-1. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. These specialized white blood cells have to have fuel to do their work for the immune system.
When a macrophage gets stuck in the lining of an artery while it's mining for cholesterol, however, it can form a platform for building a plaque. The macrophage dies, and as it dies, it sends out a signal to the rest of the immune system that it needs to be cleared way. Still more macrophages pile onto the first macrophage and also get stuck in place. The whole mass of macrophages can calcify, resulting in a stiff blood vessel that cannot expand when it encounters a blood clot.
Curcumin Counteracts the Progression of Atherosclerosis
Curcumin counteracts the process that causes clogged arteries in a very simple way. It keeps macrophages from stuffing themselves with cholesterol and getting stuck in the lining of a blood vessel. It doesn't cause these white blood cells to starve, but it keeps them from becoming the foam cells that line arteries and form plaques. When white blood cells don't feed excessively on cholesterol, then the cholesterol can be slowly used by other cells without ever contributing to cardiovascular disease.
It's important to understand that cholesterol isn't a poison. It actually is essential for every cell in the body. Curcumin doesn't deprive cells of the cholesterol they need. Curcumin only counteracts the process of cardiovascular disease that leads to increased risk of heart attack, aneurysm, and stroke.
Will My Cholesterol Levels Go Down If I Take Curcumin?
Curcumin will lower your cholesterol, sometimes 10 to 20 points (10-20 mg/dl), but taking curcumin on a regular basis won't give you dramatically lower cholesterol. Curcumin gives you safer cholesterol. You aren't likely to have appreciably lower levels of total cholesterol with lower levels of LDL cholesterol and dramatically higher levels of HDL cholesterol during the first month you take a curcumin supplement.
Taking curcumin for a month may, however, significantly lower your triglycerides. Taking curcumin sometimes lowers triglycerides 100 mg/dl, 200 mg/dl, or even more.
We don't hear a lot about triglycerides, but they are actually an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. They may actually be a more important factor for cardiovascular disease than LDL cholesterol for many people who go on to have cardiovascular disease, but there is a reason scientists historically have ignored the danger of high triglyceride levels.
That is because people who have hereditary conditions that cause extremely high triglyceride levels that aren't related to diet don't have an increased risk of heart disease. As a result, medical researchers used to assume erroneously that triglycerides aren't an important risk factor in cardiovascular illnesses.
It turns out that high triglycerides are just as likely as apo-B cholesterol to contribute to the risk of heart attack, aneurysm, and stroke. Even if you have low cholesterol, if you have high triglycerides, you have an increased risk for these potentially deadly cardiovascular diseases.
What Are Triglycerides, Anyway?
Triglycerides are the storage form of excess calories from sugar and fat. There are triglycerides in food, and our bodies make triglycerides when we eat too much.
Triglycerides circulate through the bloodstream in the form of chylomicrons. These “blobs” of excess sugar and fat give up both glycerol (sugar) and cholesterol as they travel past the tissues that need them. In people who exercise, these chylomicrons give up equal amounts of sugar in the form of glycerol and fat in the form of cholesterol.
In people who don't exercise, however, the chylomicrons give up more sugar than fat. This leaves tiny bits of cholesterol that can be consumed by the macrophages that form the foam cells that form the plaques in the lining of arteries. But if you can keep your triglyceride levels down, you can circumvent this risk factor for atherosclerosis.
Cutting back on your calorie consumption can reduce your triglycerides. Keeping your blood sugars in check, if you have diabetes, will also reduce triglycerides. It is possible to control your triglyceride levels with exercise alone, if you exercise a lot. But if you have trouble counting calories, if your blood sugars are not in good control, and you don't get exercise every day, curcumin is a useful remedy for high triglyceride levels.
How much will curcumin lower your triglyceride levels? In a clinical trial in India, taking just 500 mg of curcumin per day lowered triglycerides an average of 33%. It also lowered LDL cholesterol an average of 11%. Both lipid levels fell precipitously due to the fact that some of the excess triglycerides are converted into cholesterol.
This particular clinical trial did not measure the kind of cholesterol that is actually associated with atherosclerotic plaques, but total LDL cholesterol is well correlated with the apo-B1 cholesterol that plays a role in cardiovascular disease. If you are getting your LDL cholesterol down, chances are you are getting the dangerous apo-B1 cholesterol down, too. Unfortunately, apo-B1 doesn't correlate very well to the total cholesterol number most of our doctors tell us about.
If I'm On a Statin, Should I Take Curcumin?
People who take statin drugs for high cholesterol generally benefit from curcumin. This natural supplement addresses a different part of the pathology of atherosclerosis that is not affected by the statin drug. Statin drugs reduce cholesterol production, and control certain kinds of inflammation, but curcumin stops foam cells from absorbing the cholesterol they need to become plaques.
If you have been prescribed a statin medication, should you drop the prescription and just take curcumin? This generally isn't a good idea. Statins and curcumin address different parts of the process of plaque formation. Especially if you have already had a heart attack or stroke, you should use curcumin as a supplement rather than as an alternative to the medication your doctor prescribes.
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Soni KB, Kuttan R. Effect of oral curcumin administration on serum peroxides and cholesterol levels in human volunteers. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1992 Oct; 36(4): 273-5.