The endothelium is the inner lining of our blood vessels. Laid end-to-end, endothelial cells from a single human would wrap more than four times around the world. And it’s not just an inert layer; it’s highly metabolically active. I’ve talked before about how sensitive our endothelium is to oxidation (The Power of NO) and inflammation (The Leaky Gut Theory). If we don’t take care of it, endothelial dysfunction may set us up for heart disease or a stroke. Are we ready to heed our endothelium’s early warning signal?
If it’s all about oxidation and inflammation, then fruits and vegetables should help. And indeed it appears they do. Each daily serving of fruits or vegetables was associated with a 6% improvement in endothelial function. These fruit- and vegetable-associated improvements in endothelial function are in contrast to several negative vitamin C pill studies that failed to show a benefit. It can be concluded that the positive findings of the fruit and vegetable study are not just because of any one nutrient in fruits and veggies. Rather than searching for the single magic bullet micronutrient, a more practical approach is likely to consider whole foods. Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is likely to have numerous benefits due to synergistic effects of the plethora of wonderful nutrients in plants.
Exercise helps our endothelial cells, too, but what type of exercise helps best? Patients were randomized into four groups: aerobic exercise (cycling for an hour a day), resistance training (using weights and elastic bands), both, or neither. The aerobic group kicked butt. The resistance group kicked butt. The aerobic and resistance group kicked butt, too. The only group who didn’t kick butt was the group who sat on their butts. Our endothelium doesn’t care if we’re on a bike or lifting weights, as long as we’re getting physical activity regularly. If we stop exercising, our endothelial function plummets.
Antioxidant pills don’t help, but drug companies aren’t going to give up that easy. They’re currently looking into anti-inflammatory pills. After all, there’s only so much you can make selling salad. For those who prefer plants to pills, one of the most anti-inflammatory foods is the spice turmeric. Researchers in Japan recently compared the endothelial benefits of exercise to that of curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric and curry powder. About a teaspoon a day’s worth of turmeric for eight weeks was compared to 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise a day.
Which group improved their endothelial function more? The group who did neither experienced no benefit, but both the exercise and the curcumin groups significantly boosted endothelial function. The researchers reported: “The magnitude of the improvement achieved by curcumin treatment was comparable to that obtained with exercise. Therefore, regular ingestion of curcumin could be a preventive measure against cardiovascular disease” at least in postmenopausal women, who were the subjects of this study. “Furthermore, [their] results suggest that curcumin may be a potential alternative treatment for patients who are unable to exercise.”
Ideally, we’d both eat curcumin and exercise. One study looked at central arterial hemodynamics. Basically, if our endothelium is impaired, our arteries stiffen, making it harder for our heart to pump. Compared to placebo, we can drop down the pressure with turmeric curcumin or exercise. However, if we combine both, then we really start rocking and rolling, as you can see in the chart about 4 minutes into my video Heart of Gold: Turmeric vs. Exercise. The researchers conclude that these findings suggest that regular endurance exercise combined with daily curcumin ingestion may reduce the pressure against which our hearts have to fight. We want both healthy eating and exertion for our endothelium.