Herbs for the Heart

The heart is the primary organ of the cardiovascular system. Hand in hand with the vessels, it is constantly working, pumping life-giving blood and supplying oxygen to all the cells and tissues of the body. Besides oxygen, it carries all the nutrients for every cell of the body-vitamins, minerals, enzymes, sugars for energy, proteins for cellular repair, and numerous other vital substances. The blood is also responsible for carrying away waste products from the cells. If the blood is not moving properly-regularly and strongly through all the tissues-waste products build up. Aches and pains may occur in the muscles and other parts of the body. We feel tired, depressed, dispirited, and eventually do not consider life worth living. If the blood is not adequately conveying its precious cargo to all the cells and carrying away wastes to be eliminated through the bowels, urine, and sweat, the aging process is speeded up ten times or more. The heart is obviously a vital part of a wellness program, because its primary job is to move the blood through the tissues every minute of every day with no holidays and time off for ‘good behavior.’

For all it gives, I think you would agree that the heart deserves a certain amount of respect. What it wants is a high-potassium, high-fiber, and low-sodium diet, focusing on fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. It is not fond of sticky, fatty foods like bacon or doughnuts. Stimulants containing caffeine like cola drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate also cause the heart to work much harder than normal. The heart does find all kinds of exercise agreeable, especially if it is not overdone. Of major benefit is some form of aerobic exercise done at least thirty minutes three to four times weekly. Walking, dancing, swimming, skiing, and movement of all kinds are excellent ‘healthy heart’ insurance. Incorporate time for relaxation into the daily routine, a time when the heart can slow down and rest. A full refreshing night’s sleep is also important, for this is the time when the heart can perform major repairs, clear out waste products, and ready itself for the busy day ahead.

It is interesting that in Traditional Chinese Medicine (an important natural system of health and healing that has been developing for over 4,000 years), the heart is associated with the nervous system and ‘the spirit.’ It is said that if the Heart system is strong, then the mind will be clear, the emotions positive and calm, and the spirit strong. Joy is the emotion associated with the heart. It is thought that experiencing joy will have a beneficial effect on the heart. Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to feel joy, holding back on the expression of who we are as individuals. This may be a result of lack of love and guidance during the formative years or traumatic experiences or illness at any time of life. In this case, our hearts become ‘hardened.’ This can promote heart and vascular disease like arteriosclerosis, which literally means ‘hardening of the arteries.’ In TCM there is the understanding that we can also experience too much of an emotion, and this might lead to illness. How can we feel too much joy? This is called mania. People who are manic allow their emotions and nervous system to get carried away to such an extent that it literally damages their adrenals and nervous system, as well as the heart.

In both TCM and western herbalism, there are many herbs that are known to offer significant protection to the heart. Some herbs can calm and regulate the heart and increase blood flow and nutrients to the heart muscle itself, strengthening its ability to do its work.
Here is a list of some of the important benefits the regular use of herbs can have on the heart:

  • increasing the blood supply to the heart muscle
  • lowering blood pressure
  • steadying the heart beat
  • preventing clots from forming
  • improving the tone of the vessels
  • lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • having an antioxidant effect

Specific Botanicals for the Heart

Hawthorn

Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycanthus) has long been considered the herb of choice for strengthening and protecting the cardiovascular system, particularly the heart. In the late 1800s European doctors began experimenting with it clinically for heart disease and other cardiovascular disorders, and since then its reputation has grown steadily.
Today numerous laboratory tests and a number of clinical trials support its use by demonstrating that hawthorn leaves, flowers, and fruits contain chemical compounds that increase blood flow to the heart muscle, as well as positively affect other aspects of cardiovascular health. Hawthorn has been used successfully for angina pectoris, functional heart disease, arrhythmia, early manifestations of circulatory insufficiency, and as a heart tonic to regulate circulation. In Europe, hawthorn preparations are often prescribed by doctors to support the effect of digitalis and to serve as a substitute when digitalis cannot be tolerated or its side effects need to be avoided (Madaus, 1938; List & Hörhammer, 1969-79). In modern European medicine, hawthorn preparations are widely used for chronic or light cases of cardiovascular diseases. Steinegger and Hänsel emphasize that they ‘…are not specific drugs for treatment of acute illnesses. They are first and foremost a preventative drug to slow down the aggravation of beginning cardiovascular damage.

Hawthorn is safe for long-term use and needs to be taken over a period of several months to achieve results. According to the respected German Dr. R.F. Weiss (1988), the dose is thirty to forty drops three times daily to begin and later taken morning and evening as a maintenance dose. I recommend one teaspoon of the leaf, flower, and fruit liquid extract or tincture morning and evening in a little water.

Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) has a very respectable history of use as a medicinal plant. It is said to have been eaten by stone age workers, as well as the Egyptians who built the mighty pyramids to keep fit and strong, and even today there is extensive research on garlic confirming its healthful effects on the intestines, the blood, the cardiovascular system, etc. It is very popular in the U.S. and is said to be the second best-selling natural drug sold in Germany, where it is used primarily for arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure. Researchers contend that sulfur-containing compounds (i.e. alliin) in garlic are responsible for its medicinal benefits. Clinical studies have demonstrated garlic’s cholesterol-reducing and platelet aggregation-inhibiting properties (Ernst et al, 1985). One clinical study involved forty patients who took a daily dose of 900 mg of dried garlic powder. After four months, there was were significant reductions of the amounts of tryglycerides compared to the placebo group (Vorberg & Schneider, 1991). Garlic has also been shown to cause a mild blood pressure lowering effect, particularly in hypertensive patients (Auer et al, 1990). In the German Commission E monographs garlic’s actions are listed as ‘…lipid-lowering, inhibition of platelet aggregation, prolongation of bleeding and clotting time, enhancement of fibrinolytic activity (Blumenthal, ed. 1996).’ Although the fresh cloves are the most potent, because of the smell many people prefer a garlic capsule or tablet. Many of these are fine; just take a higher dose to make up for the reduction in potency, and use them regularly for best results.

Daily dosage for the different forms of garlic are as follows:

  • Powder: 400–1200 mg
  • Fresh: 2–5 g
  • Oil: 2–5 mg

NOTE: Garlic must be taken for several months to achieve optimum results.

Motherwort

Motherwort is a well-known sedative and nervine that is extremely beneficial to the circulatory system, as evinced by its Latin name, Leonurus cardiaca. As a heart tonic, motherwort is used for palpitations, mild heart irregularity, hypertension, and to strengthen the heart. Dr. Rudolf Weiss from Germany states in Herbal Medicine, ‘My own investigations have shown that there is indeed a medicinal action mainly for functional heart complaints.’ For optimum results the herb should be take for several months (Weiss, 1988). Motherwort may be taken as an infusion, using 2 teaspoons to 1 cup water and drinking 1 cup morning and evening.

As the leading cause of mortality in many developed countries of the world, heart disease is still a major problem. Why not add healthy heart supplements to your daily regime?

It’s the best kind of health insurance.

Bibliography

  • Lloyd Brothers. 1927. Facsimile Reproductions of the Principal Labels of Specific Medicines. Cincinnati: Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists, Inc.
  • Blumenthal, M., ed. 1997. Commission E Monographs. Austin: American Botanical Council.
  • Ernst, E. et al. 1985. Garlic and Blood Lipids. British Medical Journal. 291, 139.
  • Madaus, G. 1938. Lehrbuch der Biologischen Heilmittel. New York: Gerog Olms.
  • Steinegger, E. and R. Hänsel. 1988. Handbook of Pharmacognosy and Phytopharmacy. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Weiss, R.F. 1988. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, Ltd.