An Herb for Ailing Hearts

DHawthorn promotes stronger pumping action, better blood flow.

By Lisa James

February 2006

In the Middle Ages, the hawthorn tree—long-lived and resplendent with cheerful, bright-red berries—was seen as a symbol of hope. Today, this venerable herbal remedy provides hope to people with heart troubles because of its ability to improve cardiac function even as it regulates blood pressure and discourages cholesterol from piling up within arteries.

Amid all the colorful bits of folklore concerning hawthorn (that the tree was sacred because its branches were used to fashion Christ’s crown of thorns, for starters), medieval herbalists made good use of its therapeutic properties. Hawthorn was recommended as a diuretic (an agent that lessens water retention and promotes urination) and to ease kidney stones and bladder woes. And it was considered, even then, to be a good heart tonic, a usage that started to attract the notice of science-based medicine in the 19th century.

Fighting Heart Failure

In the 21st century researchers have found that hawthorn is useful for congestive heart failure. This disorder, in which a weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, often follows other cardiac conditions (such as coronary artery disease, which blocks blood flow to the heart) and can cause fatigue, wheezing and edema, in which the lower body, particularly the legs, swell with excess fluid that cannot circulate as it should.

Hawthorn helps heart failure by increasing the organ’s pumping power and by counteracting arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats. The herb also encourages blood vessels—including those that feed the heart itself—to dilate, bringing more life-giving oxygen to cardiac tissues and easing the pain and pressure associated with angina.

Hawthorn’s gentle but effective action has been validated by a number of studies. In one German investigation 364 people with congestive heart failure received standard drug therapy while another 588 were given hawthorn extract either by itself or along with conventional medicines. After two years the folks in the hawthorn group showed greater improvement, including more energy, fewer palpitations and freer breathing. This isn’t the only study in which hawthorn has shown itself useful; an analysis of eight similar trials tallied up similar results, and with few side effects (American Journal of Medicine 6/03).

Blood and Memory

Heart trouble often arises as the result of two major risk factors: atherosclerosis, in which cholesterol deposits gather on artery walls, and high blood pressure, which can cause the blood-vessel damage that encourages cholesterol to collect. Hawthorn fights the oxidation of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which keeps it from forming those troublesome deposits, and encourages the liver to convert LDL into artery-clearing “good” HDL cholesterol. In addition, by acting as a diuretic and relaxing arteries, hawthorn also helps lower blood pressure.

Better blood flow helps explain why hawthorn has long been used in the East to treat memory problems. It is also a rich source of vitamin C, which is essential for strengthening tiny blood vessels called capillaries within the brain.

Like those of many other herbs, hawthorn’s effects need time to show themselves; its use requires patience. Do not substitute hawthorn for, or use it with, prescription medications without professional guidance.

Living with congestive heart failure can be discouraging. But hawthorn can offer the prospect for a better quality of life.

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