Hawthorn (Crataegus Spp.)
This month, Hawthorn berries abound and herbalists everywhere set about making tinctures, syrups and chutneys. This thorny herb has been used for centuries to treat all sorts of conditions relating to the heart, blood and circulation – the Eclectic Physicians of North America used it for high blood pressure, shortness of breath, chest pain, heart valve problems and anaemia, while the berries of related species were used by the Chinese to stimulate circulation and improve digestion.
There is now a lot of evidence for the use of Hawthorn alongside conventional treatment for chronic heart failure. But what do herbalists use it for?
1. To strengthen and protect the heart
This strong tree with its protective thorns and delicate flowers is considered among herbalists to be of great help to anyone with a weak or sensitive heart, in emotional as much as in medical terms.
Compounds in Hawthorn are thought to increase the force of contraction of the heart muscle and decrease heart rate, as well as protect cardiac muscle cells from damage.
2. To regulate heart beat
Although we think of a regular heart beat as a generally good thing, our hearts are actually distinctly irregular organs. As well as momentary changes in heart rhythm when we breathe in and out, long-term irregularities are due to changes in blood pressure and are known as Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV decreases with age, disease or damage to the heart muscle, and a low HRV is associated with a greater risk of coronary heart disease.
Interestingly, an extract of Hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries given to 20 patients over 80 years old showed a small but significant increase in HRV, and a dramatic increase in some, over the 6 week trial period (Mills & Bone, 2013). Compounds in the herb may also protect against abnormal heart rhythms or ‘arrhythmias’.
3. To lower blood pressure
Hawthorn extracts seem to increase blood flow to the arteries around the heart and have a relaxant effect on blood vessels. In patients with type 2 diabetes already taking prescription medication, hawthorn is safe to take alongside and lowers blood pressure in combination with these drugs.
4. To lower cholesterol
Alongside simple changes to the diet and moderate exercise, herbs have a lot to offer. The various compounds in Hawthorn tincture may work together to encourage the liver to break down cholesterol into bile acids for excretion, as well as suppressing the synthesis of new cholesterol.
Hawthorn flavonoids also showed synergistic, statin-like effects in the lab, inhibiting the same enzyme that statins target (HMG-CoA) in order to lower cholesterol.
5. To reduce inflammation and oxidation
Inflammation is at the root of most chronic diseases and atherosclerosis, the main mechanism behind heart disease, is no exception. Fatty deposits or plaques filled with inflammatory cells and oxidised cholesterol molecules (low-density lipoproteins or LDL) build up in damaged artery walls and eventually break off. These plaques then travel in the circulation and lodge themselves in the small arteries of the heart or brain, starving those tissues of oxygen and causing a heart attack or stroke.
Hawthorn’s flavonoid-related compounds – the oligomeric proanthocyanidins or OPCs, as well as other flavonoids and acids found in the leaves and berries – have been shown to stop the oxidation of LDL as well as suppress inflammatory processes in human white blood cells. These potent compounds may be responsible for Hawthorn’s effects in other conditions besides circulatory ones, such as migraine, anxiety, acne and inflammatory bowel disease.
6. To improve the microcirculation
I touched on the importance of the microcirculation in my last post about herbal medicine and cardiovascular disease.
Extracts of hawthorn have shown various anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting effects on the small capillaries, albeit in animal studies. They increase the rate of flow of red blood cells through vessels, prevent platelets sticking together and stop the production of chemicals that promote blood clotting. They also prevent white blood cells sticking to and travelling through the walls of small capillaries – a process that drives inflammation.
Along with the relaxant effect on small blood vessels mentioned above, these effects may be central to hawthorn’s impact on the circulatory system as a whole.
Hawthorn is a very safe herb, but may act in synergy with other cardiac and blood pressure medications, so always consult a herbalist before taking it alongside these drugs.
If you have any specific questions relating to your personal cardiovascular health, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you within a couple of days. Alternatively, you can book an appointment to see me by filling in this form. I will be in practice as of January 2016.