Every single day your heart pumps out 6,000 to 7,500 litres of blood in an adult, providing vital oxygen and nutrients, and removing carbon dioxide and wastes from your cells. Unfortunately, this amazing and life-giving natural work of art can be damaged by constant exposure to the blood. Heart disease and stroke have been the leading cause of death worldwide for the last 15 years, in both the developed and developing world. But, there is good news!
Nature has provided us with perhaps the perfect plant to support cardiovascular function: Hawthorn (Crataegus Oxyacantha/ Monogyna). This gentle yet powerful herbal medicine is grown around the world, but it originally came from Europe, Western Asia and North African countries. The fruits, leaves and flowers have been used as a food and medicine for millennia in Europe and Asia. Originally it was used for digestive and urinary complaints, but for the last few hundred years, it has increasingly been recognised as beneficial for conditions of the heart. Hawthorn is rich in flavonoids, those plant compounds that have almost magical properties on the human body. There are a huge number of known flavonoids (6000 and counting!), but those found in Crataegus include Vitexin, OPCs, Quercetin and Rutin. The combination of these and other natural substances are thought to be responsible for the cardioprotective, hypertensive and anti-atherogenic properties of the extract. In more simple terms, Hawthorn protects your heart from damage, lowers elevated blood pressure and reverses blockages of arteries!
Hawthorn extracts can help to normalise heart rhythm, relieve angina (chest pain due to lack of blood supply to the heart), strengthen the heart muscle in people with congestive heart failure, and prevent the age-related decline in cardiac function often seen in people over time. It can also help to normalise blood pressure: the leaves are particularly good for hypertension, while the berries can help with low OR high blood pressure! Clinical trials on Hawthorn extracts have shown benefit in heart failure patients: a 3 year study of 372 people with mild to moderate heart failure showed significant improvement in the ability to pump blood from the left chamber of the heart (left ventricle ejection), improved exercise tolerance, shortness of breath on exertion (dyspnoea), palpitations (awareness of the heart beating differently to normal), weakness, and fatigue. A 48 week study of 1338 patients with heart failure from 2008 showed a reduction in the risk of sudden cardiac death, which is remarkable! Hawthorn extracts have also shown powerful antioxidant protective effects on the heart, preventing heart muscle injury following surgery or after blockages are released (known as reperfusion injuries). The antioxidant properties also prevent oxidation of lipids, particularly LDL (low density lipoproteins) which are associated with the progression of cardiovascular disease. Hawthorn protects the mitochondria in the heart muscle, which are responsible for 95% of the energy produced by the heart.
Numerous studies have shown this herbal extract to reduce elevated blood pressure, both systolic (the “top” pressure measured when the ventricles are contracting), and the diastolic pressure which is the pressure measured on the arterial walls when the heart is relaxed between beats. There have also been positive studies to show that Hawthorn can reduce Total Cholesterol, LDLs and blood fats known as Triglycerides, all of which reduces heart disease risk. Heart rate variability is used to measure the “fitness” of the cardiac muscle and our remarkable herb of the month helps your heart to respond to the challenges that are asked of it during your daily activities. The molecule that relaxes you blood vessels to allow blood to flow freely is known as Nitric Oxide, and Hawthorn helps the cells that line your arteries to make it. This may be due to its powerful anti-inflammatory effects. It also helps to prevent abnormal clotting of the platelets, protecting us from strokes and heart attacks.
A heart damaged from years of oxidative free radicals, high blood pressure, lack of proper nutrition and exercise, and other emotional states can lead to the actual architecture of this vital organ. The thickness and dimensions of the ventricular (large chambers) and atrial (small chambers) can change in ways that are harmful to the heart. Hawthorn extracts have been shown to prevent and protect against this pathological “remodelling” process. It also protects and repairs the endothelium, which is the lining of the blood vessels. This of course helps to protect against cardiovascular disease and the risk of stroke. Hawthorn is known affectionately as “the nurse of the heart”, and it is a gentle but profound natural medicine that works best over time. Although it is remarkably safe and well tolerated, it is always essential to speak with a qualified heath care professional familiar with the use of this and other herbal compounds. I have found it to be a valuable and essential addition to my herbal dispensary over my career as a Naturopath and Herbalist. Look after your beautiful heart. J