If your doctor confirms that you have any form of heart disease, you'll want to know all about hawthorn. This herb, historically used both as a diuretic and as a treatment for kidney and bladder stones, is presently one of the most widely prescribed heart remedies in Europe.
What it is?
For centuries, hawthorn, a shrub that grows to about 9 metres, has been trimmed to hedge height and planted along the edges of fields or property lines in Europe and America. As a divider, it looks attractive and discourages trespassers. It produces pretty white flowers and vibrant red berries, but it also sports large thorns, and the flowers on some varieties smell like rotting meat. What's more, the plant has long been associated with bad luck and death, because the crown of thorns that Christ wore at the Crucifixion is widely held to have been woven from hawthorn twigs.
Given this reputation, it's surprising that anyone got close enough to discover hawthorn's cardioprotective benefits. But obviously a number of people in different eras and locations – from the ancient Greeks to the Native Americans – did consider the herb a potent tonic for the heart. The modern use of hawthorn originated with a nineteenth-century Irish physician who treated heart disease quite successfully. Because he guarded his heart formula closely, it was not until after his death in the 1890s that his secret remedy was revealed to be tincture of hawthorn berry.
What it does?
Hawthorn is an herb that directly benefits the workings of the heart. It can dilate blood vessels, increase the heart’s energy supply and improve its pumping ability. These powerful cardiac effects can probably be traced to its abundant supply of plant compounds called flavonoids – especially procyanidolic oligomers (PCOs) – which act as potent antioxidants.
Hawthorn seems to be an all-purpose heart drug. It widens the arteries by interfering with an enzyme called ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme), which constricts blood vessels. This action improves blood flow through the arteries, making the herb a good remedy for people with angina. In addition, chronically constricted arteries can lead to high blood pressure (because the heart must work harder to pump blood through inflexible arteries), so hawthorn may reduce blood pressure in those with mild hypertension.
Hawthorn also seems to block enzymes that weaken the heart muscle, thereby strengthening its pumping power. This property is especially useful for people with mild congestive heart failure, who don't require strong heart medications, such as digitalis. Moreover, the anti-oxidant properties of hawthorn may help to protect against damage associated with the build-up of plaque in the coronary arteries.
Hawthorn has a long history as a treatment for other conditions. It seems to exert a calming effect, and is an effective sleeping aid for some people who suffer from insomnia. Several researchers have noted that hawthorn preserves collagen – the protein that forms connective tissue – which is damaged in such diseases as arthritis.
- Relieves the chest pain of angina.
- Lowers high blood pressure.
- Helps the heart to pump more efficiently in people with congestive heart failure.
- Corrects irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia).
- Dried herb/tea.
- In people who don't have heart disease, large doses of hawthorn can cause very low blood pressure, which can lead to dizziness and fainting.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
The recommended dose of hawthorn extract ranges from 300 mg to 450 mg a day in pill form, and from 5 ml to 15 ml of the tincture, depending on the type of heart condition. People at risk of heart disease may wish to take a 100-150 mg supplement or 1 teaspoon of the tincture daily as a preventive.
Guidelines for use:
If you're on large doses, hawthorn works best when the total amount is divided and taken at three different times during the day. Hawthorn may take a couple of months to build up in your system and produce noticeable results.
Possible side effects
Hawthorn is widely regarded as one of the safest herbal preparations. There have been reports of nausea, sweating, fatigue and skin rash, but these side effects are uncommon. Hawthorn can boost the effect of digitalis, but appears to be safe to use with other drugs prescribed for heart disease. You may even need less of some heart medications while you're taking hawthorn. Talk to you doctor before trying hawthorn, and never stop taking a drug that's been prescribed for you (and don't reduce the dose) without your doctor's consent.
When buying hawthorn, look for standardized extracts that contain at least 1-3% flavonoids, of which hyperoside is the most common. This is the main heart-protective substance in the herb.
In an eight-week German study of 136 people with mild to moderate congestive heart failure, those who took hawthorn extract reported less shortness of breath, less ankle swelling and better exercise performance than those given a placebo. Physical examinations and laboratory tests confirmed that the condition of the hawthorn group improved while the condition of the placebo group worsened.
Did you know?
Varieties of hawthorn grow in Europe, eastern Asia, northern Africa and the US. It is also known as whitethorn and mayflower. (The Pilgrim ship the Mayflower was named after the hawthorn blossom.)