The Heart Herbs: Hawthorn and Garlic

The Heart Herbs: Hawthorn and Garlic

Joseph has high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels–no symptoms yet, but he’s concerned because his dad died of a heart attack at 52. At 48, he is more fit than his dad was and more conscious about his diet. He eats more whole grains and vegetables, more fish and chicken—red meat only occasionally, and he doesn’t smoke. His downfall, if he were to admit it, is his job. He has a family, his wife has her own carrier, but with a mortgage and 2 kids in the big city, he has to work hard to make everything come out right at the end of the month. He oversees a department with 2 other co-workers, and sales are down. He tries not to worry, he even listens to ocean tapes and has taken a meditation class, but for the last 2 years he has watched his tests come back progressively worse the last 6 months.

What to do? The doctor talked about putting him on medications, and that’s
when he decided to read up on heart disease and get a second opinion. This
is what he learned.

  • The first signs of heart disease are already present in the arteries
    of teen-agers and will often grow worse through their 20s and 30s.
  • Forty million people have some form of diagnosed cardiovascular disease,
    and a larger number have pathology, but are undiagnosed and asymptomatic.
  • more than 1.5 million people in this country have heart attacks–one
    third with no prior symptoms.
  • Medications may actually reverse heart disease in only a small percentage
    of these people; in fact, a medical trial in Helsinki compared 612 people
    who were given blood-pressure lowering and cholesterol lowering drugs to
    a control group of 610 people who received medical surveillance and fewer
    drugs. The people in the drug group experienced about a 35% reduction in
    blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but they developed twice
    as much heart disease after 5 years
    compared with the control group
    that took fewer drugs.
  • What heart disease costs us as a society: 78 million dollars a year,
    more than any other illness.
  • According to Dean Ornish, leading promoter of healthful living habits
    for reversing heart disease, If a doctor does a bypass surgery, insurance
    will pay $30,000; for a balloon angioplasty, $7,500, and if a doctor tries
    to educate a patient about nutrition and stress-release techniques, $150;
    if a doctor spends time encouraging an asymptomatic patient with existing
    pathological vessel changes, the insurance company won’t pay a cent.
  • More than 60 million Americans have some form of hypertension; it is
    estimated that more than 40% of people over 50 have high blood pressure,
    which is the same as for increased cholesterol levels.

In reading a number of books about natural-health approaches to preventing high blood pressure and heart disease, Joseph discovered that recent research supported the use of 400–800 I.U. of vitamin E and other antioxidants along with a high-fiber, low-fat and low-sugar diet. He also discovered the two best-documented herbs for the prevention of heart disease, garlic and hawthorn.

Garlic: The Most-Studied Herbal Food for the Cardiovascular System

Garlic may be the world’s most respected medicinal plant–not only does it have thousands of years of historical medicinal usage, but it has also been the subject of numerous research studies published in 1100 scientific articles, of which there have also been about 258 research studies on the cardiovascular effects of garlic, which represents a major amount of research. These studies show:

  • When fats are eaten, the blood responds by getting thicker–this can lead to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Adding garlic to the fats (as in stir-frys), cuts fatty obstruction of the arteries by one-half.
  • Elevated blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels are thought to be indicators of increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Garlic can increase the elimination of fats and cholesterol through the bile, and overall cholesterol levels can be reduced. In one human study conducted in India, 3 groups were studied to see how eating garlic and onions would affect blood cholesterol levels. The first group ate 1 3/4 ounces of garlic a week, the second group, 1/3 ounces and the third did not eat garlic and had never eaten it. The average blood cholesterol levels for the 3 groups: (1st) 159 mg/100 ml (of blood), (2nd) 172 mg, (3rd) 207 mg—a significant difference. A number of other human studies done in the U.S., Germany, and other countries support garlic’s efficacy in lowering blood cholesterol by an average of 10-20% with up to a 17% reduction in blood fats when the equivalent of only 1 clove/day is eaten. Since estimates indicate that from 40 to 75% of the adult population has cholesterol levels that could lead to increased risk of heart disease but are not yet in need of stronger drugs, adding garlic to the diet in meals, or in the form of a supplement, could be of great benefit.
  • Studies show that garlic can reduce the tendency of the blood to form life-threatening clots (possibly leading to heart attack or stroke) by adding as little as 2/3 of a clove per day to meals. The ability of the blood to destroy clots that may be forming is increased by 50 to 80% when using even 1 clove a day.
  • Garlic has only moderate blood-pressure-lowering effects, and it must be taken regularly for any significant benefits, but even the modest 7–10% that double-blind studies have shown can be helpful for people taking garlic for its other stronger effects.

While garlic’s contribution to the health of the heart and cardiovascular system is significant, many people don’t like to eat garlic because of the smell it imparts to their breath. Garlic odors can even exude from the pores of some people when eaten regularly. It seems many people would rather die of heart disease than loneliness. For this reason, and also because of convenience, many people like to get their daily clove or two from garlic capsules or tablets. Because of the controversy about what form of product is best (fresh-dried, alicin-rich, or aged), it is good to know that just about any quality garlic product, whether dried or oil-based, has some beneficial activity on the cardiovascular system. While allicin-rich products are more anti-bacterial and possibly anti-viral, breakdown products such as ajoene, methyl ally trisulphide,and dimethyl trisulphide created during drying and cooking of garlic, can also have beneficial effects on the heart and circulation.

The best advice about taking garlic seems to be—eat it raw, cook with it, take it as a supplement—but do use it everyday.

Hawthorn, The Gentle Heart Herb

The best-known herb for the heart in western herbalism is Hawthorn, which is a small tree or shrub that grows throughout the northern hemisphere. The fruits, flowers, and leaves are processed into tinctures and other kinds of extracts available in capsules or tablets in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

The current use of hawthorn for heart conditions dates back to the 17th century, according to the French doctor, Leclerc, though in 1733, Alleyne in his English Dispensatory writes only of its use as a diuretic and “powerful expeller of the stone and gravel.” He states further that the flowers were the main ingredient in the famous “nephritic water,” a remedy to benefit the kidneys. Green, an Irish doctor, is known to have used it extensively for heart ailments and after his death in 1894, it is said to have become a famous remedy for this purpose. In Europe, both homeopathic and allopathic doctors used the herb for various heart and cardiovascular ailments from late 19th through the early 20th centuries—and with great clinical success. Hawthorn had entered American clinical practice by 1896—only to fade from use in the 1930s.

Today, hawthorn is an official drug in the Pharmacopoeias of Brazil, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Switzerland. As a measure of its incredible popularity, it is an ingredient of 213 commercial European herbal formulas, mostly for the cardiovascular system.

I have a special affection for this herb, because it helped my father strengthen his heart and significantly increase the quality of his circulation. Twenty-five years ago he had a heart attack,and has since been taking hawthorn in extract form for over 15 years with excellent results.

The extract of hawthorn can increase blood flow to the heart muscle itself, helping to counteract one of the most common modern causes of death in industrial countries—heart attack due to lack of blood flow to the heart. In pharmacological tests on both animals and humans, hawthorn has been shown to improve the contractility of the heart muscle (which can lead to a stronger pumping action of the heart), increase cardiac performance and output, lower the peripheral vascular resistance (reducing the workload of the heart), steady the heartbeat (antiarrhythmic effect), as well as increasing the heart’s tolerance to oxygen deficiency, such as might happen during stress or excitement, or in diseases where the arteries are partially blocked.

In Europe, thousands of doctors prescribe hawthorn to prevent cardiovascular disease or to help alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate problems. It is considered so safe that it is sometimes prescribed concurrently with heart medications such as digitalis. Hawthorn is also considered a mildly calming herb to the nervous system—an appropriate bonus considering that stress and nervousness often accompany cardiovascular problems.

In my own experience, it is the first herb, besides garlic, that should be added to one’s daily dietary regimen when there is any suspicion of problems of cardiovascular disease. If one has a family member who has heart or vascular problems, or for people eating a diet that includes moderate to high levels of fat (especially from dairy products or red meat), or are stressing or using stimulants (such as coffee), hawthorn is an excellent protector.

The extract can be taken long-term, is very safe, and will not interfere with any medications, according to the official European Community monograph (ESCOP) on hawthorn. The daily dose is 2–4 dropperfuls of the tincture, or 1–2 tablets of the standardized extract, morning and evening.

In this modern age with its times of stress and anxiety, it is reassuring that nature has provided such gentle yet effective cardiovascular protectors as hawthorn and garlic.

© 1998 Christopher Hobbs

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