No other organ in the body captures our attention and interest as does the heart. Nature’s perfect pump, the heart is a truly wonderful and complex evolutionary development. What is more, every living creature with a blood circulation system possesses a heart/pump central to this function.
Ancient peoples, unaware of the principle of circulation of blood throughout the body, still recognized the heart’s central role in determining life or death. Early Christian doctors named the heart the “Seat of the Soul” and imagined its rhythmic beat to be simply a “vital sign” that indicated a body was alive, its “soul” in residence.
Western European medical, however, did not “discover” the heart’s central controlling role in driving the whole body’s blood circulation until 1628 when English Physician William Harvey published his studies and observations. Harvey did not use a human subject to demonstrate his theories, but rather the tiny, efficient, two-chambered heart of a frog!
Today, our concern for healthier hearts had led many to adopt better cardiac diets lower in fats, higher in natural fiber, and devote more time to aerobic exercise. That heart disease is still our civilisation’s major “killer”, however, shows we must continue to learn what preventative steps we can take to improve the health of the heart.
Medical Herbalism has a long tradition of plants used as cardiac or heart tonics
Outstanding among the list are three herbs long used in both Western and Oriental medicine. Identified botanically the three herbs are Leonurus cardiaca (also known as Motherwort and Heartwort); Crataegus oxyacantha (the common Hawthorn, Mayflower, or Haw); and Ginkgo Biloba (the Maidenhair Fern Tree).
I like to remember these heart herbs by their historic common names: The Lion, The Mayflower and the Maiden. According to David Hoffman’s textbook, “Medical Herbalism”, these three herbs make up a group of remedies that have an observably beneficial action on the heart and blood vessels, but how they work is either completely obscure or an area of great pharmacological debate.
Nevertheless, Hoffman goes on to emphasize that just because some of the herbs actions on the heart and circulatory system are not understood by science does not mean that they do not work! In support of this, Hoffman notes many identifiable chemical substances have been isolated from heart tonic herbs and the action of these chemicals is scientifically understood.
HAWTHORN FOR THE HEART
One excellent example of an observably effective heart tonic herb is Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), or the Mayflower, which contains chemicals called “flavonoids” which are gently dialating to the arteries of the heart.
Hawthorn’s tonic effect on the heart is very complex and somewhat contradictory since it both stimulates coronary circulation and yet eases overactive cardiac activities (such as palpitations). Thus, it has the effect of normalising blood pressure – lowering a raised blood pressure or increasing a low blood pressure.
These findings have been published in the British Medical Journal. Indeed, it would be accurate, Hoffman states, to describe Hawthorn as a “heart food”. Such is the acceptance of Hawthorn herbal preparations in Europe that in Germany alone over thirty different hawthorn based medicines are available.
German herbalist, Rudolf Fritz Weiss, MD has said that “Hawthorn has become one of our most widely used heart remedies.” Dr Weiss also states that Hawthorn, while a recognized cardiac tonic, is not a “quick fix”. Only long term sustained use shows improvement. Furthermore, Hawthorn is not for emergency use, such as in an angina attack.
ENTER THE “LION” HEARTED HERB
“Good Cheer and Long Life” were promoted to users of “The Lion” heart herb (Leonurus cardiaca) in ancient China. Variously known in Europe as “Motherwort” or “Heartwort”, this herb first found favour in the 16th Century as a cure for cattle diseases.
By the 17th Century, English Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote of this herb “It is of much use in trembling of the heart (that is, palpitations)” and hence it took on the name “cardiaca”. The Lion also had use by midwives as a womb stimulant to be used to hasten delivery and so this herb gained the common name “Motherwort”.
Verification of Leonurus’s heart tonic characteristics have come from modern Chinese and German studies which demonstrated the herb’s heart muscle-cell relaxing capability. Russian research has also isolated chemicals in the herb that both reduce blood pressure and are anti-clotting to the blood.
“THE MAIDEN” CONCEALS GREAT AGE
The third heart herb we will talk about is the leaf of the Gingko Biloba, the oldest surviving tree species on earth. Long acclaimed in China for its contributions to longevity, the Ginkgo Biloba, or “Maidenhair Fern Tree” was first recognized as a tonic to correct cold hands and feet. Its positive effect on circulation is not its only virtue.
In 1972, researchers discovered the Ginkgo’s ability to stop blood clots. Conditions such as stroke and intermittent claudication (where arteries in the legs are clogged with cholesterol deposit and the result is intermittent pain, cramp and weakness especially in the calf muscles) have shown significant improvement with Ginkgo.
Studies on memory and reaction time have also shown Ginkgo assists brain function. This herb’s specific ability to improve circulation to the head has also been applied to cases of deterioration of the retina, cochlear deafness, tinnitus and chronic dizziness.
Ginkgo’s heart tonic capabilities are thus only one of its many applications. In Europe today, Ginkgo is among the Medical Herbalists most widely prescribed medications. Despite its common name, “Maidenhair Tree” it is actually the male version of the tree which makes the best specimen.
All three herbs discussed here are readily available as supplements either in tablets, capsules or as liquified herbal tinctures and all are generally recognized as “safe”. It is, however, a word to the wise not to self prescribe any of them without qualified professional guidance and certainly no one with a pre-existing heart disorder should forego his/her medication without consultation with his/her physician.
Stay Young at Heart!