Cardiovascular health (affecting the heart and blood vessels) is a major area of concern these days and cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the Western world. Most people are aware of the benefits of eating a healthy diet to promote cardiovascular health, which is low in saturated and trans fats, salt and refined carbohydrates and high in complex carbs, fruit and vegetables and includes healthy fats such as fish oils and olive oil. However, plant extracts are also regularly used by herbalists to support cardiovascular health, whether that be support of the healthy function of the heart muscle itself, aiding regulation of healthy blood pressure and cholesterol or supporting blood vessel tissue health. Herbs and supplements that may be used to support heart health include the following:
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) has been used traditionally to support healthy heart function and is used wherever general support is needed; it has been called ‘the nurse of the heart’. Hawthorn extract has been shown in many human trials to benefit heart function in mild heart failure (see Pitler et al., 2008); they dilate the coronary arteries which supply the heart muscle with oxygen and also make the heart more efficient, therefore reducing its need for oxygen. It is of benefit for any condition where heart function may be compromised such as angina, arrhythmias, hypertension and mild heart failure, however it is a mild anti-coagulant and may add to the effect of other blood-thinning medication such as aspirin and warfarin.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is another traditional remedy for heart problems. It is traditionally used for arrhythmias and heart problems, particularly if associated with anxiety and poor sleep. In a recent trial it was shown to be of benefit in hypertension associated with anxiety (Shikov et al., 2011).
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a mildly sedative herb traditionally used to support the heart and can be taken as a pleasant and relaxing tea.
Fish oils may have an antifibrillatory effect, possibly through their incorporation into cell membranes and altering transport of ions involved in signal conduction, although evidence from human trials is conflicting.
Amino acids taurine and L-arginine have been hypothesised to underlie atrial fibrillation in otherwise healthy people and levels in the body may decline with age (Eby and Halcomb, 2006).
Eby G, Halcomb WW. (2006) ‘Elimination of cardiac arrhythmias using oral taurine with l-arginine with case histories: Hypothesis for nitric oxide stabilization of the sinus node’. Med Hypotheses 67(5):1200-4.
Shikov AN, Pozharitskaya ON, Makarov VG, Demchenko DV, Shikh EV. (2011) ‘Effect of Leonurus cardiaca oil extract in patients with arterial hypertension accompanied by anxiety and sleep disorders’ Phytother Res.25(4):540-3.
Pittler MH, Guo R, Ernst E. (2008) ‘Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure’. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (1):CD005312. Review.