My son, a twenty-nine-year-old healthy athletic fellow, has had some problems with heart arrhythmia. His first attack came about two years ago and frightened him terribly. He was put in the hospital for two days and was diagnosed as having a virus in his heart muscle. He rested a lot (he is a volleyball player and coaches volleyball as well) and over the course of many months the doctor felt that his heart had healed but not totally and maybe never would. What can you tell me about herbs in relation to heart arrhythmia/virus healing, etc.? Thanks for any help.
—P. F., Williamsport, Pennsylvania
Keville responds: There are several good herbs for the heart. For example, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), a Chinese root best known for its ability to increase the production of immune cells in the bone, is also traditionally used to treat heart problems such as a heart arrhythmia or viral myocarditis. Physicians in China use it as their primary treatment when certain viruses infect the heart and cause an irregular heartbeat. Another Chinese herb, reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), and two popular Western heart herbs, hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) and motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), help regulate the heart and are regarded as heart tonics. Another good herb is a special type of ginseng known as Tienchi ginseng (Panax notoginseng). It not only normalizes heartbeat and improves circulation but helps relieve fatigue and stress.
Antioxidant herbs such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) also help strengthen the entire cardiovascular system. However, rather than determine what’s best for your son based on a little bit of information, I’d like to see him receive more personal care by working with a natural practitioner. An acupuncturist or herbalist won’t have the same limitations as a doctor because he or she will treat your son’s basic constitution to strengthen him rather than just treating his symptoms. I suggest that your son find a local practitioner. He can inquire at his local health-food store; contact the American Association of Oriental Medicine at (888) 500-7999, www.aaom.org; or find a naturopathic doctor through the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians at (703) 610-9037, www.naturopathic.org.
Khalsa responds: The condition you are describing, viral myocarditis, is typically thought to be caused by the Coxsackie virus, a common respiratory bug. Recent research also shows that adenovirus and enterovirus, common human pathogens, can infect heart muscle. You are right to be concerned about this disorder. When previously healthy high school athletes collapse suddenly during competition, this condition is often the reason.
A Chinese study conducted in 1997 showed that “Minor Bupleurum Decoction,” a classic Chinese traditional formula (containing bupleurum, ginger, ginseng, jujube fruit, licorice, pinellia, and Baikal skullcap root) enhanced the production of immune cells, reduced the production of anti-cardiac antibodies, and helped the body get rid of the virus.
Scientific studies have repeatedly found astragalus root to benefit Coxsackie viral myocarditis. Astragalus generally works best over the long run. Because it tastes pretty decent, it can be used easily as a tea. Brew up to 1 ounce, by dry weight of raw herb, per day. Other research has shown that green tea (Camellia sinensis) and mint (Mentha spp.) may diminish this virus. The Ayurvedic herb neem leaf (Azadirachta indica) is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial that is popular in Asia for a wide variety of infections. It has shown results with Coxsackie in scientific experiments. In addition, animal research suggests that the mineral selenium increases immune response and resistance to this virus. Most authorities suggest a dose of 250 mcg of selenium per day, long term.
My favorite herb for arrhythmia is arjuna bark (Terminalia arjuna), the main cardiovascular tonic of India. In clinical practice, this herb often restores heart rhythm like flipping a switch. Start with 500 mg per day and increase to the amount that stabilizes the rhythm. The European standby, hawthorn berry, has a similar action.
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association (www.jps.net/ ahaherb) and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and North American healing traditions. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, a massage therapist, and a board member of the American Herbalists Guild.
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.