Modern science has made great strides in the prevention and treatment of heart disease; nevertheless, it is still the number one killer in the United States, accounting for about 600,000 deaths each year. A heart condition requires the attention of a qualified physician and is not something to take lightly or to attempt to self-diagnose or self-treat, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to prevent the condition in the first place. Herbs can play a role in reducing your risk of heart disease when incorporated into a heart-smart health regime.
One of the signs of aging is arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries with loss of elasticity and restriction of blood flow through the body. One type of arteriosclerosis is atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits on and in arterial walls and a leading culprit in heart disease. Clogging of the coronary arteries, the small arteries that supply the tissues of the heart itself with oxygen and nutrients, can lead to chest pain (angina), congestive heart failure (inability of the heart to maintain the circulation of the blood through the body), and heart attack.
The fats that build up on artery walls are carried in the blood. Blood fats, or lipids, include cholesterol (both “bad” LDL and “good” HDL) and triglycerides. You can increase heart-protective HDL by stopping smoking (a good idea in any case), losing weight, and exercising. To lower total cholesterol, follow a diet low in calories and total fats, especially saturated fats, and high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Your physician can help you evaluate other heart-disease risk factors such as heredity, age, gender, sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, and stress. While there’s not much you can do about the first three factors, eating right, exercising, and managing stress are proven keys to a healthy heart. Furthermore, two herbs, garlic and hawthorn, can play a significant role in reducing your risk of atherosclerosis.
Two herbs, garlic and hawthorn, can play a significant
role in reducing your risk of atherosclerosis
Eating garlic (Allium sativum) lowers blood pressure and aids blood flow through the circulatory system by reducing the amount of fat in the blood and thinning it, which enables platelets (blood cells that normally aid in clotting) to move more freely. The sulfur compound allicin, the source of garlic’s familiar aroma, is responsible for these effects. It is formed by the reaction of alliin with the enzyme allinase when garlic is cut or bruised.
Between 1985 and 1995, twenty-eight controlled clinical studies examined the effect of garlic preparations on healthy people as well as those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, clogged arteries, and other conditions. Blood fat-regulating effects, including decreases in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels, and increases in HDL, were recorded. Taken together, the studies showed an average 10.3 percent decrease in total cholesterol and a 14.3 percent decrease in triglycerides. A dose of 600 to 900 mg of garlic powder containing 3.6 to 5.4 mg of allicin was recommended to lower blood fats significantly. In eight of the studies, blood pressure decreased by an average 7 to 9 percent after one to six months of treatment. Persons with marginally high blood pressure showed the greatest change; those with normal blood pressure had no change.
Although thousands of studies have supported garlic’s cardiovascular benefits, a recent small study conducted at the University of Oxford that found no significant difference in cholesterol levels between the treatment and placebo groups illustrates the need for standardizing testing conditions. The researchers suggest further trials involving at least 1,000 participants to resolve the differences in study results.
In Germany, therapeutic use of garlic is allowed in the treatment of elevated blood fats and to deter atherosclerosis.
Extracts of the leaves and flowers of Crataegus laevigata, C. monogyna, and other species of hawthorn are prescribed by physicians in Germany and elsewhere to improve heart performance in the early stages of congestive heart failure, angina pectoris, age-related heart problems, and mild irregular heartbeat, as well as during recovery from heart attacks. Pharmacological and clinical studies have shown that hawthorn increases the blood supply to the heart muscle itself and strengthens contractions. As the blood vessels dilate, the heart is then able to pump more blood to the rest of the body.
Hawthorn was used clinically both in the United States and Europe in the first half of this century for the treatment of heart disease. Modern research on the herb began in the mid-1960s. From 1981 to 1996, fourteen controlled clinical studies were published on the effectiveness of hawthorn extracts in more than 800 patients.
No single compound is believed responsible for hawthorn’s beneficial effects on the heart. Among its constituents are sterols, triterpenes, flavonoids, catechins, proanthocyanidins, and amines, all of which have been shown to affect the cardiovascular system. Commercial preparations, primarily those manufactured in Europe, are standardized to contain flavonoids, oligomeric procyanidins, and chlorogenic acid, among other constituents. Timing of the harvest is important, as fall leaves may contain three times the amount of procyanidins as spring leaves.
European physicians generally prescribe from 160 to 900 mg per day of a water-and-alcohol extract yielding 4 to 20 mg of flavonoids and/or 30 to 160 mg of oligomeric procyanidins. Hawthorn must be used for at least six weeks before results can be expected. No side effects or contraindications have been reported.
Black Cohosh: For ease in menopause
Black cohosh, or black snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa), a handsome perennial herb native to North America’s eastern deciduous forests, has a long history as a Native American remedy for gynecological disorders. Now, with its reputation bolstered by modern scientific research, it is helping scores of aging baby boomers cope with the discomforts of menopause. Its robust foliage and tall spires of brilliant white flowers are well known to gardeners, but it is the thick, knobby, resin-scented roots that have caught the attention of scientists and drug manufacturers.
This member of the buttercup family is found on moist hillsides in rich woods from southern Ontario south to Georgia and west to Arkansas. Its thrice-divided leaves with three-lobed terminal leaflets are easy to overlook, but its 3- to 8-foot-tall branched spikes of showy white flowers, each floret a tuft of stamens surrounding a central pistil, are unmistakable. Flowering begins in May in the south and continues into September in more northerly regions. First described by botanists in 1705, black cohosh was growing in English gardens by 1732.
The genus Cimicifuga includes fifteen species, of which one is native to Europe, six to North America, and the remainder to northeastern Asia. Collectively, they are known as bugbanes in reference to the offensive smell of the foliage of two species, the European C. europaea and the Asian C. foetida. (The name Cimicifuga comes from the Latin cimex, “bug”—Cimex is also the genus of bedbugs—and fugare, “to drive away”.) The leaves of both species, which are also called bugworts, have been used as insect repellents throughout their extensive ranges from India to Western Europe to eastern Siberia. Although black cohosh leaves don’t have a strong odor, the flowers have a unpleasant smell that somehow is designed to attract insect pollinators. First described by botanists in 1705, black cohosh was growing in English gardens by 1732.
Early medicinal uses
Native American groups including the Delaware, Iroquois, and Cherokee used the black cohosh root variously as a tonic, diuretic, and remedy for women’s reproductive disorders and rheumatism long before Europeans landed on American shores. Early white settlers used it widely to treat menstrual irregularities and facilitate childbirth. Nineteenth-century American physicians esteemed the root as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and rheumatism, for regulating the menstrual cycle, treating nervous disorders, and relieving pain following childbirth, and it was an official drug in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1926. Eclectic physicians in particular championed the use of black cohosh. John King (1813–1893), a professor of obstetrics at the Eclectic medical college in Cincinnati, Ohio, called it his favorite remedy for “abnormal conditions of the principal organs of reproduction in the female”.
Most of the scientific research on black cohosh during the past century has taken place in Germany, where the herb is today widely used to treat menopausal complaints. Over the years, chemists have isolated various compounds from the roots, including phytosterin, isoferulic acid, salicylic acid, sugars, tannins, and fatty acids, as well as several glycosides and an isoflavone. Although no single constituent has been pinpointed as accounting for the root’s biological activity, researchers believe that a number of compounds may act synergistically to produce their effects.
A 1944 study on mice first attributed estrogenic activity to the root. By the mid-1960s, sufficient laboratory and clinical evidence had been amassed to support the widespread use of black cohosh by German gynecologists as an alternative for conventional hormone replacement therapies, which had shown undesirable side effects. Some fourteen studies on a total of about 1,500 women done over more than forty years supported the root’s effectiveness in reducing the severity and duration of hot flashes as well as depressive moods associated with menopause.
With the decline in ovarian function and estrogen production at menopause, the production of luteinizing hormone by the pituitary gland increases, a change that has been associated with hot flashes. A 1985 German study found that black cohosh significantly reduced serum concentrations of luteinizing hormone in rats that had undergone surgical menopause (removal of their ovaries). A 1991 clinical study of 110 menopausal women confirmed these findings. Although no single constituent has been pinpointed as accounting for the root’s biological activity, researchers believe that a number of compounds may act synergistically to produce their effects.
Other studies showed that black cohosh relieves menopausal symptoms in addition to hot flashes. In a 1982 multicenter German study of 629 menopausal women who received 4 mg of a black cohosh extract twice daily for six to eight weeks, 49 percent of the participants reported a dramatic reduction in hot flashes, sweating, headaches, vertigo, palpitations, and tinnitus attributed to menopause. More than 39 percent also noted a decrease in nervousness, irritability, and depression. Seven percent reported minor gastrointestinal distress.
In a 1987 German double-blind study, thirty women received 8 mg of a black cohosh extract each day, thirty received conventional estrogen replacement therapy, and twenty received a placebo for three months. The black cohosh preparation was well tolerated and produced significant improvements in menopausal symptoms compared to the placebo. Black cohosh also outperformed the estrogen therapy, but the estrogen dose was so low as to make this finding inconclusive.
A 1988 German comparison over twenty-four weeks of three different estrogen therapies and an extract of black cohosh in fifty-three women with menopausal symptoms found the black cohosh extract to be comparable to treatment with the three conventional drugs. The researchers concluded that in cases in which conventional hormone therapy is contraindicated, the plant extract is the therapy of choice.
Taking black cohosh
Used in Europe by more than 1.5 million women during the past forty years, black cohosh is again becoming known in its native land as a viable treatment for reducing unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause. In the United States, black cohosh is sold in health-food stores as a dietary supplement. The German Commission E allows black cohosh products to be labeled for premenstrual symptoms, painful or difficult menstruation, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. The daily dose of a liquid extract with 40 to 60 percent alcohol is equivalent to 40 mg of the dried root. Most studies have used 8 mg daily of a concentrated extract. Upset stomach is the only side effect reported. Because long-term toxicity studies have not been conducted, recommended use is limited to no longer than six months.
Boxwood Battles HIV
Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is a classic evergreen hedge plant, long grown in formal herb gardens for its ease of shaping. It’s also a medicinal herb. A recent French study, prompted by earlier reports of boxwood’s antiviral activity, suggests that the herb shows potential against the human immune deficiency virus (HIV).
The randomized, double-blind, multicenter trial involved 145 HIV-positive but symptomless people who had not previously been treated for HIV. For thirty-eight weeks, 48 received 990 mg per day of a boxwood extract, 49 received 1980 mg per day, and 48 received a placebo. Researchers tracked immune-cell counts and other measures relating to the progression of HIV infection to full-blown AIDS. Of the 120 participants who completed the study, those who received 990 mg of boxwood per day exhibited significantly delayed progression of HIV compared with persons receiving either 1980 mg or the placebo. No severe side effects were reported in any group. Further trials will certainly follow to determine the most effective dosage: boxwood contains toxic alkaloids that in excess can cause bloody diarrhea, convulsions, and respiratory failure. Sheep, horses, pigs, and cattle have died from eating the leaves or leaf clippings.(1)
Turmeric for Ulcers?
The rhizomes of turmeric (Curcuma longa), a tropical member of the ginger family, are as ubiquitous in Vietnamese markets as garlic and carrots are in the United States. It is widely used as a folk medicine for numerous disorders, including duodenal ulcer, a lesion in the wall of that segment of the small intestine lying just beyond the stomach.
A recent joint Vietnamese-Swedish study assessed the effectiveness of a daily dose of 6 g of ground turmeric rhizome versus a placebo in treating duodenal ulcer. Each of the 188 participants (94 in each group) had a single duodenal ulcer at least 5 mm wide and had not received any conventional ulcer drugs before joining the study. All participants showed symptomatic relief after the first week, and symptoms decreased further in both groups during the eight-week trial. Although those who took the turmeric showed slightly greater improvement, the difference between groups was not statistically significant, meaning that turmeric is no better than a placebo in the treatment of duodenal ulcer.(2)
Add a new rat study to the growing evidence of Ginkgo biloba’s ability to improve memory. A 1997 study showing that ginkgo could delay the progress of Alzheimer’s disease published in the Journal of the American Medical Association sparked a media frenzy over the popular herb and encouraged additional research into ginkgo’s potential use in people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
The six-month rat study, conducted by the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, evaluated the effects of varying doses of a ginkgo-leaf extract on cognitive behavior in ten male rats as compared to twenty male rats that received a placebo. The rats were placed in a maze and run through tests designed to assess memory. Researchers found a statistically significant correlation between the increase in ginkgo dosage and the decrease in the number of errors made by the rats during testing. Unexpectedly, the rats that consumed the ginkgo also lived longer than those in the placebo group.(3)
(1) Durrant, J., et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Buxus
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(2) Van Dau, N., et al. “The Effects of a Traditional Drug, Turmeric (Curcuma longa), and Placebo on the Healing of Duodenal Ulcers”. Phytomedicine 1998, 5(1):29–34.
(3) Winter, J. C.. “The Effects of an Extract of Ginkgo biloba, EGb 761, on Cognitive Behavior and Longevity in the Rat”. Physiology and Behavior 1998, 63(3):425–433.
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