Ask the Herbalist: Prevent Lifestyle Illnesses

Our experts share strategies to boost heart health and prevent diabetes with herbs.

| August/September 2009

  • Looking to improve your overall health and ward off future problems? Turn to herbs! Ginkgo can increase the flow of blood to the heart; green tea contains powerful antioxidants; the nutrient-packed leaves of dandelion are tasty in a salad; and cranberries can prevent blood sugar problems.

Q. My father died of an aneurysm of the heart and my mother was diabetic. Which herbs will help prevent these conditions in my life?

J. P., Brussels, Belgium

A. Keville responds: I admire people who look to preventive medicine. To ward off both conditions, avoid eating too much fat and flavor your food with heart-healthy garlic (Allium sativum). For diabetes, keep your blood sugar stable. One way to keep it stable is by avoiding sugars of any kind and also refined carbohydrates, which quickly break down into sugar in the body. Many foods, such as green beans and onions, are blood sugar regulators. Try sweetening your food with stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). Full-strength stevia carries a bitter taste, but you can usually replace at least half of another sweetener with stevia. The trace mineral chromium is another blood sugar regulator.

A good herb for the heart and circulation is eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which also helps maintain blood sugar levels. Various studies have shown that hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) increase the flow of blood to the heart, lessen its demand for oxygen and increase the breath. Assuming you aren’t on any standard medications, you can take a formula like this in any form you wish as a heart tonic. My nonherbal suggestion is to get plenty of aerobic exercise to build your heart and regulate your blood sugar. Doctors and natural practitioners alike agree that it’s best for everyone to maintain a healthy weight, but especially when there is diabetes or heart disease in your family.

Khalsa responds: Heart disease and diabetes are closely related, so some basic health-building tips are in order. The main thing people in cultures with traditional healing systems do differently is the daily, lifelong use of stamina-enhancing tonic medicines. Examples of these tonic herbs include American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and ashwaganda (Withania somnifera).

Many mild, safe herbs benefit blood sugar and aid diabetes prevention. The bulbs of onion and garlic balance blood sugar and help by regulating blood pressure, cholesterol and clot formation.

Green tea (Camellia sinensis) contains the powerful antioxidants catechin and epicatechin that have been shown to help prevent diabetes. This tea can be consumed daily, or is available in a decaffeinated extract as a dietary supplement. Bitter herbs, long a favorite of European herbalists, are widely respected around the world for blood sugar control. Examples of bitters are dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), gentian (Gentiana lutea) and turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Because diet is the factor over which we have the most control, food can be of great benefit for preventing blood sugar problems. The blueberry family (blueberry, huckleberry, bilberry and cranberry) looks very good in this regard. Okra is an Ayurvedic remedy for balancing blood sugar. Many American patients who try this food have success with the juice of okra pods added to their diet. Okra is delicious as a steamed vegetable also. Dandelion greens have been quite successful for many diabetics. Fresh dandelion greens are tasty in a salad.
Other foods and spices helpful for balancing blood sugar include cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, cashew, celery, cayenne, ginger, coriander seed, lettuce, cabbage, turnip, papaya, Jerusalem artichoke, millet, oats, barley and buckwheat.

To keep the heart healthy, I like the famed Ayurvedic heart herb arjuna (Terminalia arjuna)—drink it regularly as a tea. Ayurvedic physicians use this herb for a variety of cardiovascular conditions—it is a cardiac “tonic.” Arjuna seems to improve cardiac muscle function and the heart’s pumping activity. Hawthorn has similar properties.  

Send your questions to editor@herb with “Ask the Herbalist” in the subject line. The information in “Ask the Herbalist” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association ( and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 2009). 

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild.

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