I find it interesting to note the disparity in the ways we talk about “the heart.” Conversations about the health of our physical hearts often focus on depravity: What foods we shouldn’t eat and what medications we may have to take. Conversely, when we talk about “matters of the heart,” meaning love, we talk about indulgences: We woo our partners with wine, chocolate and roses. Yet how often do we take that approach with our own actual hearts?
The truth is that caring for our hearts can mean being good to ourselves. To wit, wine, chocolate and roses all have been proven in various clinical studies to be tonics for the heart in their own right. So why is it that in terms of physical heart health, we continue to focus on rules, limitations and depravity?
I believe the path to heart health is through the daily use of delicious preparations of amazing plants. Let us woo our own hearts with these simple pleasures, which boast both a long history and modern clinical research of support for our hardest-working muscle.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa race ruber)
For those who live in tropical and subtropical regions of our planet, it is not news that hibiscus can be used to support the health of the cardiovascular system. The plant has been used traditionally for years as a tonic for the heart and circulatory systems. However, it is only in the last 10 years that science has become curious about this traditional medicine, producing several encouraging studies that support its use.
Also called roselle, this variety of hibiscus contains high amounts of iron, and is also a good source of vitamins A and C. If you’ve ever bought a bag of dried hibiscus flowers, you probably noted the red color that translates not just to taste, but also to beauty in a cup of tea. This color is where the plant’s high amounts of anthocyanins reside, which can improve circulation and lower blood pressure, among other health benefits.
When I think of a hibiscus flower, I think of something large, showy and dark red. The surprising thing about this herb, however, is that it is not technically the flower in that bag of “hibiscus flowers” you buy. Roselle’s flowers are rather understated, small and light yellow. The real prize is the calyx, or red, cuplike structure that protects the bud as it develops and then holds the flower as it blooms. The blossom itself lasts a day and then drops, unused, to the ground. The calyx remains and is, in my opinion, so much more than the bloom it holds. Resembling a human heart, it is glossy and somewhat fleshy. It must be picked a few days after the plant blooms or it will wither and become useless.
Studies have shown that roselle can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is often recommended that at least two cups of tea be consumed per day.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
My mentor, Rosemary Gladstar, once told me that hawthorn should be a regular part of the diet once someone enters their 40s. This is because of the tree’s numerous benefits for the cardiovascular system.
The reputation of hawthorn is well-founded. Studies have shown that the flavonoid content in the plant is responsible for improving the health of the heart muscle. Hawthorn is also a well-loved herb for those with irregular heartbeats. Some studies have even suggested that this tree has the ability to lower cholesterol levels and prevent fat from accumulating on the artery walls of the aorta and the liver.
The tart berries, flowers and leaves have all been used in both folkloric treatment and clinical study. I prefer the berries because they are easy to incorporate into the diet as juice, jelly, syrup and more. A medicinal tea or tincture is also an option, but I like variety. Enjoying a hawthorn-based food or medicine two to three times a day would be a good maintenance program for those wanting to improve cardiac health. It is well-documented that hawthorn is slow-acting, so you will want to commit to at least four to eight weeks of steady use before you begin to see changes.
Aronia (Aronia melanocarpa)
Aronia, also known as black chokeberry, is one of my favorite plants. In my opinion, it is one of the most overlooked shrubs on the American continent. Commonly found between fields, this gangly bush spreads by suckers, sprouting new shoots around the base of the original plant, and forming colonies. It produces a black berry that is often only appreciated by birds, but this humble shrub has a secret.
Aronia berries are remarkably rich in antioxidants, compounds that play an important role in cardiovascular health. Studies have shown that a diet that includes aronia can reduce cholesterol levels and even speed recovery after a heart attack. The berries are tart, but gain a bit of sweetness after frost (or, more practically, some time in the freezer). There are so many aronia products on the market today that even if you don’t have this “weed” in your backyard, it is easy to add it to your table. We love the concentrate added to our morning orange juice, or the frozen berries in our baked goods.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic is among the amazingly healthy set of plants we can rightly call a panacea. We have documentation regarding its use for a wide variety of ailments dating all the way back to 460 B.C. Yet, despite years of research, science studying its effects in the cardiovascular system have had mixed results.
Many studies support the use of garlic to improve blood pressure. This appears to be due to the sulfur-containing compounds alliin and allicin. But on the topic of cholesterol, research outcomes have been mixed — while some studies have found a beneficial effect, others have found none. The conflicting results may be in part due to how the garlic is prepared. Many studies use garlic powder instead of raw garlic, and allicin and alliin are most effective when consumed fresh.
According to doctors, the recommended amount of garlic for medicinal effects can seem overwhelming, topping out at around three cloves a day. This is why so many people use garlic capsules to simplify intake, and avoid garlic breath. I prefer to preserve fresh garlic in a tonic of vinegar, alcohol or oil and enjoy it often in teaspoon doses with my food. The experience is milder and less odoriferous. Another way to take garlic is in an herbal tonic with ginger, horseradish and other herbs, which also helps promote immune health.