Your heart is the capital city at the center of your body, with an intricate network of blood vessels branching out in the form of superhighways (arteries), routes (arterioles), and winding, narrow backroads (capillaries), with your veins serving as the return route. Together, these elements are your primary transport system, delivering life-giving oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and other compounds throughout your body while picking up waste for elimination. An intricate balance of muscle strength and nervous impulse moves an astonishing 2,000 gallons of blood every day with approximately 100,000 heartbeats. No matter your age, herbs can help keep this important organ and body system functioning optimally.
Hawthorn Berries, Leaves, Flowers, and Twigs (Crataegus spp.)
The thorny, shrubby hawthorn tree provides profound heart medicine with a long history of safe use as a tonic. Alongside the classic fall-harvested berries, you can also include leaves, flowers, and twigs, pinched off in spring just before or as the flowers bloom. All these parts are rich in antioxidant compounds and have a variety of beneficial effects on the heart and cardiovascular system. Hawthorn helps decrease oxidative damage and inflammation; normalizes and reduces blood pressure; modestly reduces cholesterol; dilates blood vessels; improves oxygen utilization; strengthens the structure and function of the heart; reduces blood stickiness (platelet aggregation); protects against injury; helps with healing from cardiovascular events; improves heart rhythm; reduces chest pain and angina; strengthens the heart in congestive heart failure; and helps achieve and maintain smooth blood vessel lining.
Hawthorn — particularly the flowers — is also used to help people heal from grief. It’s quite amazing the diverse ways in which hawthorn improves the status of the human cardiovascular system, all while being very safe and food-like. However, as a tonic, it can take several months of steady and relatively high doses before the effects become noticeable. My favorite way to take hawthorn is as a highly concentrated (and tasty!) solid extract, but you can also use tinctures, teas, and standardized capsules, and you can add the powder to smoothies and other recipes.
While generally safe, hawthorn may interact with and synergize or increase the effects of some heart medications. These include digoxin and blood pressure drugs.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
This “stinking rose” also offers broad-spectrum heart tonic properties. Studies generally support garlic’s ability to modestly reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, platelet aggregation, atherosclerosis, fibrin (which is associated with clots and coagulation), and inflammation. One of the challenges in studying and using garlic is the many ways in which it can be prepared. Allicin, a key sulfur component, gives garlic its odor and some of its benefits. However, it’s also unstable and difficult to preserve in supplement form. Aged garlic extract has performed well in studies and focuses on different, more stable garlic compounds. When using fresh garlic in food, let it sit for approximately 10 minutes after you chop or mince it to transform garlic into its most active form. Eat one or more cloves daily.
Garlic’s ability to thin the blood, while generally beneficial, may be dangerous before surgery and in combination with blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin. Your doctor may be able to monitor you and adjust your medication dose accordingly. Taking garlic can also give you garlic breath and body odor and, for some, digestive upset. Aged garlic is less apt to affect body odor and digestion.
Hibiscus Flower Calyx (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
Until recently, hibiscus was most famous for adding a natural fruity flavor and color to teas, and offering antioxidant properties similar to those of berries (in spite of the fact that the part of hibiscus that’s used is actually the calyx). New studies have expanded the ways in which we use the popular tea medicinally. Hibiscus rivals common hypertension medications captopril, lisinopril, and hydrochlorothiazide, with good tolerability and without potassium loss in human studies, which is actually more impressive than the effects of hawthorn or garlic on blood pressure numbers. Hibiscus also reduces bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Therapeutic daily doses range from 10 to 20 grams of dried hibiscus infused in tea for 30 minutes.
Hibiscus is a safe, food-like tea plant. However, it may alter and speed the clearance of some medications. Much like vitamin C, fruity drinks, and lemon water, acids in hibiscus tea can be corrosive to tooth enamel over time, so consider brushing your teeth or at least rinsing after you sip. Feel free to blend hibiscus with hawthorn or rooibos, another red-hued tea that has performed well in cardiovascular health studies.
Cacao Bean (Theobroma cacao)
You can thank the antioxidant flavanols and the magnesium content of pure cacao, cocoa, and dark chocolate for the heart tonic effects of this beloved treat. Cacao has a long history of use in its native forests of Central and South America, where it’s brewed into a thick beverage, and the masterminds at Mars (yes, the candy company) have fueled modern research into chocolate’s cardiovascular health benefits. Several studies suggest that cacao can reduce inflammation and improve the health of blood vessels’ inner (endothelial) linings. If chocolate agrees with you, it’s worth adding cocoa nibs, cacao or cocoa powder, or a high-percent dark chocolate into your daily routine.
Some find the caffeine content too stimulating or are sensitive to chocolate’s xanthine compounds, which occasionally aggravate migraines, cramps, fibroids, and other types of pain often associated with hormone imbalance.
Rose Blossoms (Rosa spp.)
Cardiovascular events can trigger depression and mood shifts. Since antiquity, roses have been used to gladden the heart and are associated with love. Modern herbalists add roses to formulas to address grief, heartache, work-related stress, anxiety, and the need for self-love. For strengthening and calming the heart in this way, rose’s aromatic compounds excel. Rose petals (a sprinkle added to tea blends), rose water, rose-infused glycerine or honey, and rose essential oil all work well.
Be aware that rose essential oil and rose water are often adulterated with synthetic chemicals, and true rose essential oil is extremely expensive. When extracting the essence of rose from the garden, I find cool temperatures and long steeping times amplify the aroma without increasing rose’s bitter astringency. Infusing 1 fresh rose blossom in 8 ounces plain water or seltzer for several hours makes a divine beverage.
Other calming herbs include linden, lemon balm, motherwort, holy basil, mimosa/albizia, and gotu kola.
You can find the heart-healthy herbs mentioned in this article at the following online stores:
Maria Noël Groves is a registered clinical herbalist who lives in the pine forests of New Hampshire. She’s the author of Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care. For herbal recipes and information on her online classes, visit Wintergreen Botanicals.