Keeping your heart healthy is not much different from keeping the rest of you healthy. The key things are stress management, appropriate exercise, and a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet—one that is high in brightly colored, low-glycemic vegetables, complete proteins from good quality sources, natural fats, and low in refined carbohydrates and industrial oils (like cottonseed, safflower, and corn). As with most organs and body systems, though, if you’re especially concerned with heart health, there are nutrients that can be helpful in levels above those you would typically consume from foods. One plant whose extracts have been shown to be particularly beneficial for cardiovascular health is hawthorn.
The heart can become diseased or damaged for many reasons, and some of the symptoms—like chest pain (known in medical terms as angina), shortness of breath upon exertion, high blood pressure, and fatigue—can be the result of the heart struggling to pump enough blood to the rest of the body, or the blood vessels being too narrow or stiff to accommodate adequate blood flow. Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha) has been shown to improve both of these issues; it can help the heart muscle contract more strongly, leading to a more forceful push of blood through the body, and it also helps dilate the blood vessels, which allows the proper amount of blood to flow through them. A strong heart muscle and healthy blood vessels allow the rest of the body to receive the oxygen carried in the blood. When your heart is struggling to pump effectively or the vessels can’t hold as much blood as they should, your cells receive less oxygen, which is why fatigue and shortness of breath are common effects of heart disease. Hawthorn has also been shown to be mildly effective for high blood pressure because it helps with the dilation of blood vessels.
The history and benefits of hawthorn
For centuries hawthorn has been used to support healthy heart function, particularly in Europe, where legends of the healing properties of this medicinal herb date back to the 13th century. It seems only fitting that this botanical is heart-protective, as the hawthorn tree is considered to be a tree of love. Hawthorn is related to the rose family, and is noted for its long thorns and bright red, apple-like berries. It is used in tinctures, teas and capsules to promote heart heath, but the fresh berries are also used for culinary purposes in pies, jams, wines, vinegars and syrups.
Hawthorn leaves, berries, and flowers are high in antioxidants, which can protect heart tissue and blood vessels from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. The vitamin C and citrin bioflavonoid content of hawthorn help stabilize the collagen that makes up the structure of the blood vessels. Hawthorn also has a beneficial effect on blood lipids, which are often used as markers for heart health. Animal studies have shown hawthorn extracts to mildly limit increases in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides in rats fed a diet designed to raise those indicators.
In a study of heart attacks in rats, pre-treatment with hawthorn extract reduced levels of enzymes used to indicate the degree of damage the heart has suffered. So hawthorn may strengthen the heart and decrease the amount of tissue damage that results if a cardiac event does occur.
The foundation of a cardio-protective diet is based around reducing the intake of refined carbohydrates and industrially produced vegetable oils. Hawthorn extract can be a beneficial addition for supporting heart function and works best when coupled with other healthy lifestyle practices, such as a healthy exercise routine, stress reduction and a nutrient rich, anti-inflammatory diet.
- David Brady