Herbal Therapies Treat Heart and Circulation Conditions
Herbal therapies traditionally used in Europe and China to treat heart and circulation disorders are now being validated by scientific research, according to a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.1
Some herbs may be beneficial in the treatment of various cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chest pain (angina), irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias), congestive heart failure, and poor circulation. With effects similar to those of prescription medications used for cardiovascular disease, certain herbs may decrease cholesterol, dilate blood vessels (which lowers blood pressure), keep blood vessels from becoming clogged, prevent arrhythmias, improve heart function, and mildly thin the blood.
Garlic (Allium sativum) has been shown to be effective in reducing high cholesterol, decreasing high blood pressure, and improving circulation. Most studies used 900 mg of dried garlic powder per day. People taking blood-thinning medication (warfarin) should take garlic only under the supervision of a doctor, since it might thin the blood too much.
The best selling herb in the United States, Ginkgo biloba, is used for impaired blood flow due to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), as well as hearing loss, and improving memory and mental clarity. Typical amounts used are 120 to 160 mg per day of an extract standardized to contain 24% ginkgo-flavone glycosides. Some authorities recommend 120 to 240 mg two to three times per day for individuals with impaired blood flow to the brain (cerebral insufficiency). Use of ginkgo has been associated with abnormal bleeding when taken in excessive amounts and should be avoided by those taking blood-thinning medications.
People with congestive heart failure may benefit from taking 480 to 2,700 mg per day of hawthorn berry extract (Crataegus species). Studies have found hawthorn improves the amount of blood pumped through the heart per beat (ejection fraction) and decreases the incidence of arrhythmias. Hawthorn has few reported side effects and no known toxic effects.
Other trials suggest ginseng (Panax ginseng) may also improve heart function and lower blood pressure. Some physicians recommend 100 to 400 mg per day of ginseng root extract. There is some evidence that taking excessive amounts of ginseng may increase blood pressure, but studies are inconclusive since many of the products used in these trials also contained Siberian ginseng (unrelated to Panax ginseng), which may cause high blood pressure by itself. Individuals using digoxin (a medication used to treat heart failure and certain arrhythmias) or warfarin should avoid ginseng since it may interfere with metabolism of these medications.
Despite the potential benefit of some herbs in treating cardiovascular diseases, the authors point out that some herbal products may actually induce unwanted side effects that are potentially dangerous to cardiovascular health. Herbs such as belladonna (Atropa belladonna), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), white hellebore (Veratrum album), ma huang (Ephedra sinica), kava (Piper methysticum), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and yohimbine (Pausinystalia yohimbe) have been associated with side effects that include a tendency toward abnormal bleeding, high blood pressure, fast heart rate, arrhythmia, and stroke. Although such effects are rare, people using these herbs should be aware of the potential consequences of taking excessive amounts.
People using prescription medications must also be cautious in introducing herbal therapies, as interactions can potentially lead to toxic side effects or to reduced effectiveness of the prescription medication. While some drug-herb interactions are known, there are likely many others yet to be discovered. People using herbs for treatment should always do so with the supervision of a healthcare professional.
1. Valli G, Giardina EV. Benefits, adverse effects and drug interactions of herbal therapies with cardiovascular effects. J Am Coll Cardiol 2002;39:1083–95.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of Garlic and Cholesterol: Everything You Need to Know (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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