6 Herbs for your Heart

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Dr. Starbuck dispenses some down-to-earth wisdom about heart-friendly botanicals

Circulation, in a manner of speaking, makes the world go 'round. Just as the turning of the earth gives us our night and day, and our weather and seasons, the constant movement of blood throughout our bodies provides us with the nutrients we need to live, and to prevent disease.

The circulatory system is also known as the vascular system, an intricate, intertwined, fascinating web of different sized and shaped blood vessels woven throughout the body. In order for circulation to be effective, the blood's route through the body must be open, flexible and free of obstruction.

Many different diseases can interfere with circulation, creating what doctors refer to as vascular disorders. Vascular disorders are generally broken into two groups: cardiovascular disorders (or diseases that affect the heart and related structures) and peripheral vascular disorders (or diseases that affect the arteries, veins, and lymphatic system of extremities). Conditions in this latter category, peripheral vascular disorders, are also called circulatory diseases. Examples include: Raynaud's disease, atherosclerosis, thromboangiitis obliterans (inflammation of medium-sized leg arteries and veins, sometimes resulting in ischemia and gangrene), also called Buerger's diseas, phlebitis, and varicose veins.

With most circulatory disorders, the symptoms are pretty predictable. Phlebitis symptoms usually result from a clump of blood cells lodging somewhere in the veins of the mid-calf, causing swelling and compromised blood flow. People with phlebitis complain of fullness, aching and faugue in the lower legs. In Raynaud's disease, the small vessels of the fingers, and sometimes the nose or tongue, constrict, paling the skin in the affected area, and causing numbness or a prickly sensation.

Buerger's disease begins as Raynaud's, but, over time, becomes more serious, with significant, persistent pain, progressive inflammation, and, in severe cases, gangrene. Buerger's disease occurs mostly in men who smoke cigarettes.

Varicose veins are distended, dilated veins. They are often visine, and have a blue, lumpy appearance, and seem to be caused by an inherent weakness in vein walls. Things like pregnancy, jobs that require long hours of standing, or obesity aggravate the condition. In many folks, varicose veins are simply annoying due to their unsightliness. In others, varicose veins can be painful, causing aching, easy fatigue, or a sensation of heat at the sight of the varicosities. Hemorrhoids are sometimes thought of as a circulatory disorder; they're caused by a weakness in a section of blood vessels in and around the anus.
Preventing circulatory disease

As with most illness, prevention is the best medicine. And when it comes to circulatory disease, regular, aerobic exercise is the best prescription. Physically moving the body by cross-country skiing, brisk walking, biking, jogging, or dancing up to 20 minutes a day, at least 4 days a week is enough to keep most circulatory systems healthy.

A good diet is also essential: lots of leafy greens, cold water fish, vegetable protein like that found in beans and soy, fiber, fruit and yellow-orange vegetables. As many studies have shown, eating garlic or taking garlic supplements on a daily basis help keep blood vessels flexible, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.

Many nutritional supplements assist the circulatory system, in particular: coenzyme A, coenzyme-Q10, B-12, folate, vitamins B-6 and B-3, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, copper, zinc and essential fatty acids.
Herbs that help

For centuries, herbs have been used to treat a wide variety of diseases, including circulatory disorders. Herbal medicine is used for circulatory diseases in two ways: internally, through teas, tinctures or capsules, and externally, through poultices, lotions arid herbal liniments. The primary action of herbs used in circulatory disorders is to increase the flow of blood to the body's extremities (its arms, legs, fingers and toes) and to improve the health of blood vessel walls.

1 Cayenne, or Capsicum, is thought to have been introduced to the world via Caribbean Indians. Fifteenth century explorers to the Caribbean Islands brought cayenne back to Europe, where it gained popularity as an ingredient in spicy dishes and as a warming medicinal herb.

Taken internally, cayenne reduces clot formation. It does so by reducing platelet stickiness. Cayenne also increases the elimination of excess (free) cholesterol via the stool, making cayenne a helpful cholesterol-lowering herb.

Externally applied, cayenne is a powerful analgesic, or pain-reducing, medicine. This action is largely due to capsaisin, an ingredient in cayenne that decreases pain transmitters in the sensory nerves. Cayenne is also a rubefacient, an herb that increases blood flow to the area to which it is applied. External applications of cayenne preparations are therefore useful in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, Raynaud's disease, post-herpetic neuralgia, and diabetic neuropathy. People with chronically cold feet find relief by sprinkling cayenne pepper into socks during the winter months.

2 Prickly ash, botanically known as Zanthoxylum clavaherculis, is a circulatory stimulant, derived from the bark of the Northern Prickly Ash. The historic use of prickly ash includes it as a medicine for intermittent claudication, Raynaud's disease, peripheral vascular insufficiency and muscle cramps.

One of this herb's common names is "toothache bark," a moniker that shows that its use went beyond the treatment of circulatory disorders. Prickly ash is considered a stimulant to the circulatory, nervous and digestive systems. As such it is a common ingredient in tonic formulas, particularly for elderly or debilitated people.

3 Ginkgo, or Ginkgo biloba, must of necessity be included in any discussion of pro-circulation, pro-heart herbs. Ginkgo increases the flow of blood to the head and to the extremities. Ginkgo also has antioxidant and anticlogging properties, making it useful in reducing atherosclerosis. Ginkgo decreases platelet stickiness, and may reduce the incidence of strokes and thrombophlebitis. Because it increases the flow of blood and improves vessel health, ginkgo is an essential ingredient in any herbal formula used to treat Raynaud's disease, intermittent claudication and varicose veins.

In most people, ginkgo is well tolerated. However, it can cause stomach upset and diarrhea in sensitive users, so caution is advised when first starting on this herb. Additionally, ginkgo can increase bleeding time, so people taking anti-co-agulant medication, such as Coumadin, Warfarin, or even a daily aspirin, should reform their physicians if they begin taking ginkgo.

4 Ginger, whose botanical label is Zingiber officinalis, is probably most popularly known both as a spice for baking, and as medicine against colds, flu and nausea. Ginger is also a great circulatory and pain-relieving herb.

Ginger also dissolves fibrin and decreases the body's tendency to make this substance. Many circulatory diseases stem from problems with fibrin. This white, fibrous protein is made when thrombin, an enzyme found in blood, reacts with fibrinogen, a protein in blood. Fibrin shows up as lacy filaments, much like a spider's web. White cells, red cells and platelets entangle themselves in fibrin filaments, creating what we call a clot. Fibrin is also what makes varicose veins lumpy and hard. While fibrin is useful in some circumstances, like repairing blood vessel injuries, excess fibrin where we don't need it can cause pain, disease, and even death. Ginger is therefore a good herb for people with a history of stroke or atherosclerosis, thrombophlebitis and varicose veins. Because ginger is also a warming herb, it is an excellent botanical choice for those who tend to be chronically chilly, and for those with poor, ineffective or sluggish circulation.

* 5 Hawthorn, or Crataegus oxyacantha, is another circulatory superstar, though its use is most specifically in cardiovascular circulatory disorders. Clinical studies show that the leaves, flowers and fruit of the hawthorn tree contain substances which act as antioxidants, and which can help atherosclerosis. Hawthorn also prevents the buildup of cholesterol in the liver by encouraging the breakdown of cholesterol into bile acids. When used over long periods of time (weeks or months), extracts of hawthorn dilate blood vessels, including vessels of the coronary system, giving better blood flow through the heart and throughout the body. Hawthorn is commonly recommended not only for cardiac conditions, but also for varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
* 6 Horse chestnut. Another herb related to the heart is is Aesculus hippocastanum, or horse chestnut. Unlike the above circulatory herbs, horse chestnut is an astringent. It works on circulatory disorder by decreasing the permeability of capillaries in veins, making them less likely to break open, leaking blood.

Horse chestnut can be dangerous if an overdose is taken internally. It should only be used internally under the supervision of a health care provider. For varicose veins, topical applications of horse chestnut extract can be safely applied to the area of varicosities several times per day. Normally, several weeks of routine applications are necessary in order for results to be seen.

Combined with regular exercise, these six herbs may not only add flavor to your baked goods and beverages, but, when taken regularly and as supplements, they will spice up your vascular system and keep your heart at peak performance.
The gist of ginger

Ginger is a good warming remedy for people who "find cayenne too hot. It is more diffusive than cayenne and easier on the digestion, more suitable for the onset of chills, for period pains, and for gut spasms. Gingko is specific for nausea, teavel sickness, [...]" Source: Herbalism -- An illustrated Guide by Non Shaw, Element Books, 1998

PHOTO (COLOR): Cayenne

PHOTO (COLOR): Prickly Ash

PHOTO (COLOR): Ginkgo

PHOTO (COLOR): Ginger

PHOTO (COLOR): Hawthorn

PHOTO (COLOR): Horse Chesnut
REFERENCES

Chen, I, et al. "Chemical constituents and biological activities of the fruit of Zanthoxylum integrifoliolum," Journal of Natural Products 62(6), 883-837, 1999.

Mashour, N, et al. "Herbal medicine for the treatment of cardiovascular disease--clinical considerations," Archives of Internal Medicine 156: 2225-2234, Nov. 9, 1998.

Miller, A. "Botanical influences on cardiovascular disease," Alternative Medicine Review 3(6):422-31, 1998.

Tilgner, S. Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth. Creswell, Oregon,: Wise Acres Press, 1999

Weiss, RF Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Press, 1988.

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By Jamison Starbuck, JD, ND

Adapted by JD, ND

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