“A physician is one who pours drugs of which he knows little, into a body of which he knows less” ~ Francois Voltaire
This occasional series of foraging for health autonomy, begins with herbs that you can easily forage that benefit your cardo-vascular system.
In case you were wondering…I’m no Medicinal Herbalist, but I am qualified in plant chemistry, plant constituents, and their actions.
I’m aware that the majority of our pharmaceutical medicines are plant based, that approximately 80% of the world still uses plants as their primary health care medicine, and after all, I’m just a curious thinking animal like you, exploring a vast medicine cabinet growing all around me, and with access to institutions such as the British Library, where I’ve chosen to dive into and devour the knowledge and information that is freely available to all of us.
When discussing a herbal approach to the cardiovascular system, we are well served by firstly looking at its different aspects. For example, for purposes of treatment, the circulatory system can be split into the central and peripheral circulatory system. Some biologists also link the lymphatic system with the rest of the circulatory system, because the waste products and toxins stored in lymph glands are transported for elimination by the blood. Organs of elimination include skin, lungs, urinary system, and bowels.
Overview of the system
The cardiovascular system consists of the heart, veins, arteries, and capillaries. This complex network of vessels ensures that oxygen rich blood and nutrients can reach every cell of the body. It also enables metabolic waste products, including CO2 and water to be transferred into the blood, before being eliminated from the body.
The heart muscle weighs approximately 300 grams and is roughly the same size as a clenched fist. It is protected from the rest of the body by the pericardium membrane. The right hand side of the heart receives de-oxygenated blood from veins then pumps the blood to the lungs, where it receives oxygen into the haemoglobin of the blood cells.
Blood returns to the left hand side of the heart which then pumps it out via the arteries to the rest of the body. The left hand side of the heart is bigger than the right because it has to pump blood much further around the body.
Blood itself is comprised of four major components; plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Plasma is the fluid component, amounting to 55% of blood. The bone marrow produces red blood cells, of which there are millions in every drop.
White blood cells, otherwise known as leukocytes, are one of our body’s natural immune system components, and help protect against infection and foreign material. Platelets are small bodies in blood with sticky surfaces. Following blood loss from the body, they aggregate together, to form clots. Calcium, vitamin K and the protein fibrinogen are all vital components of platelets.
Common disorders of the cardiovascular system, with herbs to help
A few herbs come to our attention again and again when treating the cardiovascular system. Of great importance, and dealt with previously, are the powerful cardiac glycosides. Plants containing them include foxglove and lilly-of-the valley.
The important cardiac glycoside drug first found in foxglove – digoxin, will be found in every hospital in the country. However, cardiac glycosides are drugs with a narrow therapeutic window and can be extremely poisonous if consumed in relatively small quantities. They are ill-advised to be experimenting with.
Before exploring other plant medicines that can help, it’s prudent to remind anyone currently on cardio-vascular prescription medicines, and thinking of self-medicating with herbs, to consult with a doctor before embarking. Many herbs can potentially adversely interact with pharmaceutical cardio-vascular drugs. Aside fom the fact that you may be allergic to it, or simply intolerant of that particular plant species.
That said (and presuming correct lifestyle adaptations are being undertaken to the diet and other personal health issues), a number of the commonly occurring conditions of the cardio-vascular system are self-treatable.
These include: High blood pressure (hypertension), low blood pressure (hypotension), anaemia, atherosclerosis, angina, thrombosis, varicose veins and poor circulation.
High blood pressure (Hypertension)
The blood carrying oxygen and nutrients around your body is under pressure as a result of the heart’s pump action and due to the size and flexibility of the veins and arteries. This blood pressure is essential to how the body works.
Blood pressure is expressed by two numbers, for example: 120/80mm hg (120 mm over 80 mm mercury). The first number represents the systolic pressure of the contracted pumping heart. This is the maximum pressure in your blood vessels. The second number is the diastolic pressure of your heart between beats, when it is at rest and filling with blood. This is the minimum pressure in your vessels.
A rule of thumb suggests that the lower your blood pressure, the healthier you are, although very low blood pressure is not beneficial, leading to dizziness and feeling faint.
Currently, ‘normal’ blood pressure is accepted to be 120/80 mm hg, whilst scores up to 139/89 mm hg are classed as ‘pre-hypertension’ and figures above 140/90 referred to as hypertension.
Hypertension is often characterised by a narrowing and decline in the elasticity of peripheral arteries. Where this occurs, a reduction of blood flow and likely increase in blood pressure can result. Diseases of the kidney can also lead to hypertension.
If the artery that delivers blood to the kidneys (renal artery) becomes blocked. or if it narrows, either through plaque deposits or by a thickening of the arterial muscular wall, then this can lead to hypertension through an increase in the production of certain hormones – renin and angiotensin. This in turn causes peripheral arteries to constrict and stiffen, creating hypertension.
It has been documented that males under 45 are more prone to hypertension than females, though after 65 both sexes are as likely to suffer. Well known causal factors include: smoking, high-fat diets, diabetes, high-alcohol consumption, high-salt intake, obesity and ageing.
A number of plants are useful to alleviate some of the various ways that hypertension can manifest.
These include my personally experienced favourite for hypertension, hawthorn,covered in my Monday morning monograph series, with renowned powers to relax arteries as well as acting on the heart muscle itself. Other species include garlic, lime flowers, nettles and yarrow.
The latter herb increases peripheral blood vessels, improving blood flow. Nettles and garlic can help remove the fur from arteries, making them more elastic. Where tension is a factor, lime flowers and cramp bark can be of benefit.
If the mind needs addressing in order to help shift mental focus or where mental or emotional stresses are a factor, then oat straw, lemon balm, and chamomile can be useful alongside the herbs just mentioned.
Low blood pressure (Hypotension)
This condition is characterised by blood pressure so low that the patient displays signs or symptoms which may lead to insufficient oxygen reaching the vital organs. As a result these organs may then not function properly and can suffer temporary or permanent damage.
Unlike hypertension, this condition is deduced by symptoms rather than a specific number. This is because some patients may consistently display pressure of 90/50 mm hg, yet do not show any signs of low blood pressure, whereas other patients who normally have higher blood pressures may develop signs of low blood pressure when recording a pressure of 100/60 mm hg.
Once again, hawthorn flowers and berries will be helpful, as will garlic, as was discussed in the garlic monograph. If of a nervous origin, drinking oat straw tea and eating the grain (especially if physically debilitated) can help restore correct nervous function. Rosemary is a classic circulatory herb prescribed for hypotension and the super-food alfalfa has had a history of use here too.
Atherosclerosis, arteriosclerosis, and angina.
This is a process where hardening of the arteries occurs due to the build up of cholesterol containing plaque. It is this condition that is responsible for many of the fatal heart attacks and strokes, and can strike seemingly out the blue (hence the name ‘silent killer’). It is well documented that many people with significant atherosclerosis have a history of elevated cholesterol levels.
Often, the initial stages of this disease include damage by free radicals to the arterial wall. It can also manifest through imbalances in levels of LDL and HDL (Readers of my foragers monograph on oats will be aware of the importance of these lipo-proteins.).
Subsequently, the site of injury attracts large white blood cells and platelets. These will then adhere to the damaged area, creating an atheroma, and over time this releases substances that stimulate accumulation of plaque as well as deposits of fats and cholesterol.
The major risk factors are:
Elevated cholesterol levels
High blood pressure
Garlic is the prime remedy here. Others include hawthorn berries, yarrow and lime flowers.
This usually develops as a result of atherosclerosis. In this condition, the artery walls become thickened and hardened, becoming less flexible and narrower, inhibiting sufficient blood flow. Oats, lime flowers, garlic, hawthorn (flowers or berries), meadowsweet, hearts-ease, and horsetail are all helpful here.
This painful condition will often result from atherosclerosis, although is classed as a syndrome rather than a disease. The term literally means ‘a strangling feeling in the chest’ and is due to a lack of blood and thus oxygen reaching the heart muscle. Hawthorn, lime flowers, oats, and hops have all been used to treat this often distressing disorder.
Sometimes a blood clot may get dislodged from a damaged arterial wall and enter the blood stream. This can block smaller vessels and cause oxygen deficiency downstream.
Where this takes place in the body dictates how serious it is. When it occurs in the legs it is called phlebitis. Treatment is similar as for atherosclerosis. Inflammations are common.
Comfrey, hawthorn berries and St. Johns wort can be used externally here in a lotion, compress or poultice. Garlic contains compounds that prevent clots forming. Buckwheat and other rutin-rich herbs can strengthen vein walls. Nettle tea improves circulation as previously mentioned elsewhere, as will yarrow.
Anything that reduces the circulation can cause varicose veins – the name given to veins that are twisted, enlarged and swollen. Most are usually found on the legs, often due to a weak heart unable to return the venous blood from the lower body without the leg muscles pumping. They can also appear anywhere in the body.
Horse-chestnut specifically strengthens capillaries and can successfully be used here. Diuretics such as dandelion and yarrow may be needed and have been traditionally used for this condition.
Plants containing high concentrations of flavonoids are well known for their beneficial effects on the circulation system.
Hawthorn berries will help to maintain circulation to the extremities, relieving cold hands and feet. Horseradish, bilberry and rosemary are all noted peripheral circulatory stimulants. Ginger and cayenne pepper (Capsicum spp) are other more exotic specifics for this condition. Horse-chestnut’s action generally strengthens the capillaries, improving circulation.
Rubefacient remedies increase local blood flow and are applied topically. Horseradish, garlic, and peppermint are all examples of rubefacient herbs.