Reclaim Health Autonomy!

Forage for cardio-vascular herbs and reclaim your health.

An occasional series of foraging for health autonomy begins with herbs that benefit your cardio-vascular system.

In case you were wondering…I’m no Medicinal Herbalist, but I am qualified in medicinal horticulture, including plant chemistry, plant constituents, and their actions. 

A physician is one who pours drugs of which he knows little, into a body of which he knows less” ~ Francois Voltaire

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 better health you are in. Although, saying this, 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.

Atherosclerosis

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:

  • Smoking

  • Elevated cholesterol levels

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Physical inactivity

  • Obesity

Garlic is the prime remedy here. Others include hawthorn berries, yarrow and lime flowers.

Arteriosclerosis

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.

Angina pectoris

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.

Thrombosis

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.

Varicose veins

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.

Poor circulation

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.

Foraging hawthorn

Foraging hawthorn for heart boosting medicinal food

Crataegus monogyna / C. leavigata 

Hawthorns Rosaceae family

When you are out in the hedgerows foraging hawthorn, you are face to face with a truly remarkable tree. Hawthorns are the plant mainly responsible for the success of numerous acts of enclosure here in the UK, from the 14th century onwards.  This plant is one of the reasons that I, and most other people living in the British Isles, are landless

As common a tree as you can get, these spring flowering, summer-beckoning mainstays of the hedge, offer us unique nutritional and medicinal benefits.

image of haw berries, one of the prizes of foraging hawthorn
Haws are one of our native superfoods, and foraging 2 kg hawthorn berries doesn’t take much time.

The hawthorns will easily be found mostly anywhere up to altitudes of 600 metres, classically as a principle component of a hedge (from which it derives its name – the word haw being a corruption of haeg, from the old English for hedge).

They love the edges of woodlands and can often be found on waysides and roadsides, as well as in little groves in some districts. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places, as can be seen by the large numbers of amenity plantings.

A number of the 250 Crataegus species able to be grown here carry larger and far tastier fruits, and some have documented scientific evidence supporting their medicinal use in China and India.

However, it makes sense to concentrate here wholly on our two native plants. Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus leavigata are almost identical and offer us very similar medicinal benefits so we can use either one interchangeably.

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. This could be in allusion to the dense hard-wood found in hawthorns or, as recent science has discovered and you are about to, the potency of the medicine found in hawthorns to strengthen the heart muscle and blood supply. The species name monogyna reveals the fact that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna). C.laevigata in contrast, has more than one seed in the fruit.

As with many of the rose family, these plants have oval-shaped leaves, albeit in hawthorn’s case deeply-lobed and with serrated margins. The midland hawthorn typically has leaves without such deep lobes, and grows mainly in the northern reaches of Europe. C.monogyna on the other hand, is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East.

Hawthorn flowers are unmistakably of the rose family, having five petals and numerous stamens. They often reveal a pink-red tinge on the stamens, and some varieties have pink petals.

Our native hawthorn’s branches are decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5 cm long. Both the infamous blackthorn and the less dangerous hawthorn will give you a very nasty sore from a puncture wound. Be extra vigilant when foraging hawthorn, especially in thickets and dense woods.

hawthorn spine and bud

The hawthorns are one of the first woodland species in leaf to herald the returning spring, following the blackthorn and elder tree. Within a couple of months or so of breaking into leaf, the swollen flower buds burst open beginning their spectacular display. The magnificent multitude of white flower clusters, are a signature of the hawthorn and of hedges in May.

When foraging hawthorn in the evenings during this time, the subtle yet pervading scent is easily caught on the wind. I think hints of almond can be deciphered amongst the sweeter tones, though it has been written that the midland hawthorn has blossoms emitting an odour of semen or rotting flesh! Beauty is in the nose of the beholder I suppose!

Some of the aroma is due to the methylamines present in the flowers of hawthorn and also found in some Sorbus species, such as the rowan tree. Other aromatics detected will be due to the bitter almond quality of the cyanogenic glycosides found in small amounts within many stone fruits of the rose family. 

Of the numerous hawthorn species which have beautifully-tasting berries, the University parks in Oxford contains an avenue of around 18 different species, which have an array of orange, scarlet, red, brown and black haws.blackhaws

Until you try some, you must take my word for their diverse array of aromas and flavours, ranging from subtle peach and apple to mild rose tones. It is possible that your local park will have hawthorns with similarly delicious fruits.

Ok, the common or garden haws are generally not superbly tasting from the hedgerow plants, due to their small size and tough living conditions, but they are more than palatable raw.

When ripe, they take on a creamy, somewhat avocado-like texture, which becomes drier, mealier and claggier when over-ripe. It has been written that ripe haws taste a little like sweet potato. Unripe flesh is a green colour, changing to a light creamy-yellow colour in ripe fruits. Over-ripe flesh turns brown. Certain trees from my experience, mainly with the darker duller red haws, give decidedly sweeter, and apple-tasting fruits than others.

Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.

Harvest Leaves and flowers in April and May. Berries from late September-November (dependent on species and location).

Key constituents Flavonoid glycosides (1-2% including rutin & quercetin) ; saponins; coumarin; cyanogenic glycosides; trimethylamine; condensed tannins (oligomeric procyanidins 1-3%).

Actions Cardio-tonic, hypotensive, vaso-dilatory. relaxant.

Pharmacology and uses One of the reasons that foraging hawthorn is a super idea is because hawthorn is a superfood.

They are literally everywhere, so it is no problem introducing them into your diet. Traditionally, this plant has been used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Hawthorns will thus help prevent these conditions.

The flavonoid molecules will expand the blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself. It is now well known to improve the nutrition, activity, energy reserves and energy release of the heart muscle. This and the power of the cyanogenic glycosides make hawthorn ideal for those people with either high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias.

An alcoholic extract of leaves and flowers has been proven to improve cardiac functions as well as reducing blood pressure, whilst not affecting heart rate! Through eating hawthorn berries it’s known that we stimulate increased performance of the anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful ‘free radical’ molecules.

Other anti-oxidants packed into these trees are in the form of oligomeric proanthocyanidins. These molecules were saluted by the mainstream press only a few years ago. Adverts sprung up in popular daily papers enticing us to pay lots of money for a few grams of exotic berries shipped from halfway around the world purely because they contained these medicinal compounds! Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of foraging hawthorn for free!

In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure.

Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. It may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides. Patients already on heart medication should seek advice before using.

One of the many delights of this and some other medicinal trees is that come the autumn and early winter, we can go back to the same trees we visited for leaves and flowers early in the season and then harvest the berries. Plus, you will have had another cardiac-strengthening walk under your belt!

The leaves are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always take the fresh palatable new leaves, rather than the tougher, far more fibrous and darker-green, older leaves. A number of tree species can give off a new spurt of growth around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the lammas flush. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.

Many books make reference to hawthorn leaves being called ‘bread and cheese’ by rural folk. Now, either our taste buds are completely different to a few hundred years ago, or country people were not eating much bread and cheese back then and were probably wishing they had some as they nibbled on hawthorn! Saying this, the young succulent leaves are lovely accompanied by a dressing and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris), carrot  (Daucus carota), and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).

IMG_1479

Every autumn I make a hawthorn ketchup from the haws, simply simmered in cider vinegar and a muslin bag of spices, for 45 mins or so, before straining through a sieve, adding molasses and muscovado sugar and some seasoning. It’s a stunningly delicious and simple sauce that livens up many a dish. Foraged food at it’s best!

As I write, the leaves of hawthorn are just starting to appear, so I hope you will see the benefits of going out and harvesting this super medicinal food! Next week, another monograph from another commonly found plant…Happy foraging!