Sometimes called the Thorn Apple, there are over 1,000 different species and hybrids of Crataegus throughout the world. The two species most commonly used for medicinal purposes in Western herbalism are Crataegus oxyacantha (now known as Crataegus laevigata) and Crataegus monogyna.
The distinctive shrubs and small trees, which produce delicate flowers in the spring and bright red berries in the late summer, are native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Europe, Asia and North America. Both the berries (or ‘haws’) and flowers are used medicinally and all species of Crataegus appear to have similar healing properties.
Hawthorn has been known to decrease cholesterol because it inhibits the absorption of dietary cholesterol. Hawthorn has a direct action on the heart cells which results in an increase in coronary flow, an increase in the relaxation of the heart vessels, and anti-arrhythmic actions.
Atherosclerosis is caused by when low density lipoprotein (LDL), or ‘unhealthy’ cholesterol is oxidised causing plaques to build up in the arteries. These plaques narrow the passageway and ultimately affect the amount of blood flow to the heart. This can further lead to complications such as heart attack and stroke Scientists are currently investigating hawthorn’s bioactive compounds as a substance that can prevent the oxidation of “bad” cholesterol in the body.
Our heart beats every second of every day of our lives. In any day it pumps over 2,500 gallons of blood through our vast network of arteries and veins, delivering nutrients and removing waste products from our trillions of cells. Hawthorn is a powerful ally for our entire hard-working cardiovascular system.
Hawthorn is particularly helpful in treating heart conditions associated with ageing. Rich in antioxidant polyphenols, hawthorn appears to work by helping strengthen the heart muscle, reducing or preventing degeneration of blood vessels and improving blood flow by dilating the coronary arteries.
The three cardinal symptoms of heart failure which include fatigue, shortness of breath on exertion, and palpitations can significantly decrease when using a Hawthorn preparation. Hawthorn taken regularly may help to reduce feelings of tightness in the chest and reducing blood pressure. It may also help to induce a regular heart rhythm and acting as a beta-blocking and angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor. It also has a role to play in helping to control high blood pressure.
Hawthorn increases the heart muscles ability to contract while it gently relaxes blood vessels. The effect is that the heart pumps better and has less resistance to pump against. This is why hawthorn can help raise low blood pressure and reduce high blood pressure. Hawthorn relaxes the smooth muscles of the coronary artery walls and allows more blood to flow into the cells of the heart. This means more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to heart cells and waste products are removed. It is therefore supportive for acute conditions like angina or pain due to a lack of oxygen reaching the heart. According to herbalist Rudolph Weiss, Hawthorn is used in Germany for treating early stages of congestive heart failure with diminished cardiac function, a sensation of pressure or anxiety in the heart and mild arrhythmias.
Like other members of the rose family, Hawthorn is a gentle astringent. It contains tannins that help to tighten inflamed and irritated tissue. This correlates with its traditional uses including diarrhea and upset stomach.
Hawthorn fruits and flowers or “shan zha” are also used in Chinese Medicine for hypertension, as an astringent, and as a digestive aid for stagnant conditions. Hawthorn contains soap-like compounds called saponins, which can increase membrane permeability and help break down fats.
As Effective As Conventional Treatments
Some small studies suggest that Hawthorn can be as effective as conventional medications. One early German-language trial in 1994 compared hawthorn extract with ACE inhibitor captopril on 132 patients. Captopril is a medicine used to lower blood pressure, to relieve symptoms of congestive heart failure and to improve survival after a heart attack. Hawthorn seemed to have similar effects as captopril on measurements such as exercise tolerance, fatigue and dyspnoea. In addition Hawthorn extract does not trigger any adverse effects.
More recently in 2003 a study of 102 patients diagnosed with mild cardiac insufficiency showed that a preparation of Hawthorn improved several symptoms of cardiac insufficiency, a sign of congestive heart failure. In this case Hawthorn extract (900 mg/day) taken for 2 months was as effective as low doses of captopril (a prescription heart medication) in improving symptoms of heart failure.
At last, angina sufferers can greatly benefit from this herb. One study found that 100mg of Hawthorn extract taken 3 times a day decreased angina in 91% of the participants as opposed to only 37% in the placebo group. It is thought this effect is down to the ability of Hawthorn to increase blood flow to the heart by dilating both peripheral and coronary blood vessels.
Good for a broken heart, too
Hawthorn’s effect on the heart may not just be physiological. Though not well researched hawthorn is also used to help to treat sadness, for instance from bereavement and for low self-esteem. Symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, and sleeplessness may respond to supplementation with hawthorn.
The emotional experience of broken hearts and physiological experience of heart failure share a number of neurohormonal mechanisms and depression’s link to heart failure is well established. Most recently data has shown that loneliness can trigger the kind of inflammation that is linked to heart disease and other health problems.
Anti-tumour And Other Benefits
Research has shown that polyphenols derived from the fruit of the tree have anti-tumour activities on skin, indicating a potential use in preventing skin cancer. Scientists are also beginning to research the effects of Chinese Hawthorn on the inflammation that is a hallmark of liver disease. Preliminary animal and cell culture study results are promising; however more research is needed to determine if this therapy is viable for humans.
Hawthorn has an astringent effect which can be useful for diarrhoea and dysentery. It is sometimes recommended during the fluctuations of the menopause for debility or night sweats. Hawthorn also has a diuretic effect, which can help relieve fluid retention.
Hawthorn Berry Side Effects
The only drug that is known to possibly interact with Hawthorn is Digoxin and that is because it has similar actions on the body. Also since Hawthorn decreases blood pressure, people who are taking high blood pressure medication should monitor their blood pressure daily. People taking hawthorn should consult with their cardiologist before taking any herbal remedies.
Hawthorn has been consistently proven to be tolerated by patients with negligible side effects. There have been no signs of toxicity even when doses up to 1800 mg per day were used. Hawthorne shares the same action as Digoxin, but it does not have the side effects that digoxin has.
Hawthorn is generally very safe but if you are taking beta-blockers or digitalis it should be used only under the guidance of an herbal practitioner as it may have an ‘additive effect’ to these drugs that can result in a very slow pulse rate. Similar cautions apply if you are pregnant.
It can take a few months before you feel it’s full beneficial effects. As a general guideline try taking:
Dried herb: 1-2 teaspoons flowering tops, per cup. Drink three times daily.
Tincture: 1-2 ml standardised tincture daily in a little water.
Hawthorn and Heart Health: Hawthorn Uses
Today, Hawthorn is an official drug in the pharmacies of Brazil, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Switzerland. In fact, in Germany Hawthorn is on the formulary as an actual drug to treat congestive heart failure. Thousands of people throughout the world have used Hawthorn with good results.