Herbal Therapy & the Cardiovascular System

Herbs still maintain a central position in orthodox medicines treatment of various heart problems. Plants that contain cardiac glycosides are used throughout the world for the treatment of heart failure and some arrhythmia’s. In such conditions these herbs increase the strength of heart beat, and normalize the rate of beat. Their real value lies in the increased efficiency not necessitating an increase of oxygen supply to the heart muscle. In heart problems there is often a deficiency in blood supply because of blockage in the coronary arteries. It is not just Foxglove that has such valuable actions. Lily of the Valley shares its therapeutic value but has fewer side effects and lower toxicity. However, herbal remedies nurture the heart in deeper ways as well. Consider the cordial, a warming drink and a word for heart-felt friendliness. The original cordial was a medieval drink based on Borage that warmed the heart and gave the person HEART.

The Medical Herbalist recognizes a broad range of relevant herbs for the cardiovascular system. As a group they are known as cardiac remedies. This is a general term for herbs that have an action on the heart. Some of the remedies in this group are powerful cardio-active agents such as Foxglove, while others are gentler and safer cardiac tonics such as Hawthorn and Linden Flowers. Cardio-actives owe their effects on the heart to active substances such as cardiac glycosides, thus having the both the strengths and drawbacks of these constituents. Cardiotonics have a beneficial action on the heart and blood vessels but do not contain cardiac glycosides.

Primary Actions for the Cardio-Vascular System

Cardiac Tonic: Hawthorn

Cardio-active: Lily of the Valley, Scots Broom, Bugleweed, Figwort

Circulatory Stimulant: Cayenne

Peripheral Vaso-dilator: Prickly Ash, Ginkgo

Hypotensive: Linden Blossom, Mistletoe, Garlic

Hypertensive:Scots Broom

Diuretic: Dandelion leaf, Yarrow, ‘Cardio-actives’

Vascular Tonic: Horsechestnut, Buckwheat, Ginkgo

Nervine: Motherwort, Linden Blossom, Valerian, etc.

Anti-spasmodic : Cramp Bark, Valerian

Lifestyle & Risk Factors

Half the annual mortality in Western society results from heart and blood-vessel diseases and so any contribution that herbal medicine can make to its treatment is to be welcomed. Heart disease is often the result of an inappropriate life style; stress, diet, belief system, alcohol etc. etc.. Preventative measures are by far the best, but are people willing to change? This raises questions that herbal medicine cannot answer!

The origins of heart disease are complex and confusing. Some of the factors involved are well known and can lead to clear guidelines for possible prevention, but simplistic statements about saturated fats or jogging can be misleading. A number of factors that contribute to the scourge of heart disease have been identified and as many of the pathologies that assail the cardiovascular system share these components, similar preventive strategies apply as well.

  • Age & Sex

    The older an individual is the more likely they become to develop cardiovascular disease. Thus the risk of heart attack is 4 times greater for a man of 50 than a man of 30. Such problems are unusual in pre-menopausal women although after menopause the incidence in women is the same as for men.

  • Heredity

    The tendency towards developing a range of CV diseases appears to be at least in part inherited. Such a family history should strongly suggest taking appropriate steps with diet, stress and herbal tonics.

  • Diet

    Whole forests have been turned into pulp to provide paper for articles about cholesterol, polyunsaturated fats, and heart disease. Anyone trying to read them all, or even trying to follow the broad arguments, invites a hypertensive crisis!

    From the wealth of research done, it has been shown that heart disease has definite links with dietary fat, raised blood cholesterol, raised blood pressure, smoking, obesity, short stature, and under activity. The precise role of these factors is unclear, but enough is known to formulate general guidelines about a possible-preventive diet. Something that is certain is the involvement of fats. While the so-called saturated fats may be the ‘worst’, it seems that it is an over-preponderance of all fat in the total diet that is at fault. The details are becoming understood, but the more that is discovered, the more multi-factorial it all becomes.

  • Tobacco

    The death rate from heart disease is 300% higher in smokers than in non-smokers in North America. What more needs to be said?

  • Alcohol

    Whilst a small amount of alcohol occasional may actually be beneficial for the circulatory system (due to vaso-dilation), there is no doubt that alcohol abuse is a major contributing factor in heart disease.

  • Stress and Personality

    An association between a particular type of personality and heart disease is recognized. Researchers have shown that there is a difference in the risk of developing heart disease between people with two extreme types of behavior.Type A behavior is characterized by a chronic sense of time, urgency, aggressiveness (which may be repressed), and striving for achievement. They drive themselves to meet deadlines, many of which are self-imposed, have feelings of being under pressure, both of time and responsibility, and often do two or three things at once. They are likely to react with hostility to anything that seems to get in their way and are temperamentally incapable of letting up.

    Type B behavior is characterized by the opposite traits., being less preoccupied with achievement, less rushed, and generally more easygoing. They are less prone to anger and do not feel constantly impatient, rushed, and under pressure. They are also better at separating work from play, and they know how to relax.

    There is much debate about the value of such personality typing, the details of which do not concern us here. The important thing is the association of types of behavior with disease development. However, we need to bear in mind that there are not two types of people! Each person is an individual, and while it may sometimes be useful to sort people into artificial categories, these categories do not identify them.

  • Socioeconomic factors

    Social and economic factors are associated with an increased risk of heart disease; however, the findings tend to vary according to the society being studied. Some studies emphasize high risk in upper socioeconomic groups, while others emphasize the opposite. Some evidence suggests that class variation disappears when the degree of physical activity is taken into account. High-risk factors include:

    • social mobility involving a change of environment, e.g. moving house or changing jobs.

    • social incongruity, which is an inconsistency in people’s status relevant to their life situation.

    The relatively low occurrence of heart disease in women appears to be due to psycho-social rather than biological factors. Men are more likely to have an exaggerated striving for dominance and to use work as a major outlet for aggression, and so are more exposed to particular stresses and conflict and are more conditioned than women to “controlling” emotions when dealing with this conflict.

  • Life Events

    Particularly stressful times in a person’s life act as possible danger points in stress-related problems such as heart disease. When these stressful times are identified, it is possible to take them into account and plan ahead. This makes it possible to manage and lessen the impact of these stresses on health and well-being. There points of increased stress, called life events, in everyone’s life. These are especially relevant in the development of conditions such as angina and heart disease.

David L. Hoffmann BSc Hons MNIMH Written by David L. Hoffmann BSc Hons MNIMH

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