Cardiac Herbs: Beyond Hawthorn


When I was starting to develop the ABC+D charts for the Tree of Light Institute, I was really stumped when I hit the circulatory system.  Although heart disease is the number one killer in North America, my understanding of the various patterns of imbalance in the heart and the remedies that would correct them was extremely limited. 


To illustrate what I am saying, stop for a moment and think about how many herbs you know that work on the liver, nerves or kidneys.  I'll bet that most of you could rattle off a half dozen potential remedies for each of these body systems.  For instance, we have cornsilk, dandelion, juniper berries, uva ursi, marshmallow, horsetail, hydrangea, parsley and kava kava for the kidneys, and those are just the singles.  In contrast, think of how many herbal remedies you know for the heart.   I'll bet you'll have a hard time getting past hawthorn.  A lot of people would list garlic and capsicum, but these aren't specific heart remedies—their primary effect is on peripheral circulation.



Not that hawthorn isn't great.  It is a wonderful cardiac tonic—strengthening the heart muscle, helping to improve coronary circulation and lowering blood pressure.  A slow, safe and gentle remedy, it can be used over long periods of time to help prevent heart disease or to strengthen and improve cardiac function after heart disease has occurred.



But hawthorn isn't the “cure all” for problems with the heart.  Of  course, we also know that there are many formulas which can benefit the heart.  We also have nutrients like vitamin E, Co-Q10 and magnesium and a lot has been published on these nutrients.  But, I'm an herbalist and I know that nature provides numerous remedies for every ailment that afflicts mankind.  So what are our other herbal options for the heart?



Fortunately, I've been able to expand my understanding of our cardiac materia medica (herbs that work on the heart) over the past few years.  Unfortunately, a large percentage of our heart remedies are potentially toxic and/or hard to obtain.  Nevertheless, I have benefited from my research and I'm going to share what I've learned with you.



I don't really expect you to be able to find or use all of these remedies, but I do hope to expand your awareness that nature has provided us with numerous possible remedies for various cardiac problems.  Hopefully, as people become aware that more options exist, these options will become more readily available in the marketplace, even if some are only available via prescription from a competent herbalist or naturopath.



vBefore I give you my list, however, I want to say something about toxic botanicals.  Most of our toxic botanicals lie somewhere between the extremes of gentle, prevention-oriented nutritional remedies and today's potent and isolated drugs.  I believe that there is a place for crisis medicine and that often plants (or plant compounds) are more compatible with our bodies than synthetic drug compounds that are not found in nature.  While toxic botanicals must be administered with skill and care, there are extremely safe ways to dose them and I believe they have fewer side effects than their drug counterparts. 



Still, I don't recommend that any of you run out and try to use any of the toxic remedies on my list without proper guidance and supervision.  The only toxic botanicals I've personally tried are ones where I've had training from skilled herbalists who know exactly how to use them.  So, please pay careful attention to any warnings given in the following list.


And now, without further ado, here is a list of the cardiac herbs I've been able to locate.  Enjoy the adventure.


Ailanthus or Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)


This is a tree I learned about in the field botany classes I took in my late teens.  It is native to the Middle East and my botany teacher called it the tree of heaven.  It has been used for cardiac palpitations.  It is toxic, and I don't have a source for it or instructions on how to prepare or use it properly, so I've never tried it.


Arjuga (Terminalia arjuna)


This plant has been used in Indian (Ayrvedic) medicine for over 3,000 years and is just starting to appear in the West.  It is a traditional remedy for heart failure and edema.  It has also proven beneficial in some cases of angina and poor coronary circulation. It can benefit the heart rate and rhythm in some cases and appears to have a normalizing effect on heart rate and blood pressure, as conflicting studies suggest in can both increase and decrease each of them.  Modern research also shows that arjuga helps lower cholesterol.  It is not toxic. I have been able to source it and have tried it on a client with tachychardia, but, unfortunately, it did not prove helpful.  I'm looking for more opportunities to experiment with it.


heart-leaf-arnica.gifArnica (Arnica montana)


Arnica is most frequently used as a homeopathic remedy for bruises and swelling. However, it has also been used internally for cardiac problems in very tiny doses. It is specifically used for weakness of the heart with angina.  In large doses it causes blisters in the digestive tract, so even though I have it, I've limited my use of it to the topical applications.


A closely related species of arnica, known as the heart-leafed arnica, grows here in the West.  It contains a potent cardiac drug and has heart-shaped leaves.  I've made a tincture of this Western species and have even used it in a formula I made for tachychardia (in a very tiny amount).  I want to find some of the flowers and make a flower essence, since I have an intuitive hunch I worked out with Matthew Wood.  We believe the flower essence will help to heal a bruised heart, and we want to try it.  Just haven't been able to get into the mountains at the right time to gather it.



Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)


Black Cohosh has been so badly pigeon-holed as a female “estrogenic” remedy in modern herbalism that we totally fail to utilize this herb to its full potential.  The eclectic physicians mixed lobelia with black cohosh for cardiac neuralgia.  This is an intermittent condition with a feeling of tension and a dull aching in the chest that may also involve sudden spasms and sharp pain in the chest.  I have seen these symptoms on a number of occasions, so I find this information very useful.



Black cohosh also helps calm a rapid heart rate where there is little tension in the arteries.  It slows the heart rate while increasing arterial tension and the force of the heart.  Lobelia also does this.  It can also help an over-dilated heart or a fatty heart.  Black cohosh can also help to reduce high blood pressure that is associated with nervousness because it relaxes the blood vessels and increases blood flow to the head.  In large doses, however, it causes too much blood to flow to the head resulting in dizziness or a vaso-dilative headache. 



Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius)


This bush is a member of the pea family and grows wild all over the Pacific Northwest.  It is a powerful (and potentially toxic) remedy that should only be used under careful supervision.  I have used it as part of a formula to induce labor because it is oxytocic and estrogenic, making it abortifacient in early pregnancy. 


The herb is sympathomemetic, which means that it stimulates or increases the sympathetic nervous system.  Since the sympathetic nervous system helps regulate the heart rate, increasing it and strengthening it, this remedy taken in excess can cause tachychardia (rapid heart beat).  It is one of the herbs I used to prove my thesis about ADHD being a parasympathetic overload and a sympathetic deficiency.  Like ephedra, tiny doses of this plant actually calm down ADHD sufferers. 



This herb is reported to act on the electrical conductivity of the heart, slowing and regulating transmission of nerve pulses.  This makes it useful for atrial and ventricular fibrillation, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and extra-systoles and post infectious myocarditis (inflammation of the middle walls of the heart muscle) with arrhythmia. It is possible to obtain this remedy, but it needs to be used carefully.  I have used it successfully with a few clients.


Bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus)


Bugleweed helps with heart palpitations and arrhythmias that are caused by a hyperactive thyroid.  It works well in combination with motherwort and lemon balm for this purpose.  I have used it successfully in these cases.


Cactus or Night-Blooming Cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus)


This is not the nopal cactus we use for diabetes.  It is a different species that has a history of use as a nontoxic, cardiac remedy.  It is indicated where there is a high systolic blood pressure with a low or normal diastolic blood pressure.  It is also reported to be helpful for problems with the heart valves, where they are progresively becoming less efficient or having a back flow (mitral or aortic regurgitation).   It has been used in combination with bugleweed, echinacea and poke root to treat endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart).   I have it, but I've had almost no one muscle test for it.


Coleus (Coleus forskohlii)


Coleus contains a substance called forskolin that has been shown to lower blood pressure and relax smooth muscles.  It also increases output from the thyroid gland.  It is an ornamental plant, commonly found in nurseries and sold as a ground cover for shady areas or planter boxes, with very colorful leaves.  A native of India, it has been used there to treat congestive heart failure and poor coronary blood flow.  When the heart does not get a good supply of blood, there is a lack of oxygen to the heart and diminished waste removal from heart tissue.  This is called ischaemic heart disease and coleus is very helpful here.  It also increases circulation of blood to the brain.  This is a very safe, non-toxic remedy, suitable for long-term use.


Corydalis ( Corydalis ambigua)


Known as yan hu suo in Chinese medicine, this herb is used for pain caused by blood stasis.  It improves blood flow to the myocardium (middle layer of the heart composed of the cardiac muscles) and relieves angina.  It is a non-toxic remedy.


Dan sheng root (Salvia miltiorrhiza)


This Oriental red sage has been used in China to assist patients who are recovering from heart attacks.  Clinical trials in China show it is even more effective in preventing heart disease.  It has been esteemed in China for thousands of years as a circulatory stimulant.  It opens the arteries and improves blood flow to the heart making it useful for ischaemic heart disease.  It is helpful for angina associated with hyperviscosity (thickness and stickiness) of the blood and elevated blood lipids.  It is often combined Dong Quai to help move stagnant blood.  It is also non-toxic.


Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)


This toxic botanical is used for a weakened heart, where the pulse is rapid, but is soft and weak. Blood pressure is low and there is edema.  The skin is white and shiny.  I have no source for this remedy (and it is toxic) so I've never had occasion to use it.