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Regulates blood pressure, reduces angina pain

The hawthorn, a small thorny tree belonging to the rose family, has long been a symbol of hope — ancient Greek brides carried it on their wedding day. Herbalists have kept it in their repertoire for thousands of years, but only since the turn of this century has it been explored for a truly hopeful purpose: to heal the human heart.

The small reddish fruits of the hawthorn tree are used as food in many countries. In the 19th century, an Irish doctor included them in a "secret remedy" for heart disease. His discovery was popularized in the 1890s by a group of American physicians known as the Eclectics, who used hawthorn preparations to treat cardiac troubles such as weak heartbeat and angina. It seems they may have been onto something.

Over the past 80 years, research on both animals and people has confirmed that hawthorn has positive effects on the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system, probably through the action of plant pigments called flavinoids.

Hawthorn seems to work in two main ways, according to Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. "First, it dilates the blood vessels, especially the coronary arteries that nourish the heart muscle. This may help lower blood pressure and reduce angina," he explains. When the arteries dilate, or open wider, pressure throughout the blood vessel system is lowered — just like opening the nozzle wider on a garden hose. "Second," says Dr. Tyler, "hawthorn seems to have a direct positive action on the heart itself when taken over the long term. Apparently, it's a mild and harmless heart tonic."

So why aren't more people using hawthorn? In Germany they are. German pharmacies carry three dozen hawthorn preparations, both prescription and nonprescription, to treat heart-related ailments, says Dr. Tyler. There, hawthorn is recommended to treat very mild cases of circulatory disorders or is used in addition to therapy with stronger heart drugs such as digitalis.

Don't Doctor Your Own Heart

Given these observations — plus the fact that hawthorn has no record of dangerous side effects — why shouldn't the millions of Americans with heart and blood vessel problems take hawthorn pills and extracts, which are available in health food stores?

Because with cardiovascular problems, there's no good reason for self-doctoring, say herbal experts. "People who dose themselves usually do so because they've diagnosed themselves — and with a vital system like the heart and blood vessels, that can be a very dangerous thing to do," warns Dr. Tyler. "For this reason, I don't recommend self-treatment with hawthorn."

"Don't fiddle around with the heart," warns Norman Farnsworth, Ph.D., director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and himself a heart attack survivor. "There are well-established synthetic drugs available for cardiac trouble, and some herbal products could possibly interact with them. Taking them along with prescription medications wouldn't be wise — I wouldn't do it myself."

If you're already under a doctor's care for heart or blood vessel problems, you might ask about adding a hawthorn preparation to other forms of therapy — but don't be surprised if your doctor is unfamiliar with the herb. Most American doctors don't know hawthorn. And if you take any prescription heart medications or blood pressure drugs, play it safe — avoid adding any herbal remedies to the mix, advises Dr. Farnsworth.

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