A Natural Approach to Maintaining a Healthy Heart and Circulation
Cardiovascular disease, which affects the heart and/or blood vessels, is the leading cause of death globally despite being largely preventable. Conditions that fall within this category of disease include heart attack, stroke, angina, atherosclerosis (thickening of the arterial walls and narrowing of the arteries), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and thrombosis. Risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, stress, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, genetic predisposition and socio-economic disadvantage.
You can take action now to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle and by addressing any underlying problems with a little help from our herbal friends.
A healthy diet is vital in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. High dietary intakes of saturated fat, trans-fats and salt, and low intake of fruits, vegetables and fish are linked to cardiovascular risk. Frequent consumption of high-energy foods such as processed foods that are high in fats and sugars, promotes obesity and may increase cardiovascular risk. There is evidence that higher consumption of sugar is associated with higher blood pressure and unfavourable blood lipids, and sugar intake also increases the risk of diabetes mellitus.
Reduce saturated fats in your diet by eating very lean meat, and try not to have meat every day. Steer clear of processed meats like sausages, salami and pate, which are high in salt as well as saturated fats, and eat oily fish (tuna, salmon, sardines etc.) at least four times a week. If you don’t like fish, take a good fish oil (not fish liver oil) supplement. Use olive-oil spreads instead of butter or margarine.
Bulk out meals with lots of fresh vegetables or salads and increase your fruit intake – the government’s recommended ‘5 a day’ is actually the minimum requirement for maintenance of good health! A meta-analysis of the many studies of this issue was published in 2017 and found that consumption of double the minimum recommendation, i.e. 800g or 10 a day, provided an increased protection against all forms of mortality.
Foods that help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol include artichokes, garlic, soluble fibre (for example oats – porridge for breakfast- and pulses) and walnuts. Supplements such as Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), and Cinnamon (Cinnamonum zeylanicum) can also help reduce blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Co-Enzyme Q-10 supplementation is essential if you take statins because these drugs deplete this compound which is vital for all of our body cells, particularly in those organs with a high energy consumption such as the heart and brain!
Regular exercise is essential for good cardiovascular health. The risk of heart disease and diabetes can be reduced by almost a third in adults who participate in regular moderate physical activity each week. This assists weight loss and improves blood glucose control, blood pressure, lipid profile and insulin sensitivity. You don’t have to go mad, but aim for at least two twenty-minute sessions a day. Do something you enjoy or you’ll lose interest – e.g. brisk walking in a pleasant environment, dancing (join a class!), yoga, swimming, cycling, trampolining. Always exercise to the point where you are slightly out of breath.
Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacanthides), whose bright red berries contain flavonoids, cardioactive glycosides and vitamin C, is a fine heart and circulatory tonic. It can help lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate and it is used by herbalists in the treatment of angina, cardiac arrhythmias, or a weak or failing heart. The flavonoids and condensed tannin phlobaphene help to dilate the blood vessels, particularly those that supply blood to the heart, while the cyanogenic glycosides have a sedative effect, slowing the heart rate. Combined with herbs such as Ginkgo, Hawthorn can enhance poor memory by improving the cerebral circulation and thereby increasing the amount of oxygen to the brain. Hawthorn should only be used under qualified supervision by those taking other medication as it may increase the effect of other cardioactive drugs taken simultaneously.
Motherwort (Leonurus cadiaca) is another excellent heart tonic, and research has shown that it can calm palpitations, tachycardia and irregular heartbeats, particularly when there is underlying anxiety and tension. The glycoside component has a short-term ability to lower blood pressure.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and Cayenne (Capsicum minimum) are both stimulating circulatory tonics. By stimulating the circulation and improving blood flow to the extremities by dilating the blood vessels, ginger’s warming action is of benefit to those suffering from cold hands and feet, chilblains and Reynaud’s syndrome. Cayenne appears to reinforce the action of certain prostaglandins so as to markedly increase blood flow through all tissues of the body.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is currently one of the bestselling herbal medicines in France and Germany where it is taken by middle-aged and elderly people wishing to improve their cerebral circulation and memory. Clinical trials have demonstrated that ginkgo leaf is effective in the treatment of arterial insufficiency, particularly in the lower limbs (intermittent claudication) and brain (cerebral insufficiency). Patients with intermittent claudication showed significant improvements in pain-free walking time and maximum walking distance. Elderly patients with chronic cerebral insufficiency demonstrated a significant improvement of symptoms including vertigo, tinnitus, headache, short-term memory, concentration and mood changes. Ginkgo may also help alleviate male impotence where the underlying cause is impaired blood circulation to erectile tissue. It has a marked effect on the venous system too and is used to treat conditions such as varicose veins. Ginkgo has been shown to improve eyesight in senile macular degeneration and to neutralise the effects of oxygen free radicals produced in the eyes.
Garlic (Allium sativum) can help dilate the blood vessels, reduce blood viscosity, lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides, and help control blood glucose levels making it a valuable remedy in the treatment of atherosclerosis and high cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels decrease and high-density lipoproteins (HDL) increase, creating a favourable balance. It is also of value in the treatment of mild hypertension. Increased blood fluidity and vasodilation improves blood flow generally, benefitting anyone at risk of cardiovascular disease.
Varicose veins are caused by dilation of the veins of the lower limbs and damage to their valves, resulting in sluggish circulation and the backflow and pooling of blood which in normal circumstances would be efficiently ‘pushed’ back to the heart. Causes include excessive weight, high blood pressure, pregnancy, or a sedentary occupation. Symptoms include aching, heavy legs, distorted rope-like veins, fluid retention, and discoloured, flaking or itching skin. Haemorrhoids are varicose veins affecting the rectum, often the result of excessive straining due to constipation.
Both Witch Hazel and Calendula Ointment have an astringent, toning action, while Chickweed Ointment may help relieve itching. Ginkgo is considered to be of benefit in improving circulation in the lower limbs in particular; to stimulate the circulation generally, try Capsicum or Ginger. Super Rutin+ Buckwheat contains bioflavonoids to help tone and maintain the integrity of the blood vessels. Motherwort may help alleviate aching ‘heavy’ legs, and you have to stand or sit for long periods take regular breaks to move around. Restrictive clothing should be avoided. When at rest, keep your legs elevated; you may also find it helpful to raise the foot of your bed. Fluid accumulation may respond to natural diuretics such as Dandelion leaf or Lowater. Avoid constipation by adopting a high-fibre diet and drink lots of water. If you need a little extra help, try Psyllium Husk.
Aim to reduce stress – too much stress can affect an individual’s ability to cope, compromise the immune system, upset digestion and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Herbs can help reduce the effects of stress and restore emotional balance. Valdrian (Valerian officinalis) has been used for centuries to reduce tension, anxiety and over-excitability. Passiflora (Passiflora incarnata) is also helpful in the treatment of sleep disorders, irritability, anxiety, and spasm induced by nervous tension. Neurotone, a traditional remedy containing the herbs Hops, Skullcap and Valerian, helps relieve stress-induced symptoms too.
Regular exercise releases endorphins that help to lift your mood. Relaxation is important too, and techniques such as yoga or meditation will help induce feelings of calmness and restore emotional balance. Chamomile is a wonderfully gentle relaxant, and Melissa, another calming herb, is of particular value in the treatment of agitation, sleeping problems, melancholy and grief. Finally, you should consider takin a Vitamin B-complex supplement. The B-vitamins are essential for maintaining the health of the brain, nervous system, and the integrity of blood vessels. Depletion of B-vitamins is more marked in those who drink lots of alcohol or who suffer from stress.
The above information is for guidance only, and is not intended to take the place of diagnosis and treatment by a qualified practitioner. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or taking any other medication, you should seek advice from a health professional.