By Amanda McQuade Crawford
February is American Heart Month – a time to take stock of our cardiovascular health and change the way we approach healthy living.
If you’re living a “natural” lifestyle, you’re already better off than the “processed foods” masses.
Learn more about living a more heart-healthy lifestyle in 2014!
Because February the 14th is a big day for sales of chocolate (Theobroma cacao), it is great to remember that a little dark chocolate supplies antioxidant polyphenols and flavonoids, with mood-boosting properties. More than a source of caffeine; just 2 cups a day of hot chocolate improved thinking for people with some cognitive decline.
Published in August 2013 in Neurology (1.), the small study showed chocolate spurs blood flow to parts of the brain (neurovascular coupling) so tasks the person is working on can be solved more readily. It is worth noting that processed commercial cocoa mixes don’t share the healthy properties of cocoa powder made into high quality food and drink.
Also, research suggests cocoa seeds and powder may lower risk of stroke and lower blood pressure. Improving overall heart health means balancing the fats and sugars in chocolate with exercise and a healthy lifestyle. Following the money, we also note Mars funded the research, so common sense suggests we don’t use this study to justify laying into candy bars. But other studies agree, a little goes a long way to easing stress while nourishing the healthy heart.
Another medicinal plant that is not so delicious is from the Ayurvedic tradition of India: Coleus forskohlii. Not the same as the ornamental, multicolored plant familiar as a houseplant, Coleus contains forskolin, which lowers blood pressure within a healthy range in two important ways. Extract of the whole roots dilates narrowed blood vessels and strengthens the force of the heart’s pumping action without apparent additional stress on that muscular organ of circulation (2.).
In experimental research using injections of purified forskolin it was found that people with congestive cardiac failure experienced improved heart health (3., 4.). Further research is necessary to determine how taking the extract orally works in larger populations. It tastes pretty acrid so tablets are more practical than tea or liquid forms of the root. Coleus, an antispasmodic, is also traditionally used for asthma. Purified forms have been studied and found promising when used topically in the eyes for glaucoma.
Our third herbal medicine for heart health is Ginkgo biloba. This beautiful tree has survived for about 200 million years according to the fossil record. It thrives even in polluted cities today, and holds the promise of great vigor for our elders, too. Though Ginkgo has been the subject of volumes of research, we have still much to learn about how its medicinal properties help humans.
The prized inner seed of the fruit from female trees is a delicacy in China, though the leaves (the part used today) do not have a traditional history of human use until the 1960’s. A concentrated extract was found to have flavonoids that strengthen blood vessels in addition to having free-radical scavenging (anti-oxidant) effects.
A master tree at survival, the female fruit drops such an off-putting smelly fruit that irritates any animal brave enough to eat it, that the delicate seeds are able to sink into the ground each season in hopes of germinating. The leaves have no odor or taste to speak of, though they are slightly astringent and sour. It was once feared in conventional medical circles that the blood-thinning property of ginkgo extract might interfere with standard anticoagulant drugs (for example, warfarin), used with heart patients.
This misconception has been laid to rest with more recent research (5.). Over the years, Ginkgo has been given to different types of people to understand its effects on memory, peripheral artery disease, and poor vision. Since the herb extract has been studied in such different kinds of people (healthy young, or ill and elderly), results have been mixed.
The safety profile is good, yet it is always recommended that anyone taking other supplements or prescriptions consult with their care provider when choosing to experience this botanical symbol of robust longevity.
Natural Heart, Natural Health
Naturally, taking herbs for heart health begins with lifestyle: foods such as fruits and vegetables high in fiber, less table salt, healthy fats from seeds, nuts, avocados and smaller portions of animal protein, along with regular walking and exercise the person enjoys rather than endures. Joy is part of a holistic prescription in this month of celebrating and nourishing a healthy heart.
About Amanda McQuade Crawford, M.A.
Amanda McQuade Crawford, M.A. is an herbalist and clinical psychologist practicing integrative health care in Ojai, serving Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
Amanda is an invaluable resource when it comes to natural health remedies, and has authored several popular books on the subject, including The Natural Menopause Handbook, Herbal Remedies for Women and more.
1. F. A. Sorond, S. Hurwitz, D. H. Salat, D. N. Greve, N. D. L. Fisher. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology, 2013; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182a351aa
2. Lindner E, Dohadwalla AN, Bhattacharya BK. Positive inotropic and blood pressure lowering activity of a diterpene derivative isolated from Coleus forskohli: Forskolin. Arzneimittelforschung. 1978;28:284–9.
3. Baumann G, Felix S, Sattelberger U, Klein G. Cardiovascular effects of forskolin (HL 362) in patients with idiopathic congestive cardiomyopathy—a comparative study with dobutamine and sodium nitroprusside. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 1990;16:93–100.
4. Kramer W, Thormann J, Kindler M, Schlepper M. Effects of forskolin on left ventricular function in dilated cardiomyopathy. Arzneimittelforschung1987;37:364–7.
5. Bone, K. M. Potential interaction of Ginkgo biloba leaf with antiplatelet or anticoagulant drugs: What is the evidence? Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008;52:764–71. [PubMed].