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Hawthorn (Crataegus species) is a small tree or shrub and a member of the rose family. It was hung over the doorway in the Middle Ages to prevent the entry of evil spirits. By the early 1800s, American doctors recognized the herb's medicinal properties and began using it to treat circulatory disorders and respiratory illnesses. Considered a "cardiotonic" herb or heart tonic, the flowers and berries of the hawthorn plant were used in traditional medicine to treat irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and heart failure. Hawthorn is commonly used to strengthen the heart.
Animal and laboratory studies report hawthorn contains active compounds with antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are substances that destroy free radicals -- damaging compounds in the body that alter cell membranes, tamper with DNA, and even cause cell death. Free radicals occur naturally in the body, but environmental toxins (including ultraviolet light, radiation, smoking, some non-prescription and prescription medicines, and air pollution) can also increase the number of these damaging particles. Free radicals are believed to contribute to the aging process (such as wrinkling) as well as the development of a number of health problems including cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants found in hawthorn may help stop some of the damage from free radicals.
Hawthorn is a common thorny shrub that grows up to 5 feet tall on hillsides and in sunny wooded areas throughout the world. In May its flowers bloom. They grow in small clusters, and are white, red, or pink. Small berries, called haws, sprout after the flowers. They are usually red when ripe, but they may also be black. Hawthorn leaves are shiny and grow in a variety of shapes and sizes.
What's It Made Of?:
Hawthorn contains many substances that may benefit the heart. However, it appears that two substances in particular -- flavonoids and oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) -- are most likely to contribute to hawthorn's beneficial effects on the heart. Flavonoids may help dilate blood vessels, improve blood flow, and protect the blood vessels from damage. Both flavonoids and OPCs have antioxidant effects.
The berries, leaves, and flowers of the hawthorn plant are used for medicinal purposes. The leaves and flowers are believed to contain more of the active compounds than the berries.
Medicinial Uses and Indications:
Today, many health care professionals use hawthorn to help protect against heart disease and help control high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Hawthorn has primarily been studied in people with heart failure (a condition in which the heart is unable to pump adequate amounts of blood to other organs in the body). Four studies conclude that hawthorn significantly improved heart function. There have found that the herb can improve a heart failure patient's ability to exercise. Patients have reported that hawthorn significantly improved symptoms of the disease (such as shortness of breath and fatigue). One study found that hawthorn extract (900 mg/day) taken for 2 months was as effective as low doses of captropril (a leading heart medication) in improving symptoms of heart failure.
A large study found that a standardized hawthorn supplement was effective in 952 patients with heart failure. The study compared conventional methods of treating heart failure (various medications) with hawthorn alone and in addition to the drugs. After 2 years, the clinical symptoms of heart failure (palpitations, breathing problems, and fatigue) decreased significantly in the patients taking the hawthorn supplement. The patients taking hawthorn also took less medications for their condition.
Animal and laboratory studies demonstrate that this herb has antioxidant properties that help protect against the formation of plaques. The buildup of these fatty materials in the blood vessels is called atherosclerosis. Plaque buildup in the vessels supplying the heart with oxygen-rich blood may cause chest pain (angina) and heart attacks, while plaque buildup in the arteries that supply blood to the brain may result in stroke.
Hawthorn berry preparations have been shown to combat chest pain (angina), which is caused by low blood flow to the heart. In one early study, 60 angina patients were given either 180 mg/day of hawthorn berry-leaf-flower extract or placebo for 3 weeks. Those who received the hawthorn preparation experienced improved blood flow to the heart and were also able to exercise for longer periods of time without suffering from chest pain.
Studies using rats suggest that a hawthorn tincture (made from the berries) may be a powerful agent for the removal of LDL ("bad") cholesterol from the bloodstream. The tincture of hawthorn berries also reduced the production of cholesterol in the livers of rats fed a high-cholesterol diet. More studies of hawthorn and cholesterol in people are needed.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that may trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
The American Herbal Products Association gives hawthorn a class 1 safety rating, which indicates that it is a very safe herb. Side effects are rare, but may include headache, nausea, and palpitations (a feeling of a racing heart). A recent review of 29 clinical studies with over 5,500 patients found that hawthorn was safe when used in recommended dosages. Doses found to be safe were from 160 - 1,800 mg daily and from 3 - 24 weeks in length.
Do not self-treat heart conditions without telling your doctor.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not use hawthorn.
It is extremely important for you to note any changes you feel while you are taking hawthorn. People experiencing more pain, more angina attacks, or more exhaustion while walking or exercising should stop taking hawthorn and seek immediate medical attention. Even if you don't experience any of these symptoms, see your health care provider if your condition hasn't improved after 6 weeks of hawthorn treatment. Your progress should always be monitored by your health care provider.
Possible Interactions: If you are taking prescription or non-prescription medicines, talk to your health care provider before taking herbal supplements. If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use hawthorn without first talking to your health care provider:
Digoxin - Hawthorn may enhance the activity of digoxin, a medication used for irregular heart rhythms.
Phenylephrine -- In a laboratory study, an alcoholic extract of hawthorn fruit counteracted the effects of phenylephrine, a medication that constricts blood vessels and is commonly found in nasal decongestant products. However, since this interaction has not been studied in humans, the relevance of this interaction to people is unknown at this time.
Crataegus laevigata; Crataegus monogyna; Crataegus oxyacantha; Hedgethorn
Reviewed last on: 1/21/2007
Ernest B. Hawkins, MS, BSPharm, RPh, Health Education Resources; and Steven D. Ehrlich, N.M.D., private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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