Our heart beats so that we can thrive. And everything we think and feel affects its strength and integrity. Many plants and trees can assist us in our quest to sustain our heart’s vitality. Hawthorn is one. People refer to it as a heart tonic, or strengthener, and it is. But the leaves, flowers and fruit support far more – the body-wide effects of hawthorn point to a great interconnectedness between our internal systems.
Hawthorn provides nourishment the heart needs to flourish, and strengthens this muscle. It is the basis for part one of this two part series. In part two, I will address how to support the heart with nutritional supplements and food, essential oils, herbs, and other tools for healing the emotional and spiritual body.
The Heart Affects the Whole
Our heart muscle works harder then any other muscle. Pumping up to 35 billion times in a lifetime, it is the constant rhythm that keeps us in our bodies, and moving through our lives. It beats so that every cell thrives, and does their best to support us in our life’s work. It also communicates to us how we feel by reacting to messages received from our mind. When the heart is stressed, so is the rest of us.
Think of your mind as the nervous system and body’s conduit to the outside world. When our mind reacts and our emotional body is stimulated, our heart is affected as well. Whether anxious, euphoric, happy or sad, the rhythm of the heart can become disrupted, increase in speed, or stay steady and calm.
Our heart can also be affected by dietary habits that cause internal distress. Here are a few things to consider.
- Consistent consumption of foods high in saturated and hydrogenated fats may lead to inflammation and a build up of plaque in the artery walls to create blockages, and put one at greater risk for a heart attack.
- Foods dense in saturated fats may also lead to high cholesterol, and a compromised liver.
- Consuming over-processed foods that are high in salt, without regard to proper mineral balance, stresses the kidneys and may cause high blood pressure.
- A stressed heart means less blood being pumped into the lungs, and less oxygen in the blood
Physical and emotional factors do not solely determine the health of the heart. Inherited deficiencies and disease compromise us, making it our life’s work to learn, accept and teach lessons of the heart. In this work, our heart afflictions become a tool to help us transmute energy and change, allowing us to fully integrate life lessons and put them into action.
This work of transmutation brings us to the realm of spiritual healing; an inherited health issue can also be seen as an ancestral wounding, which historically is addressed through ritual and shamanic work. Or the heart can suffer “soul loss” – in times of stress we can lose the spiritual counterpart of a body part or organ system. I have seen more and more clients with this type of loss. When a part of the heart is lost, one is more prone to fear and agitation. One will cower and feel weak when challenged. And the energy body that surrounds and buffers us will buckle a bit when emotionally triggered; unable to withstand the weight of what is affecting us.
We need to be of sound body, mind and spirit to protect and strengthen our heart. One cannot deny the repercussions of poor dietary habits. Nor can we shrug off our spiritual wholeness or how emotional stress affects organ system function. Our heart will reflect back these states. It is therefore important to nourish it in many ways, and give this hearty muscle a break. When we work to support a heart to thrive, we thrive as well.
Hawthorn’s Namesake and Origin
The hawthorn tree is of the Roacea family, the same family as the rose. There are hundreds of species of hawthorn, some of them considered invasive, such as the Creataegus mono. I will refer to three species native to North America that are considered to be medicinal. Crataegus chrysocarpa and erythropoda, which are found in moist canyons in the west and southwest, and C. douglasii, which is found predominantly in the Northwest, but has also been noted as far east as MI.
The name hawthorn comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘haegthorn’, meaning hedge-thorn. It is considered a tree, but due to its small stature, it was used in Europe as a hedge shrub. Crataegus is derived from the Greek word, ‘kratos’, meaning hardness, ‘oxus’, sharp and ‘akantha’, for thorn. This translation reflects the fact that the wood is very hard, and the tree is covered with long sharp thorns.
Hawthorn can reach a height of 10-15 feet, and live for up to 250 years. The leaves are fan shaped, about 1-2 inches long, and are toothed at the edges. Species of hawthorn native to North America can have thorns that reach a length of 1-4 inches, making it a bit difficult to harvest. But to offset the trees prickly nature are the sweet flowers. They blossom in May or early June, with berries to follow in late summer.
Appropriately, hawthorn has both a thorny and sweet history. The Greeks believed it to be a symbol of hope, and carried branches of hawthorn in wedding processions. The Irish believed if you cut down a tree, horrible things would happen to you and your family. Pagans, because the tree flowered in May, used it as an emblem for spring rituals associated with May Day. But the most well known story of the hawthorn has to do with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ. For hawthorn is believed to have been the tree that provided that crown, leading many to tout hawthorn as a strong spiritual ally.
Traditional Use of Hawthorn by Native Americans
Hawthorn as a medicine has been used for thousands of years, for similar purposes cross culturally. Native Americans found a use for nearly all parts of the tree, to provide food, tools, and medicine.
Hawthorns fruit, referred to as the hips, was considered food, yet was also used as medicine. Dried berries were good for stomach complaints and constipation, while fresh were infused and drunk for bladder troubles.
The leaves’ anti-inflammatory properties were found useful chewed and applied as poultices externally. Infusions were taken internally for the same purpose.
Infusions of twigs, and small branches were used for specific ailments; twigs were indicated for pain in the side associated with bladder problems, and small branches for stomach complaints, to improve circulation, and prevent muscle spasms.
Tools were made from the thorns, sticks and bark. The spiny thorns made excellent pins, and hooks. Sticks served as digging tools for harvesting other roots. And bark was burned by hunters to attract deer.
Western Medicinal Use of Hawthorn
While the first eclectic doctors, herbalists, and naturopaths of our country had access to international and historical information on plant use, they also learned from the native people of our country. We can appreciate their ability to fuse the information to form new and more complete ideas about how plants are used. We have an opportunity to do the same today. I will talk a little more on that later.
The parts of hawthorn used for medicine today are the flowers, leaves, twigs, and the berries, know as the hips. The leaves, branches and flowers are harvested in the early summer, while the hips are harvested before the first frost. There is some disagreement as to whether the berries are as effective as the leaves and flowers. There are instances where I find myself reaching for the berries alone, a decision based on individual circumstances, and intuition. But most herbalists, myself included, use a tincture of all parts.
Specific Indication of Use
There are specific indications that distinguish the use of hawthorn in disease and deficient states which are widely known and recognized: heart weakness with pain, angina, valve insufficiency, murmur, varicose veins, hypertension, early arteriosclerosis, and weakness from lung infections.
But there are many ways to assess when an herb should be applied. When I first became a practicing herbalist, I was drawn to the Eclectic physician John William Fyfe M.D.’s 1903 text, The Essentials of Modern Materia Medica and Therapeutics. His work made an impression on me. I felt that in addition to the standard applications, Fyfe’s suggested that hawthorn could be effective for ailments associated with a weakened heart, not merely a diseased one.
Unusual symptoms that could therefore warrant the use of hawthorn were anxiety, nervous indigestion with constipation or vertigo. Some more common symptoms were swelling of hands and feet with exercise, exhaustion from mental or physical exertion, excess of phosphates in the urine, and palpitations.
Hawthorn and the Heart
Hawthorn is a circulatory stimulant, tones the muscle that is the heart, and acts as an anti-inflammatory, thereby normalizing arrhythmias and regular heart function where there is deficiency and disease. The high flavinoid content makes it a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, thus increasing its ability to re-instill and maintain cell wall integrity. It has also been observed to relieve pain associated with angina.
When someone suffers from Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), the damaged heart is unable to pump blood effectively. Congestion builds up in the lungs and circulatory system, leading to edema, decreased circulation, insufficient urine output, and inflammation. With the stress, the heart becomes enlarged, and its need for oxygen increases, yet supply cannot keep up with demand.
There are many studies which prove hawthorns effectiveness in cases of CHF. In a double blind study, hawthorn berry was used for 8 weeks on patients diagnosed with CHF. It safely decreased incidence of shortness of breath, ankle edema, and fatigue. Patients also reported to have felt a “better sense of well being”. It was concluded that it was an effective remedy, and was safe to take over time with no side effects.
Other double blind studies have exhibited hawthorn’s antioxidant effect, ability to reduce inflammation, increase circulation, and tighten cell structure, specifically in the arterial walls and heart muscle. It has proved to reduce cholesterol levels, thereby decreasing plaque buildup on arterial walls, and relieve high blood pressure. Patients had fewer incidences of blood clots, a decrease in respiratory infection, and fewer occurrences of heart failure.
It is important to note that to be effective, hawthorn needs to be used consistently for a long period of time. Luckily, it is safe to do so with this herb. As always, please check contraindications and consult a medical practitioner or a trained alternative practitioner.
The heart’s increased strength allows it to more efficiently pump blood into the lungs. This has a positive effect on oxygen available to us, and increases essential nutrients for use. Its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects have also proved hawthorn to be an effective supporting herb in cases of asthma, chronic lung disease, and recuperation from acute illness of the lower respiratory tract, such as bronchitis, pneumonia and pleurisy.
Hawthorns effects may be felt throughout the body. The burden on the urinary tract is lessened by improving heart health. It also increases small capillary circulation and has anti-inflammatory effect, thus making it supportive to kidney function. It is calming, thereby bringing balance to energy output, giving our nervous system and adrenals a break.
Old Information Applied In New Ways
Disease has evolved to keep up with our modern day bodies. And so must herbal medicine. I believe hawthorn will be found useful in cases of untreatable vertigo, as a digestive aid for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and afflictions of the colon, as well as certain types of anxiety. I also believe hawthorn to be an excellent herbal ally for those suffering from Alzheimer’s/Dementia, as has been discovered in Iranian studies.
The kicker, though, would be as an effective treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). If one takes into consideration the symptom picture of CFS, pairs it with Fyfe’s specific indications for hawthorn, and ponders the history of hawthorns use, the role of heart deficiency in CFS may become more apparent.
The heart plays an important role in body-wide function. And how we consume food, information and energy affects our heart health. Hawthorn is one of the single most beneficial herbs that we can take to strengthen our heart and body while we make changes in our consumption. Remember, though, that it is our assistant, not our crutch, and must be accompanied by our willingness to do things differently.
In part two of this series, I will describe additional ways to support heart health, as mentioned in the introduction. I will address the heart as our connection to the world around us, and make a case that our heart is a key effort to improving our quality of life.