Rather than lowering cholesterol or blood pressure directly, herbs work on the tissues of the heart and blood vessels to tone, relax, support and strengthen. Herbal medicine also acts on the microcirculation – the tiny network of blood vessels that supplies each and every cell of the body – an area of physiology that has been almost completely overlooked by modern medicine.
High blood pressure
It is natural for the blood pressure to increase slightly with age, and holistic medicine does not seek to maintain all patients' blood pressure within a certain predetermined range. However, high blood pressure beyond normal limits, combined with other risk factors specific to the individual, is treated seriously and from all angles.
As with most chronic states, it is important that dietary and lifestyle factors are tackled first, even before herbs are introduced. These include good aerobic exercise, reducing salt and sugar intake, limiting caffeine, and getting enough calcium, potassium and magnesium in the diet. Research has shown that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can lower blood pressure, and fish oil has also shown to be beneficial.
Stress is often an element with high blood pressure, whether the person ‘feels’ stressed or not. Meditation techniques can be really helpful here – using something like the Calm app is often a great way to start incorporating this practice into a busy life. The benefits of finally ditching that job, ending an unhealthy relationship or achieving other types of emotional closure can also not be overstated.
Herbs mainly act on the blood vessels by relaxing and dilating them to reduce pressure, and on the heart by slowing and strengthening contractions. The most commonly used herbs here are hawthorn, garlic, Coleus forskohlii, mistletoe, valerian, lime flowers, motherwort, yarrow and cramp bark. Diuretics like dandelion leaf and celery seed may also be used. In my practice I’ve had great results with these herbs - in addition I recommend a specific diet & herb combination to support the microcirculation.
Saturated fat and cholesterol are no longer the enemies of properly trained cardiologists. There has been much research over the last few years concluding that healthy people with high cholesterol and no family history of heart disease should not need to take steps to reduce their cholesterol levels - indeed, having good levels of cholesterol is associated with lower mortality rates. Cholesterol only poses a problem in certain cases and this is rectified by statin treatment in men, whereas the risks seem to outweigh the benefits of statin treatment in women.
It is now thought instead that the main cause of cardiovascular disease is inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which can be safely and effectively brought down by a healthy, whole food diet, regular exercise, happiness and fulfillment.
Herbs can of course help here as most herbs have an anti-inflammatory action, some greatly more than others. Garlic, for instance, contains hydrogen sulphide, a powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and blood vessel relaxant. Garlic also lowers plasma fibrinogen, which has an effect on blood clotting, and lowers cholesterol too, though not as severely as statins. Garlic also supports the immune system and prevents respiratory infections, which have been linked to acute coronary syndromes.
Herbs can also help to stabilise plaque in the artery walls, preventing rupture – the key aspect to preventing heart attacks. Gotu kola and possibly hawthorn have this effect.
Turmeric, globe artichoke and barberry also have potent anti-inflammatory, blood sugar regulating and liver protectant effects, which further help control the risk factors.
Chronic disorders of the venous system include varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency, characterised by swelling in the limbs with skin changes or leg ulcers.
These problems were once thought of as disorders of the valves, but it now seems changes also take place in the connective tissue in the vein walls.
Although there are few options for correcting established varicose veins, herbal treatment aims to maintain good connective tissue tone so as to improve the strength of the veins and prevent further problems.
Diet is, as ever, important - fruits & vegetables are rich in flavanols that protect the vein walls and berries are particularly rich in protective plant chemicals.
Regular movement is recommended, as well as sleeping or resting with the legs elevated. Elastic stockings may be useful, and cold showers or cold water applied to the legs from the knee down also helps stimulate circulation.
Aesculus hippocastanum (horsechestnut) is a key herb that increases venous tone, and can be applied topically on unbroken skin. Herbs that stabilise connective tissue and protect the microcirculation include bilberry, Ginkgo, grape seed, pine bark and gotu kola. Gotu kola and bilberry have proven clinical benefits in venous insufficiency.
General circulatory tonics are also given to improve circulatory function, such as yarrow, rosemary and turmeric.