Herbs For A Healthy Heart

Cholesterol, poor circulation, and high blood pressure can prevent the heart from running smoothly. Thankfully, nature provides herbal remedies to support this vital life source and keep it running optimally.

When we talk about vitality in body, mind, and spirit, no organ takes center stage with more panache than the heart. Its rhythmic beating helps push blood through approximately 100,000 miles of blood vessels that weave through the body, delivering essential oxygen, nutrients, and compounds to cells, while picking up waste for the kidneys, liver, and lungs to filter and eliminate. It also functions as a center of emotion. When we snuggle up to a loved one, good vibes emanate from the chest, and when we suffer from extreme stress or loss, we often feel it in the heart. Simply put, the heart symbolizes the essence of life.

While life-or-death cardiovascular events require immediate medical attention, we can do a lot with herbs to improve the heart’s performance, manage chronic conditions, help heal from heart trauma {both physical and emotional}, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Heart Tonics

A few key categories of plant compounds benefit the heart, including anthocyanin and anthocyanidin – pigments that give berries, pomegranates, purple grapes, and red wine, hibiscus, and other foods and herbs their famous deep blue/purple/ red color and healing properties. These compounds have profound antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that protect the cardiovascular system from oxidative damage while also limiting the ability of fats in the blood to oxidize. They also improve the integrity of blood vessel {endothelial} lining. Oligomeric proanthocyanidins {OPC’s or PCO’s}, precursors to these pigments, are found in Hawthorn, grape seeds, and skin, pine bark, and Pycnogenol {a supplement derived from pine bark {Pinus pinaster} and other plants, including peanuts, grape seed, and witch hazel}.

Flavanols, another related class of antioxidant compounds, help keep the endothelial lining smooth and flexible. One of the reasons why cacao and dark chocolate are associated with cardiovascular health is the abundance of these flavanols. {Alas, chocolate candy companies funded the more “promising” cacao research, while less vested researchers have not had quite as impressive results.}

Meanwhile, sulfur-based compounds in pungent vegetables like garlic and onions help lower cholesterol and blood pressure while also providing an antioxidant effect. Heart tonics may not dramatically lower cholesterol or blood pressure, but they offer benefit modestly over time while also providing a multitude of other beneficial effects throughout the cardiovascular system. These tonics are best taken regularly and long-term, including as functional foods in the diet.

Hawthorn {Crataegus spp.} shines as the most heart-focused herb for a reason. It seems as if it benefits every single aspect of cardiovascular well-being. The berries, flowers, and leaves {some herbalists also include the thorny spring twigs} are rich in antioxidant compounds, including OPC’s.

hawthorn btanical artHawthorn improves circulation and blood vessel lining and helps to normalize blood pressure by dilating vessels and acting as a natural angiotensin-converting-enzyme {ACE} inhibitor. {ACE inhibitors help relax blood vessels.} The herb strengthens the heart muscle, improving its ability to pump blood efficiently, with strong research supporting its use in congestive heart failure. It may promote healing after a heart attack and relieve angina and mild arrhythmias.

It’s also a classic herb for the emotional aspects of the heart: healing heartbreak, quelling anxiety felt in the heart and opening the heart to love.

Hawthorn is not drug-like in its actions, though, and can take several months of regular use for its benefits to show, which may not prove fast enough in acute conditions. I prefer to take hawthorn as a concentrated, tasty solid extract, but standard methods also work; teas, capsules, and tinctures. It’s extremely safe and food-like, but it may interact with some medications by acting in synergy to increase their effects, including some blood pressure medications and possibly digoxin. If you’re working with a skilled doctor, they may be able to monitor and reduce your drug dose accordingly, but don’t change your medications without your doctor’s approval.

garlic botanical artGarlic {Allium sativum} contains potent sulfur compounds, including allicin, that help improve circulation by thinning the blood and breaking down clots and inflammation-related fibrin, thereby reducing cholesterol and lipid peroxidation {undesirable oxidation of blood fats that leads to atherosclerosis and increased risk for heart attack}. It also modestly reduces blood pressure. I think of garlic as a remedy that cleans the blood and blood vessel linings so that everything flows more smoothly.

You can eat one or more raw cloves of garlic per day, best crushed and allowed to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before consumption. This allows allicin to transform into its more potent form. You may still get some benefits from cooked garlic. Garlic tinctures, capsules, and other remedies provide another option. Some companies even make low-odor or odor-free pills if you’d rather not ward off vampires and coworkers with the metallic scent of garlic pouring from your breath and skin.

Note that therapeutic doses of garlic may increase bleeding, interact with blood thinners, and should not be taken before surgery or if you have a bleeding disorder. Some sensitive people get skin irritation, stomach upset, and gas from garlic.

Hypertension Support

Many things can cause high blood pressure, including serious conditions like kidney disease and preeclampsia that require medical attention. Even everyday hypertension can create wear and tear on the kidneys and increase the risk of stroke. Herbal and natural therapies tend to work best in mild to moderate cases of hypertension, and some people simply do not respond well enough to the herbs and need medication. Nonetheless, there are some promising antihypertension herbs to consider.

Minerals, including potassium, calcium, and magnesium, play an important role in maintaining blood pressure, and you may find that taking a multi-mineral supplement and eating more mineral-rich herbs {nettle, dandelion, burdock, parsley} and foods {vegetables, especially green leafies} keep your blood pressure in check. Limiting sodium, especially sodium-based additives in processed and restaurant food, and eating five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily can also prove extremely helpful for controlling high blood pressure.


Hibiscus {Hibiscus sabdariffa} is a specific species of hibiscus with an anthocyanin-rich flower calyx that you can steep to make a blood-red, tart tea. Hibiscus has long been a popular ingredient in teas – sweetened and sipped as “Rosa de Jamaica” tea in the Caribbean and in North America as a key ingredient in commercial berry “zinger” and fruit-flavored teas. Recent research has found it’s one of our more impressive antihypertensive herbs, boasting a strong safety record. In several human studies, hibiscus has performed as well as popular hypertension drugs, including lisinopril, captopril, and the diuretic hydrochlorothiazide. The herb also seems to reduce cholesterol, triglycerides, urinary tract infections, and blood sugar, and may even modestly aid weight loss.

You do need to drink relatively large amounts of the herb to lower blood pressure: steep 10-30 grams {up to 1-ounce} of the dried flowers in one liter {approximately one quart} of water for 30 minutes or longer and sip in divided doses throughout the day. While generally safe, it’s a tad corrosive to tooth enamel due to the fruits acids {not unlike lemon water} and may have very mild anti-fertility effects.

The herb rooibos has also been shown to benefit hypertension and heart health and can be blended into the tea as well.

Herbal Diuretics: We’ve long used diuretics medications safely to lower blood pressure, and we can also turn to diuretic herbs for similar but much milder effects. Eating four ribs of organic celery per day, fresh or juiced, offers diuretic and blood vessel dilating effects. Dandelion leaf and root have sodium-leaching diuretic properties that work fabulously for some people – but not at all for others. Interestingly, my mentor, herbalist Michael Moore, noted that dandelion is more effective for people of Latin America decent, and I’ve also found this to be true. The related chicory and burdock roots seem to act similarly, and you can combine all three roots into a tasty coffee-like tea.

Parsley, a relative of celery, is both mineral rich and diuretic. While parsley and celery seeds are more potent, they can also irritate the kidneys more so than the stalks and greens.

Cholesterol Support

When your cholesterol and triglyceride levels soar, first start by scrutinizing sugar and carbohydrate intake, overall excess calorie consumption, and lack of exercise. Excess sugars in the bloodstream are packaged up with fat to make triglycerides, which ultimately increases your LDL and other “bad” cholesterol, including very low-density lipoprotein {VLDL} formation.

Limit simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, as well as bad fats from factory-farmed animal products and fried foods. Eat more vegetables; protein {especially plant protein}; and “slow burn” low-to-moderate glycemic high-fiber foods {which include oats and whole grains. beans, apples, and pears for their pectin, and nopales, a tasty Mexican prickly pear cactus}.

An increase in exercise also helps by burning sugar for fuel and improving insulin sensitivity of the cells. Also look to bitter-tasting and blood-sugar balancing herbs. Besides the two herbs mentioned below, also consider cinnamon.

Artichoke leaf {Cynara scolymus} is one of the best-researched herbs in the category of “bitters” for high cholesterol and related issues, including blood sugar and obesity. Its strength lies in reducing LDL cholesterol and fasting blood glucose levels while also increasing good HDL cholesterol levels.

Because artichoke leaf is so intensely bitter, you don’t want to drink it as a tea. Take it as a tincture {tasting it increases the benefits} or capsule {still effective}. Excessive amounts may cause stomach upset and nausea, and it’s best taken with food to limit stomach upset and hypoglycemia.

fenugreek botanical art

Fenugreek {Trigonella foenumgraecum} is among our best-researched herbs for controlling blood sugar and diabetes, and these benefits translate to triglyceride management, as well. While most of the early research involved large quantities of the fiber-rich ground seeds –  two 25 gram doses per day {if poured into capsules, this would mean 50 pills a day} -other studies have found benefits with lesser quantities as well as with extracts. In one study of people with type 2 diabetes, those who consumed 10 grams per day of the powdered whole seeds had significantly better fasting blood glucose, hemoglobin A1c, insulin, total cholesterol, and triglycerides compared to those taking a placebo, even though LDL and HDL cholesterol did not change significantly. A similar study found that fenugreek reduced VLDL cholesterol and that it worked better when added to hot water rather than yogurt.

Fenugreek imparts a maple fragrance to the urine, but this is harmless. If you have type 1 diabetes or take insulin and other blood-sugar regulating medications, work with a healthcare practitioner to ensure that you safely introduce fenugreek without inducing hypoglycemia.

Circulation Support

Herbs like gotu kola, ginger, garlic, rosemary, and very small amounts of cayenne or prickly ash increase blood flow.  Think of ginger, cayenne, and prickly ash if you’re chronically cold with poor circulation to the hands and feet.

The others improve the quality of blood vessel lining, making them smoother and less prone to breakage. The pigments and precursors we discussed as heart tonics – blue berries, gotu kola, dark purple grapes, Japanese knotweed roots, and hibiscus – work well for this.

Other beneficial herbs include horse chestnut, yarrow, and again gotu kola, which are often used for vascular insufficiency, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids topically and internally and may also help prevent deep vein thrombosis {DVT}. Herbs that thin the blood and help break down clots and fibrin include ginger and garlic. Be very careful combining these herbs with medications, and work with a practitioner if you take pharmaceuticals, as serious herb-drug interactions could occur.

Gotu-Kola-ExtractGotu Kola {Centella asiatica} has many uses and is probably better known for its stress-relieving adaptogenic, nerve tonic, and brain-boosting effects, as well as its ability to improve the healing and integrity of various types of tissues in the body {gut lining, skin, collagen, blood vessels}.

In addition to these benefits, gotu kola has a gentle yet profound ability to improve circulation and the quality of blood vessel lining, decreasing the risk of breakage and sluggish blood. Studies show benefit in venous hypertension, ankle edema, foot swelling, chronic venous insufficiency, varicose veins, post-thrombotic syndrome following DVT, and in preventing circulation issues on long flights. Most of the studies have focused on a specific standardized extract od gotu kola called “total triterpenic fraction of Centella asiatica {TTF-CA},” with higher doses {120 to 180 mg} achieving better results, though this extract product does not appear to be commercially available. When buying gotu kola tincture or capsules, follow the label’s dosage recommendations.

You can consume crude gotu kola in relatively large quantities – fresh leaves are commonly eaten as food in the plant’s native lands – and long-term use is recommended. You may not see benefits for one or more months, but the long flight study of TTFCA did note improvements when taken just two days prior to flying.

Gotu kola is generally safe, though it may modestly inhibit fertility and interact with a few medications. Quality on the market varies, and because it favors sewage and sludge-like growing conditions, contamination with fecal bacteria poses a concern. Purchase organic gotu kola from reputable companies or grow your own.

Gladden the Heart

While it may seem “hippie-dippy,” people have used herbs to ‘gladden the heart” for centuries. It goes back to the concept of the heart as the emotional center of the body.

These herbs uplift the spirits and boost the sensation of good vibes emanating from the heart. They’re useful when your heart feels heavy if you’re broken hearted, need to open your heart to others {or yourself}, or are overcome with grief. These herbs tend to be rich in essential oils, engaging the senses in a variety of aromatic and tasty ways to lift your spirits.

rose illustrationRose blossoms, particularly the rosy-scented heirloom and wild species, are one of my favorite herbs in this category. The aromatics of rose have cardiotonic properties and work best as a sprinkle of rose petals in a tea blend, a glycerite or honey extract, a cold water extract steeped for several hours, a flower essence, or simply a bouquet on the table. Also, consider them for the workaholic who needs to stop and smell the roses.

Linden blossoms have a delicate yet heady aroma of honey, and although very little research exists, we often turn to linden for stress-related hypertension and to gladden the heart. Europeans often sip tea made from this fragrant herb.

Holy basil is another favorite of mine. The leaves and flowers have diverse health benefits, including anti-inflammatory qualities as well as “calm energy” adaptogenic, nervine, and cognition-enhancing properties.

Motherwort’s aerial parts harvested in flower are less obviously aromatic, but they do target anxiety that manifests in the heart –  the kind of panic that makes you feel like you’re having a heart attack, palpitations, or tachycardia – though it also has mild mood-boosting properties.

Because it’s so terribly bitter, we usually take motherwort fresh in tincture form, but you can also make an extract in vinegar or glycerine if you want to avoid alcohol.

Lemon balm bridges the benefits of its relatives holy basil and motherwort and makes for a tasty and soothing tea to feed the heart.