Picture the year 40 in 1st century AD. Caligula is in charge of the Roman empire, failing to invade Britain. Germanic tribes are beginning to settle in eastern Europe. The codex is beginning to replace the scroll. There is an average age of thirty-five, though people of that time could and did live into their sixties, provided that they survived infancy, childbirth, and war. Approximately around then, Dioscorides was born. While Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine, Dioscorides of the first century is considered by both western European and Islamic medicine to be the father of drugs. Though, of course drugs as we think of them now didn’t exist back then- what he really did was develop a system for cataloguing reactions and effects of botanical medicine. Picture an herbalist 1500 years ago who profoundly changed the way that we use medicine.
Dioscorides was a physician in that time who first wrote down the usage of Hawthorn (crataegus spp.) for the treatment of at that time- “stomach colic and diarrhea”. Interestingly, classical Chinese medicine also looks at hawthorn as a digestive herb. Over the centuries of use hawthorn has become much more strongly correlated to use as a cardiovascular herb. Recent studies show that it’s effective up to the New York Health Association category II for congestive heart failure, and that it decreases high blood pressure while lowering the “bad” cholesterol and raising the “good” cholesterol.
What Dioscorides didn’t put into his materia medica, the herb book that was used as a text for an impressive 1500 years, modern herbalists have fleshed out extensively in many more materia medicas and clinical botanical texts. Hawthorne has a solid place in strengthening the heart not just physically, but emotionally:
- Matthew Wood writes that hawthorn “improves the nutrition, activity, energy reserves, and energy release of the heart” and “lessens restlessness, irritability, anxiety and nervousness.”
- Dr. Sharol Tilgner writes that “hawthorn is indicated for irritable, nervous heart conditions related to an emotional heartache from disconnection with the spirit, in conjunction with weak or slow digestion”.
- Dr. Deborah Frances writes that hawthorn is “indicated for certain emotional states that lead us to close down our hearts”.
The emotional connection of this herb has emerged more in the last century, which is relatively recent compared to the centuries old history of use. I find this connection fascinating, particularly as science has focused more on gut/brain connections. The nourishment that leads to increased blood flow to the heart makes logical sense, particularly given the constituents of flavonoids and oligomeric procyanidins found within the plant. We also know that gut health is profoundly tied to mental health and to nourishment- “gut feelings” are slang vernacular, but also based in truth as up to 95% of our serotonin is manufactured by the microbiome in our intestines. The modern diet disrupts serotonin production in a number of ways, and it’s plausible that hawthorn assists the digestive system both by providing antioxidants and by facilitating the way that the intestines absorb fatty acids.
Picture this. Present day, have you ever met someone who was depressed or just shut down following some emotional loss or grief, who doesn’t eat well, who has a history of maybe malnutrition, maybe just a diet that didn’t give them what they need to build neurotransmitters and muscle? This person might also have a high resting heart rate, skin that looks a little dry, some capillary flushing, and sluggish digestion with complications like hypoglycemia. They are probably also prone to coughs and other respiratory problems. In a conventional doctor’s office, they might walk out with an antidepressant, a heart rate control medication, a proton pump inhibitor or mild laxative and maybe an inhaler or allergy medications. None of those things are going to address the root of the issue, which are the emotional and nutritional pieces. Symptomatically, that patient might still feel better or at least be more able to function.
A modern herbalist would probably give hawthorn, because the plant is going to address not only the heart issues, but also the gut issues, the nervous system issues, and the emotional piece of the picture. The whole patient will feel better. I’ve seen time and time again a multifaceted improvement in the patients I’ve treated with hawthorn- from blood pressure and lipids that normalize so quickly that the ordering physician doesn’t believe how well a patient has improved to emotional responses in patients that brings a screening PHQ-9 depression score down significantly to patients who are suddenly able to sleep because their nervous agitation melted away.
Crataegus is the latin name for the plant, and using the latin helps everyone identify the right species of plant- though in this case, multiple species are used. It’s a bushy tree that grows particularly well here in the northwest, to the point where some consider it invasive. It is the first white flowering tree in spring, and in September it has bright red berries that are best harvested before the first hard frost of fall. The flowers, leaves, berries, and bark are all used medicinally.
Now, is hawthorn the miracle herb for everyone? Absolutely not. Herbs have a specific profile that they help, and not everyone needs hawthorn to help their broken hearts. If this herb is what a patient needs, hawthorn is a beautiful, safe, and good tasting herb that works very well.
Consult your doctor/ herbalist to see if this is a good herb for you before beginning any supplement.
Steven Ehrlich, NMD. University of Maryland Medical Center: complementary and alternative medicine guide. 2015. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/hawthorn
Sharol Tilgner, ND. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. P 102-103
Matthew Wood. The Earthwise Herbal: a complete guide to the old world medicinal plants. P 211-217
Deborah Frances, ND. Medical Herbalism, 1996. http://medherb.com/Materia_Medica/Crataegus_-_Mental_and_Emotional_Indications.htm
Siri Carpenter. American Psychological Association. That Gut Feeling. 2012. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling.aspx
Candace Hunter. The practical Herbalist. 2008. Hawthorn History, Folklore. Myth, and Magic. http://www.thepracticalherbalist.com/holistic-medicine-library/hawthorn-myth-and-magic/
Mahalia Freed, ND. Traditional Roots Institute. Hawthorne: Heart Healing from Physical to Spiritual. https://traditionalroots.org/hawthorn-heart-healing-from-physical-to-spiritual/
History references are from Wikipedia. Sorry, English 101 professor.