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Hawthorn berries, also known as haws, mayblossom, thornapple, and mayflower, are readily available and have an array of potential health benefits. The berries, flowers, leaves, and bark are all used in traditional preparations. All varieties of the hawthorn tree are related to apples and roses. Many varieties, including the Common Hawthorn, are native to Europe and are naturalized across the rest of the world, growing wild and as domesticated hedging plants. There are, however, also many native varieties. In fact, according to George Symonds’ unrivaled book, Tree Identification Book: A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees, there are approximately 1,000 species and subspecies of Hawthorn in North America alone. And thankfully, they are all edible, so when you’re out foraging, you simply need to know what you’re looking at is a hawthorn. Therefore, when I’m foraging hawthorn berries, I don’t worry about the specific species. If it’s growing strong and producing beautiful berries, I pick from it, whether it’s native or naturalized, it’s wild, free food and medicine. You can read more about how to forage hawthorn berries and what to do with them in our “How to Forage Hawthorn Berries” article and our “How to Make Hawthorn Tincture” post.
I should also point out that the seeds of hawthorn berries contain cyanide – just like their cousins–apples. But you’d have to eat a huge number for them to do you any harm. Besides, when you make a tincture or stew the berries for teas, you don’t actually eat the seeds anyway, so there’s no harm there. Hawthorn berries, flowers, and leaves are packed full of nutrients and micronutrients, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds, and they’ve been used as medicine for thousands of years, as well as food. The main use of hawthorn is in cardiovascular care, and in some cultures, it’s known as the “heart herb”. It has other health benefits too, including immune support, digestive support, relief of some skin complaints, and reducing some mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Let’s take a look at some of the health benefits of hawthorn.
A Little Bit of Hawthorn History
Hawthorn is one of the oldest recorded medicinal plants, with its use documented as far back as the first century AD. These early records show hawthorn prescribed for the treatment of heart problems, both physical and emotional, by Ancient Greek physicians like Dioscorides, while the Ancient Egyptians employed this plant in the treatment of digestive complaints. Traditionally, all parts of the plant are used – the flowers, berries, leaves, and bark. Recorded usage of this healing plant can be found throughout history all over the world, and many of the conditions it was used to treat, including heart problems, respiratory complaints, anxiety, digestive complaints, and inflammatory issues are the same health conditions hawthorn is used to combat today.
Why Is Hawthorn of Benefit?
Many studies have been conducted, and it seems that the Ancients were right – hawthorn is so effective in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases and as a preventative, that it’s regularly prescribed as a standardized drug by doctors across much of Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. This medicinal plant contains an array of beneficial properties, including a high percentage of powerful antioxidant flavonoids. Here are a few others:
- Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins
- Pentacyclic triterpenes
- Acantolic acid
- Neotectonic acid
- Euscapic acid
- Caffeic acid
- Vitamins B1, B2, C, and E
Benefits of Hawthorn for Heart Health
One of the primary benefits of hawthorn is its heart-healthy properties. It is non-accumulative, nontoxic, and not habit-forming, so it’s a great choice for long-term cardiovascular care. Of course, it’s not a miracle cure and needs to be used in conjunction with a healthy diet, the right level of activity, and stress management.
Hawthorn berries contain antioxidant compounds that act as powerful vasodilators – in other words, they open your veins and arteries, helping to prevent adverse tightening or narrowing of your blood vessels, and keeping your blood pressure in check. It’s well-known that maintaining moderate blood pressure has a significant role to play in the prevention of heart disease. In a 2002 study on volunteers diagnosed with high blood pressure, half of the test subjects were given a 500mg hawthorn extract and a 600mg magnesium supplement daily. The other subjects were given placebos. After ten weeks, the study reported that there was a significant reduction in diastolic blood pressure in the group taking the real supplements. Incidentally, this same study reported a substantial improvement in mood and reduction in feelings of anxiety.
Heart failure describes a serious medical condition where the heart isn’t strong enough to pump the right amount of blood to the other organs. Hawthorn has been used to treat heart disease for hundreds of years and, because of the long history of successful treatment, and all the anecdotal evidence accrued over this period, a large number of scientific studies have been conducted on the efficacy of hawthorn on heart disease. And the results are clear. Multiple studies published in Pharmacognosy Review indicate that hawthorn berries significantly improve cardiac function and that this abundant wild plant has a negligible incidence of side effects. Further studies show that hawthorn is particularly effective in the treatment of heart failure in stages one and two. The beneficial compounds in hawthorn, including flavones, promote a strong, healthy cardiac rhythm, significantly improves heart cell metabolism, and boost the function of cardiac enzymes, enabling the heart to better withstand stress. Multiple studies agree that regular doses of hawthorn extract improve symptoms of congestive heart failure, including tiredness and shortness of breath. Another experiment which saw patients take 900 milligrams of hawthorn extract daily for two months, found that this natural preparation was as effective as its pharmaceutical counterpart.
Angina and Ischemic Heart Disease
Ischemic heart disease is a serious complaint where the arteries are narrowed, resulting in less oxygenated blood reaching the heart, and this condition often causes angina pectoris, although some people suffer from silent ischemia which does not produce the pain of angina. Because of its diverse array of beneficial compounds, hawthorn can help to treat and prevent angina and ischemic heart disease, which is caused by low blood flow to the heart, according to the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge. Hawthorn improves blood flow by acting as a dilator on the coronary blood vessels, opening them up to optimize flow rate. The publication further describes how hawthorn actively helps the body to expel excess salt and water and strengthens the heart muscle. Both of these hawthorn health benefits would also aid in the treatment or reduction of angina symptoms. The Journal of Herbal Medicine and Toxicology describes how the presence of hawthorn’s proanthocyanidins reduces tension in the blood vessel walls, reducing the risk of angina and other cardiac conditions.
A study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that hawthorn lowers LDL cholesterol, reducing lipids in the blood. As well as decreasing LDL, or bad, cholesterol, the hawthorn extract also boosts HDL, or good cholesterol levels. These findings are further indications that hawthorn can reduce the risk of cardiac diseases.
Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular disease where the arteries harden or become clogged with plaque, which is deposits of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other things. With the obstructed arteries comes increasingly restricted blood flow. This disease can also cause heart attacks and strokes. A study published in the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis found that hawthorn significantly reduced atherosclerotic plaques and the increased antioxidant activity from this supplement reduces free radical damage, dilates blood vessels, and decreases damaging triglycerides.
Other Impressive Hawthorn Health Benefits
Hawthorn isn’t just good for your heart – it’s great for the rest of you, too. Take a look at some of the other amazing health benefits of hawthorn.
We now know that inflammation is the root cause for most major diseases, and thankfully for us, hawthorn is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It’s full of antioxidants, which scavenge free radicals that cause damage at a cellular level, including damage to our DNA. Antioxidants intercept and pair with free radicals before the free radicals can cause damage. This increase in antioxidants also reduces inflammation, which is great for your general health as well as helping to reduce the risk of many other diseases and conditions.
Unsurprisingly, because hawthorn is such a complex powerhouse of compounds, many of them are good for your digestive health. They boost your gut flora to improve digestion and act as protectants for your digestive system, as well as increasing nutrient uptake. Additionally, the high fiber content helps to relieve constipation and bloating. Further evidence indicates that hawthorn can help to kill off intestinal infections, including parasites like tapeworms.
A reduction in inflammation, increased nutrient uptake from the gut, and antioxidant action all help to give your immune system a boost. This is compounded by the high Vitamin C content of hawthorn, along with Vitamins B1 and B2 and other nutrients including iron, calcium, and phosphorus.
Anxiety and Depression
Another traditional hawthorn remedy is for the relief of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Ancient civilizations used hawthorn as a cure for a broken heart, and it is still used today as a folk remedy or as a natural treatment for anxiety, depression, and stress. In fact, during a study on the effects of hawthorn supplements as a treatment for hypertension, special mention was given to the fact that anxiety levels decreased in the hawthorn group, whereas the placebo group’s anxiety remained the same. It is believed that hawthorn balances hormonal levels, why is why it relieves these symptoms.
And a Few Other Benefits of Hawthorn
As we’ve already discussed, hawthorn dilates the blood vessels, increasing blood flow and therefore improving circulation. A larger quantity of oxygenated blood travels around the body at an optimal pace. When your body is properly oxygenated, you feel more energized, your metabolism works at its optimal level, and your cognitive skills improve. And, lastly, you feel better in general, thanks to all of the amazing compounds and nutrients in hawthorn.
Remember, I am not a doctor, and I’m definitely not suggesting that you just randomly self-diagnose a heart condition and try to treat it yourself. The information here is for educational purposes only. If you suspect you suffer from any of the conditions mentioned in this article, it’s important that you seek the advice of a medical professional. It’s also crucial to note that hawthorn can potentially interact with other medications, so be certain to consult with a medical professional to check your existing medication won’t negatively interact with any hawthorn supplements. And don’t take hawthorn whilst pregnant or nursing without speaking to a healthcare professional first.
How to Include Hawthorn in Your Diet
There are plenty of supplements and tinctures out there – and high-quality ones are a great choice if you are just starting out with natural remedies and you need a regulated dose. If that’s the case, hawthorn supplement capsules would probably suit you best. You can also buy the dried berries and hawthorn powder, making the dried berries into tea, and incorporating the powder into smoothies and baked goods. However, there are also plenty of ways to incorporate hawthorn into your diet at home. Remember, you can use the leaves, flowers, and berries. You can also use the bark, but that’s not for the beginner. Hawthorns grow abundantly throughout most of the word, so you can forage the flowers in spring, the berries from fall through to early or mid-winter, and the leaves from spring until they fall from the trees in early to mid-winter. You can make a tincture using an alcohol base or, if you’re avoiding alcohol, make a hawthorn tincture with an apple cider vinegar base (this is the organic one we like to use) or a vegetable glycerin base. You can also make hawthorn syrup easily enough, or turn it into hawthorn pastilles. Alternatively, get your dehydrator out and dry the berries completely, storing in a dry, sterile container, and using to brew hawthorn tea up to three times a day. Hawthorn also freezes well, so you can wash your foraged berries, flowers, and leaves, and store in the freezer for up to six months. There are lots of ways to use and preserve hawthorn, which I’ll explore more in my Ways to Use Hawthorn post. If you’ve got any questions, please do contact me or just leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you asap!
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