The circulatory system

The circulatory system is the transport system of the body. It transports blood, which carries nutrients and oxygen to the cells throughout the body and removes waste materials and carbon dioxide from the cells. But we are not so much concerned with what it transports as the organs that facilitate the transport. Those organs are the heart and blood vessels.

The vitality and tone of the circulatory system is fundamental to life and to the integration of all parts of the body. If there is a weakness present then it will have a profound effect on the tissues and organs involved.

In our society the circulatory system is a common site for illnesses, often fatal ones, as in our lifestyle choices we often don't take sufficient care of our heart and blood vessels. Prevention of circulatory system problems is better than having to deal with the problems once they arise. However, there is still a lot that can be done if you do have problems and herbal medicine has a lot to offer in the healing of circulatory system problems.

It is important to note that if you have heart disease you need to be under the supervision of a health professional and that you should not cease your prescribed medication without supervision.

Herbs for the circulatory system

There are two main groupings of herbs for the circulatory system:

  • those that have a direct action on the heart, and
  • those that affect the peripheral blood vessels (that is, vessels of the limbs).

Herbs for the heart

The most important herbs for the heart include:

  • broom,
  • bugleweed,
  • figwort,
  • hawthorn,
  • lily of the valley,
  • motherwort and
  • night blooming cereus.

You will notice that foxglove has been left off the list. It is a plant derived medicine used extensively by orthodox medicine as an effective treatment for the heart. However there are marked dangers with this poisonous plant and therefore it has been left out. This does not mean however that there are no effective herbal remedies for the heart. Lily of the valley is one of these effective herbs. The danger of poisoning with lily of the valley does not exist as its glycosides have a unique chemical structure that ensures that they are usually easily excreted and do not build up in the body.

Lilly of the Valley

This herb can be used where the strength of the heart is insufficient, as in angina, or in the treatment of an aging heart. This is particularly the case when there are fatty deposits in the blood vessels.

Night Blooming Cereus

This can be use similarly to lily of the valley and is particularly useful where there is any change in the rhythm of the heart beat.

Hawthorn Berries

These are one of the most valuable remedies for the circulatory system. They strengthen the force of the contraction of the heart muscle while also dilating the vessels of the coronary circulation. They can be used in most circulatory problems as they will relax or stimulate the heart according to its need and normalise heart function.

Motherwort

This is a relaxing herb and for the circulatory system it will strengthen and normalise the heart function.

Broom

This herb strengthens and normalises the heart and also rids the body of any build-up of water that is due to insufficient heart strength. Care has to be taken though with this herb as it can increase blood pressure.

Figwort

This is a herb known for its treatment of skin problems but it also strengthens the hearts contractions.

Bugleweed

Whilst this herb increases the strength of the heart beat it also decreases its rate and is valuable as a relaxant as well.

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Herbs for the peripheral circulation

As was the case with the heart herbs there are also a number of herbs that are available for the improvement of the peripheral circulation.

The most important herbal agents for the circulation include:

  • broom,
  • buckwheat,
  • cayenne,
  • dandelion,
  • ginger,
  • hawthorn,
  • horsechestnut,
  • lime (linden) blossom,
  • mistletoe and
  • yarrow,

Some of these herbs are also heart tonics, while others stimulate the peripheral circulation (cayenne and ginger) and others are diuretics (yarrow). The actual herbs used will depend on the nature of the problems for a particular individual and the range of causes and contributing factors.

Diuretics

When problems with the circulatory system develop there is often the need to assist the body in the removal of water. When the heart is weak and fails to circulate effectively and insufficient blood is passed through the kidneys or when the blood vessels (particularly the veins in the legs) are weak, a build up of water in the body can occur. In such conditions herbal diuretics can help. These diuretics include:

  • broom,
  • dandelion,
  • lily of the valley, and
  • yarrow.

One of the most important diuretics for the circulatory system is dandelion. When any remedy is used to increase the function of the heart there is always the danger of causing a potassium depletion in the body - this would in turn aggravate the heart problem. Therefore whenever a diuretic is prescribed in orthodox medicine a potassium supplement is almost always added. However, when dandelion is used it already contains a high level of potassium. Indeed there is an overall gain in potassium with dandelion, which makes its value apparent.

Nervines

Anxiety and stress can lead to circulatory system problems and it is sometimes difficult to isolate a particular cause. Whenever there is a cardiovascular problem the use of relaxing herbs needs to be considered as in many cases stress and anxiety are involved.

The most useful nervines for cardiovascular system problems are:

  • balm,
  • hops,
  • lime (linden) flowers,
  • motherwort,
  • pasque flowers,
  • skullcap and
  • valerian.

Diseases of the circulatory system

The diseases of the circulatory system are those that affect the heart, blood vessels and blood. They include such conditions as:

  • coronary heart disease (heart attack and angina),
  • high blood pressure,
  • blood clotting (excess stickiness of the blood),
  • peripheral vascular disease (narrowing of the blood vessels, especially in the legs),
  • strokes (obstruction of or bleeding from the blood vessels of the brain),
  • high blood fat levels (which are associated with all of the above problems), and
  • problems in the blood.
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Heart weaknesses

Orthodox medicine divides heart problems into many categories, but when using herbs it isn't necessary to do this as the herbs provide an overall strengthening effect.

Coronary heart disease usually shows up as a heart attack or as angina (chest pain on exertion). The disease typically occurs when fatty deposits (atheroma) build up on the walls of arteries leading to atherosclerosis. This leads to a narrowing of the arteries.

Nutrition has a substantial role to play in preventing heart disease and minimizing further damage to the heart if there has been a heart attack.

Many factors have been identified as contributing to the risk of developing coronary heart disease, including:

  • the lack of exercise,
  • a high fat diet,
  • smoking,
  • high blood pressure,
  • genetic make up, and
  • stress.

Nutrition can help to:

  • control high blood fats,
  • control blood pressure, and
  • reduce blood stickiness and clotting.

What you can do to help

A number of nutritional supplements can be taken to help prevent and treat coronary heart disease.

Take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement at least daily.

Take vitamin C which is thought to lower the total cholesterol level and it may have a beneficial effect on the blood pressure. The antioxidant properties of the vitamin will help to encourage the overall health of the heart.

Coenzyme Q10 has been successfully used in the treatment of angina, arrhythmia and other symptoms of heart disease. It is also an essential nutrient for the heart and an antioxidant. It can help cells produce energy to keep the heart beating. Doses range from 15 to 100 mg per day.

Vitamin E can reduce the 'stickiness' of platelets and reduce the risk of heart disease. Take 400 to 600 IU daily, but seek advice if you have been prescribed 'blood thinning' drugs.

Magnesium (at 450 to 650 mg per day) and vitamin B6 (as a part of vitamin B complex) may help to reduce the likelihood of clots.

Chromium has been linked to lower rates of heart disease and supplements can be taken at 200 to 400 mcg daily.

Other things that you can do to assist:

  • Eat a high fibre diet that has plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and reduce as much as possible refined carbohydrates and sugars.
  • Get advice about an exercise program that will improve your fitness and assist in losing weight if this is necessary for you.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol intake.
  • If you smoke one of the best things that you can do is to quit. Try to find a program or group that will assist you with this process.
  • Try to manage your stress levels. Stress is associated with heart disease.
  • If you are overweight work on a program that will assist you to shed the extra weight.

Herbal remedies

To strengthen the heart the following mixture should be taken over an extended period of time.

  • 2 parts hawthorn berries
  • 2 parts motherwort
  • 1 part lily of the valley

Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the herb mix and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times per day.

At the same time an adequate intake of potassium has to be ensured. Eat plenty of potassium containing foods, such as grapes, tomatoes and bananas. If there is any water retention 1 part dandelion should be added to the mix above. If tension and anxiety are present use the following:

  • 1 part balm
  • 1 part lime (linden) blossom

Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herbs and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times per day or as often as needed. If this does not prove strong enough use skullcap and valerian instead.

Angina pectoris is painful and distressing. It is brought about when the blood supply to the heart itself is insufficient and this leads to a lack of oxygen to the heart tissue. This is often brought about by physical exertion or emotional stress.

This problem can be treated effectively and reversed if the treatment is spread over an adequate period of time. The aim of the therapy is to bring more oxygen rich blood into the heart muscle via the coronary arteries. This is a two fold process. Initially the vessels can be dilated to allow more blood through, but as a long term treatment the blockage that is present in the vessels has to also be cleared. The main herb to be used here is hawthorn berries - which will do both processes if given enough time and taken regularly.

The addition of lime (linden) blossom leads to excellent results as it has the ability to clear cholesterol deposits in vessels and to guard against further build up.

The herbal mixture as follows would be useful.

  • 3 part hawthorn berries
  • 2 parts motherwort
  • 2 part lime (linden) blossom
  • 1 part lily of the valley

Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herbs and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times per day over a long period. It will not immediately relieve the pain of an attack.

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High blood pressure (hypertension)

As the blood flows around the body it exerts pressure on the artery walls. High blood pressure or hypertension occurs when the pressure on the artery walls is above the normal level. This puts the circulatory system under considerable pressure and it may result in a stroke or heart failure if it is left untreated.

High blood pressure is often asymptomatic and is only picked up with some screening or routine recording of the blood pressure. The blood pressure rises gradually with age and mildly raised blood pressure is very common but is by no means serious.

High blood pressure may be caused by a number of nutritional deficiencies including:

  • fatty acids,
  • calcium, and
  • magnesium.

What you can do to help

  • Magnesium can be taken at 200 to 300 mg daily to help lower the blood pressure and to improve the balance of potassium, which is often reduced in high blood pressure. Potassium should not be supplemented but it is suggested that you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables daily to get adequate amounts of potassium.
  • Calcium may have a role in lowering the blood pressure and should be taken at 500 to 1,000 mg daily.
  • Fish oil supplements have been shown to lower blood pressure and should be taken daily.
  • Coenzyme Q10 has now been shown to reduce blood pressure and has a beneficial effect on the walls of the blood vessels. It should be taken at between 120 and 360 mg per day.
  • Garlic can have a positive effect on blood pressure.
  • If you smoke one of the best things that you can do is to quit. Try to find a program or group that will assist you with this process.
  • Get plenty of exercise and if you are overweight take steps to lose it. Excessive body weight is associated with high blood pressure.
  • Reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars that you consume.
  • Avoid tea, coffee and alcohol.

Herbal remedies

There are several herbs that will dilate the blood vessels, thereby increasing the total volume of the system. Similarly there are several herbs that will help the kidneys pass more water thus reducing the amount of fluid in the system. The most important herbal remedies are:

  • buckwheat,
  • cramp bark,
  • hawthorn berries,
  • lime (linden) blossom,
  • mistletoe and
  • yarrow.

As always when devising a herbal treatment the approach needs to be varied according to the individual's needs. As a guide the following mixture is effective.

  • 2 parts hawthorn berries
  • 2 parts lime (linden) blossom
  • 2 parts yarrow
  • 1 part mistletoe

Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times per day.

The mixture does not artificially depress the blood pressure and will not lower the blood pressure beyond an appropriate level - these are normalising herbs.

NOTE: do not use broom as a diuretic in cases of high blood pressure.

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Chilblains

The onset of chilblains is associated with poor circulation particularly to the peripheries. It can be made worse by a poor diet, cold weather, tight shoes and a sedentary occupation. It may help to have plenty of exercise and to wear warm clothing. Chilblains may also indicate a lack of sufficient calcium and silica. Sources of these in the diet are: yoghurt, soybeans, millet, spinach, figs, cheese, almonds, sesame seeds, oats, parsley and all green vegetables. You can also take supplements to assist in getting enough of the nutrients that you need.

The following herb mixture will be useful for improving the circulation to the extremities:

  • 3 parts prickly ash bark (or berries)
  • 3 parts hawthorn berries
  • 1 part ginger

Combine all the ingredients. Take 1 teaspoon of the herb blend and place into a suitable sized saucepan and pour over the cup of boiling water. Allow this to stand for 10-15 minutes. Strain out the herbs. Drink 1 cup three times per day.

When chilblains are unbroken they can be treated by a thin layer of cayenne ointment (apply this very sparingly).

Other treatments for chilblains include:

  • rosemary oil,
  • lavender oil,
  • peppermint oil,
  • garlic oil or juice,
  • tincture of myrrh and
  • nettle juice.
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Varicose veins

These are the swollen and twisted veins that are usually seen in the legs. They have a number of causes including: lack of exercise, pregnancy, obesity, sitting cross legged and anything that reduces the circulation to the legs, such as tight clothing. It is essential that sufficient exercise is taken and that the feet are elevated when sitting for a long period of time, to counteract the effects of gravity. The diet should also be rich in fruit and vegetables and constipation has to be avoided. Supplement the diet with vitamin B complex and vitamin C.

The herbs to be used should stimulate the peripheral circulation and thereby aid the blood flow in the legs. The appropriate herbs are:

  • cayenne pepper,
  • ginger,
  • prickly ash as bark or berries.

Herbs that strengthen the blood vessels should also be included, for example:

  • hawthorn berries, and
  • horsechestnut

The following mixture should be of assistance:

  • 3 part hawthorn berries
  • 3 part horsechestnut
  • 2 parts prickly ash bark (or berries)
  • 2 parts yarrow
  • 1 part ginger

Combine all the ingredients. Take 1 teaspoon of the herb blend and place into a suitable sized saucepan and pour over the cup of boiling water. Allow this to stand for 10-15 minutes. Strain out the herbs. Drink 1 cup three times per day.

When there is local inflammation or pain a lotion or compress of witch hazel will often ease the discomfort. The following (as a compress) can also be used:

  • marigold,
  • comfrey and
  • hawthorn berries.

References

Duke, J. A. 2000, Anti-aging Prescriptions. Rodale.

Hoffmann, D. 2000, The New Holistic Herbal. Element Pub.

McIntyre, A. 1995, The Complete Women's Herbal. Henry Holt Reference Books

Mills, S. Y. 1989, The A-Z of Modern Herbalism: A Comprehensive Guide to Practical Herbal Therapy. Thorson.

Shaw, N. 2002, Herbalism. Element

Tyler, Y. E. 1993, The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. Haworth.

Woodward, P. 2003, Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies. Hyland House.

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