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Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna [Latin]), also called haw, mayblossom, and mayflower (the one the Pilgrims’ ship was named for) has been used for thousands of years in Asian, European, and Native American cultures to treat heart disease.

Herbalists in Europe have recommended hawthorn specifically for treatment of congestive heart failure since the 17th century. Today numerous scientific studies have proven conclusively that hawthorn is an effective treatment for congestive heart failure, and this herb is widely used in Europe to treat many cardiovascular conditions. Commission E, an expert panel in Germany that evaluates the safety and efficacy of herbs, recommends hawthorn for the treatment of congestive heart failure and irregular heartbeat.

Hawthorn contains several proanthocyanidins and flavonoids, which increase the heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen to all parts of the body by dilating coronary blood vessels and strengthening the heart muscle. The phytochemicals in hawthorn also act as antioxidants, protecting blood vessels and other tissue from the damage caused by oxidation. In addition, hawthorn keeps the heart healthy by blocking production of angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE), an enzyme that causes high blood pressure.

Hawthorn has been used to treat other heart conditions as well, including angina, atherosclerosis, and hypertension. In the early stages of heart disease, hawthorn performs better than the drug digitalis and with fewer side effects. However, hawthorn is only for people in the early stages of heart diseases, and is not as fast acting as some prescription medications. Any type of cardiac disease must be evaluated and treated by a qualified cardiologist.

Some studies suggest that hawthorn has mild astringent effects—it may provide some benefit to those with seborrhea, acne, or other inflammatory skin conditions.

Hawthorn produces a bright red edible fruit that looks like a tiny apple and is often candied, or used to flavor jelly or wine. You can also dry the leaves and fruit of this plant to make a homemade medicinal tea—add 2 teaspoons of crushed leaves or fruit to 1 cup boiling water, and drink twice daily. You can also purchase hawthorn supplements—the usual dosage is two to three 450-milligram capsules or ¼ teaspoon of liquid extract each day. Hawthorn is also available in tinctures, and as a whole leaf or fruit extract.

Anyone with a serious heart condition should be under a doctor’s care. Some people may experience a rash, nausea, fatigue, or increased perspiration. Hawthorn extract may be taken with all prescription medications except digitalis, but people taking medications to lower blood pressure should beware—large amounts of hawthorn may exaggerate the effects of this medication, and cause a significant drop in blood pressure.

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