Hawthorn is a common shrub that is part of the rose family. It grows up to five feet tall and is found on hillsides around the world. The plant has sharp thorns or spines and has small white, red or pink clusters of flowers that typically bloom in May. Following the flowers, small red or black berries develop which are known as haws.
Why Hawthorn is used
Hawthorn has a long history as a treatment for heart disease. It has also been used for kidney problems and poor digestion. Modern use of hawthorn focuses on heart conditions including heart failure. Heart failure occurs when heart muscle becomes weak and unable to pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Heart failure can make basic activities difficult and can eventually lead to death. Hawthorn is also used to treat other heart conditions including angina, which is pain in the heart that occurs when the heart muscle does not receive enough oxygenated blood.
Some scientific studies have shown that hawthorn is safe and effective in treating mild to moderate heart failure. The herb is known to contain antioxidants including oligomeric procyandins (OPCs). Antioxidants are beneficial to the body because they destroy free radicals. Free radicals are compounds that damage or kill cells in the body by damaging the membranes of the cells or by changing DNA in the cells.
The antioxidants in hawthorn can help dilate constricted blood vessels, improve the flow of blood, and protect blood vessels from being damaged. This can help protect the heart from becoming diseased, and can help control high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
How Hawthorn is used
Historically, hawthorn berries were the most commonly used part of the plant. Today, the leaves and flowers are primarily used in medications because the concentration of antioxidants is higher in these parts of the plant. Leaves and flowers may be combined with water and alcohol to make liquid extracts. Dry extracts are also available in tablets and capsules.
Cautions for Hawthorn
Hawthorn is generally considered to be a safe herb. Side effects are rare, but may include headaches, nausea, and rapid heartbeats. Other cautions for hawthorn include:
• Children – hawthorn should not be given to children.
• Pregnancy – hawthorn should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing.
• Drug interactions – hawthorn can increase or enhance the effectiveness of a variety of medications commonly given to treat heart conditions including digoxin, beta-blockers, and calcium channel blockers. Hawthorn may reduce the effectiveness of phenylephrine, which is often found in nasal decongestants.
Heart disease and heart failure are serious conditions that should not be treated at home without a doctor’s supervision. Be sure to tell your health care providers about all supplements and other medications you are taking, and don’t change the doses of any medications without first consulting your doctor.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
University of Maryland Medical Center
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