Hawthorn is the common name given to plants belonging to the genus Crataegus, with many different species found throughout temperate zones stretching from North America to Asia. It belongs to the Rose family and is a small tree with rose-like flowers and brown to red berry-like fruits. It has a long history of use, especially in Europe, where it is still widely used to support the health of the cardiovascular system. The flowers, leaves and fruit are all used in modern herbal preparations of hawthorn.

Although traditional uses vary somewhat (including as a digestive aid in Chinese medicine), nearly all the focus since the first century has revolved around the heart. Hawthorn is a true cardiovascular tonic, one that can be used prophylactically to protect the cardiovascular system, but also can improve the overall function of the cardiovascular system once it has begun to decline. Most of the benefits of hawthorn have been attributed to its impressive array of antioxidants, including flavonoids and procyanidins, both of which are well researched for their beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system.

Cardiovascular Tonic

Many animal and several large human studies have been conducted on the efficacy of hawthorn for cardiovascular health. Hawthorn improves blood flow and pressure by dilating the arteries, as well as by improving the strength and tone of the blood vessels.1 Hawthorn also appears to improve the availability and use of energy for the heart muscle, protect the blood vessels from free radical damage, and modulate inflammation of the cardiovascular system.2 In human trials, participants taking hawthorn experienced improved exercise tolerance and endurance and a lessening of breathlessness.3 In Europe, hawthorn is approved for use in patients with beginning to mild congestive heart failure (classified according to the New York Heart Association classifications).4

Other Potential Uses

Because hawthorn improves circulation and the health of the blood vessels in general, it has been hypothesized that it may benefit many other conditions, such as those that affect the brain and eyes, by improving blood flow throughout the body.5 The potent antioxidants in hawthorn may also have benefits outside the cardiovascular system—for instance, in the joints, where they may help to stabilize collagen and modulate inflammation.6 It is also sometimes used to support and protect the emotional heart during times of heartbreak or to encourage one to be more loving and accepting of his- or herself.

How to Use

Hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries can be found in liquid tincture or capsule form. These products are sometimes standardized* to flavonoids, such as vitexin for the leaves and flowers, and procyanidins for the fruit.7 Hawthorn tea is also available and is another effective preparation. In areas with access to fresh hawthorn, fruit juices, syrups and jams are also sometimes made, although these forms are much milder and are more for culinary enjoyment than actual medicinal effects. Since hawthorn is a tonic herb, it works slowly, building up its beneficial effects over time. As such, it should be taken for four to eight weeks for full benefits to be realized. Doses vary from form to form, so follow the directions given on the product you choose. In general, hawthorn is considered very safe and is well tolerated, even long term. Side effects are rare but may include a headache, nausea and heart palpitations.8 As always, caution should be used when starting any new herb, nutrient, or medication, especially if you are already taking other supplements or medications or have a medical condition.

References Available Upon Request

* Because the quality and potency of an herb is dependent on variables in season, soil, weather, growing location and postharvest handling, some companies choose to standardize their herbal products in an attempt to deliver a consistent product every time. Standardization in botanical extracts refers to delivering a consistent, measurable amount of a recognized plant constituent, often one believed to be an active ingredient.