This article is a review of the use of hawthorn as a medicinal agent, although hawthorn is also used as a food. Hawthorn has been used for centuries a medicine. In China, hawthorn was used to improve digestion and to treat hyperlipidemia and dyspnoea. In the thirteenth centuries hawthorn was used to treat digestive disorders such as vomiting and diarrhoea. In the nineteenth century, hawtorn was used in Europe to treat cardiovascular problems. Today, hawthorn is mainly used to treat angina, hypertension and arrhythmias.
The hawthorn leaves, flowers and berries contain many phytochemicals including catechins, crataegus acid, hyperoside, isoorientin, isovitexin, orientin, saponins, procyanidins, quercetin, quercitrin and vitexin. The most important phytochemical in hawthorn is crataegus acid which is responsible for the coronary vasodilating effect.
Tests with animals have shown that hawthorn works by increasing the contraction force of the heart, improving the integrity of blood vessel walls, increasing blood flow and improving oxygen utilisation. Studies with humans suggest that the flavonoids in hawthorn decerase the risk of heart diseases. It is known that flavonoids have antioxidant properties and strengthen blood vessel wall by stimulating cross linking of collagen. Flavonoids cause vessel dilation and increase intracellular calcium level. Hawthorn can influence the heart rate.
Absence of oxygen in the blood can cause damage to the heart's muscular wall, caused by the release of neutrophil elastase. The procyanidins in hawthorn could inhibit neutrophil elastase. Tests with animals have also shown that hawthorn can reduce cholesterol and triglycerides levels in the blood. These effects could be attributed to the catechin, saponins and quercetin.
Clinical studies with hawthorn on humans are limited. On clinical study showed that hawthorn extracts improved symptoms such as fatigue, palpitations and dyspnoea and increased performance. Many studies have shown that hawthorn has a beneficial effect on heart failure. One important study investigated the effect of a combined hawthorn-passion flower extract on forty patients. The study showed an increase in exercise capacity and a decrease of heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol level and dyspnoea. A study on patients with cardiac insufficiency, in which 136 patients were involved, showed that patients who took hawthorn extract had an improvement of cardiac performance. On trial compared hawthorn extract with captopril on 132 patients. Captopril is a medicine used to lower blood pressure, to relieve symptoms of congestive heart failure and to improve survival after a heart attack. Hawthorn seemed to have similar effects as captopril on exercise tolerance, fatigue and dyspnoea. Hawthorn extract did not gave any adverse effect.
The German Commission E, which is governmental regulatory agency composed of scientists, toxicologists, physicians and pharmacists, has approved hawthorn products made from the leaves and flowers as effective for patients with reduced cardiac performance associated with NYHA functional class heart failure. Because hawthorn extract does not show effects immediately, it is important to take hawthorn extract during a period of minimum six weeks. Pregnant or nursing women or children under 12 years old should not use hawthorn. Medication with hawthorn should only start after consultation with a doctor.
Source: Janene M. Rigelsky and Burgunda V. Sweet
. Hawthorn: Pharmacology and therapeutic uses. Am J Health-Syst Pharm. Vol 59, 2002