Heart disease poses a real threat for public health because it supposed to be the Number One cause of death in all Western and many developing countries. According to the World Health Organization reports, about 20 million people die every year due to the diseases of heart. The term "heart disease" does not refer only one pathology; it covers a wide range of disorders that affects human blood and vessel system. Generally, this term includes blood vessel disorders such as coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis, heart rhythm problems named arrhythmias, and congenital heart defects.
Commonly, "heart disease" is used very often referring to conditions related to cardiovascular disorders with narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a chest pain, heart attack, or stroke. Such conditions are extremely dangerous and need immediate treatment. Almost all people older than 40 are afraid of heart attack or stroke. That is why the number of drugs purposed for the treatment of various disorders generally termed heart diseases is very high. And the top marketed drugs worldwide are the ones purposed for treatment of atherosclerosis - the main cause of cardiovascular diseases.
Besides drugs, which must be prescribed by physician, there is a lot of medicinal herbs protecting heart and vessels from diseases everyone is most afraid of.
It should be mentioned that there are several herbs possessing really strong influence on the heart muscle. They are foxglove (digitalis), may-lily, and strophanthus, for instance. They block the current of calcium ions into the heart cells. This results in reduced rate, excitability and conductivity of heart muscles but this dramatically strengthens the heart contractions. Thus, efficiency of the heart function becomes very high and this is good for the treatment of heart rhythm disorders and heart failure. But, at the same time, these herbs can be very dangerous because their effective doses are very tiny, less than 1 mg. And even slight overdose will lead to the heart blockage and death. That is why these herbs are not commonly used due to the difficulties in controlling the active compound concentration. But they are very good source of raw materials for productions of very powerful and important drugs for heart.
The majority of herbs are not so powerful and commonly used for reduction of the risk of heart diseases. They exert one or more typical beneficial effects on heart, or vessels, or both. So, they can be grouped into several categories.
- Heart rate regulators. Hawthorn is a very well-known medicinal herb for heart protection. It slows fast heart rhythm down, enlarges the volume of blood pushing by heart in one contraction, and reduces the oxygen demand. Thus, heart works easier. The same effects are typical of cuckooflower, although it is not so widely known.
- Blood pressure regulators. Generally, the herbs in this group reduce high blood pressure and, at the same time, rarely cause hypotension i.e. too low blood pressure. These herbs are motherwort, cottonweed, and mistletoe. High blood pressure is always bad for heart because it requires more strength of the heart muscle pushing blood into vessels. This means heart muscle needs more oxygen for its work. And this leads to relocation of blood flow and relative lack of oxygen in some parts of heart with poor blood supply. These herbs can prevent such events and protect heart cells from ischemia.
- Blood vessel regulators. Such herbs as chamomile and valerian possess activity very similar to the pervious group. They help to expand blood vessels and, thus, enlarge the volume of blood with oxygen getting to the heart cells. Besides, if vessels are expanded, it does not require so much energy to push blood through them.
- Diuretics. The more volume of liquid is getting out of the body through kidney, the less is the volume of blood, and, hence, the lower is blood pressure. As it was said a couple of times above, low blood pressure is always very good for heart unless it is too low. Mare's-tail herb accelerates liquid removal from the body. Also, it helps to relocate excessive liquid from the tissues where it may be stored causing edema due to the lack of the heart activity (chronic heart failure).
- Herbs preventing atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the cause of narrowed blood vessels that is the main cause of heart and vessel diseases. There are several ways already known that decelerate development of atherosclerosis. Most of the are focused on regulation of lipid metabolism and elimination of excessive cholesterol from the body. Folk medicine uses hundreds of herbs with such activity. The most potent among them are periwinkle and tribulus, which activity was proved in experimental studies and clinical trials.
- Adaptogen herbs. The latest studies' findings showed some adaptogen herbs to exert complex protective influence on heart. Schisandra is one of them which effects were experimentally investigated, and underlying mechanisms were explained. As schisandra berries contain several types of active compounds (lignans) named schizandrins, it affects several pathways of the heart disease risk factors. Mainly, a complex of schisandrins;
- induces relaxation of the vascular smooth muscle cells resulting in expansion of coronary arteries with the following enlarged blood flow and reduction of the blood pressure easing the work of heart;
- exerts anti-fibrotic activity. Fibrosis is one of the key factors in the lipid plaque formation in blood vessels causing atherosclerosis. Thus, schisandra dramatically slows development of atherosclerosis and reduces a risk of its complications such as coronary heart disease, stroke and some others;
- exerts anti-inflammation influence. Inflammation is another mechanism of the lipid plaque formation leading to atherosclerosis;
- provides anti-oxidant activity. Schisandrins enhance production of inner antioxidant compounds (glutathione) and protect parts of the heart muscle suffering from the lack of oxygen through redox regulation;
- decelerates apoptosis. Apoptosis is one of the cause of myocardial cell death leading to a heart fatigue and cardiosclerosis. Schisandrins slow this process down and prevent heart muscle from the loss of cells.
Schisandra chinensis in comparison to many other cardioprotective herbs has a lot of advantages as it is very safe and provide complex influence resulting in reduced velocity of the heart disease development. Today, schisandra is being carefully investigated because molecular mechanisms of its effects must be elucidated from the biochemical point of view. Nevertheless, even now intake of schisandra extract may help to prevent development of the heart diseases caused by vessel disorders and atherosclerosis.
Schisandra chinensis has traditionally been adopted as an herbal medicine for the treatment of patients with cardiovascular disease. The effects of the schisandra active compounds on cardiovascular disease pathways should be explained on the basis of molecular targets and related biochemical mechanisms. Besides, the potential effects of Schisandra and its ingredients on platelet aggregation and lipid metabolism are being carefully studied. If they succeed we will be able to conclude that schisandra is a very promising remedy for prevention of heart disease with a very low risk of side effects.
Maksim Khotimchenko, Ph.D.
Vladivostok (Russia) - San Diego (USA)