Heart Protecting Herbs

The list is long and impressive: garlic, turmeric, psyllium, flaxseed, artichoke leaf extract, and lemon grass—all have demonstrated, in well-controlled studies, the ability to lower blood lipid levels in patients with elevated cholesterol. But one herb stands above the rest when it comes to guarding the health of the heart.

Glorious Garlic

Garlic demonstrates a greater potency than any of its close relatives; including leeks, onions, shallots, and chives. Harvested garlic cloves can be used fresh, dried, or powdered. The cut cloves have a pungent odor and strong flavor due to the presence of alliin (a sulfoxide that is a natural constituent of fresh garlic) which breaks down to a host of active sulfur compounds.

Studies have shown that garlic effectively reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, while lowering blood cholesterol levels. On average, one-half to one clove of garlic per day can reduce elevated blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels by about 10 percent. The failure of some recent clinical trials to significantly reduce elevated cholesterol levels resulted from the researchers using an inactive garlic preparation.

Too much haste in heating garlic inactivates it and destroys the ability of alliin to produce useful sulfur compounds. Studies reveal that 60-seconds of microwave heating or 45 minutes of oven heating eradicates the important enzyme alliinase. Allowing chopped or crushed garlic to “stand” for 10 minutes is essential before applying the usual heat treatment.

Pressure and Plaque

Garlic may lower blood pressure levels in some persons due to its vasodilator (blood vessel widening) properties. It’s also successfully used to inhibit the formation of blood clots.

In a well-controlled clinical study with elderly participants, high-dose garlic powder significantly reduced the growth of atherosclerotic plaque by almost 20 percent and even achieved a slight regression over a four-year period.

Garlic powders best represent the composition of fresh garlic cloves than any other processed garlic. In studies with aged garlic extract, it took about six months to lower blood lipids, while garlic cloves and standardized garlic powder showed significant decreases after one to two months.

Coated pills can be used where odor control is desirable. To maintain good health, it’s recommended that a person consume about one clove of fresh garlic a day.

Blood-friendly Onions and Ginger

Like garlic, ginger and onions contain compounds that inhibit thrombosis (blood-clot formation) and are considered useful blood thinners. Onions are natural anticlotting agents since they possess substances that suppress platelets from clumping together. Persons taking coumarins (a parent compound in anticoagulant agents) and other anticoagulants should use onions cautiously.

The consumer trend to purchase less pungent, milder onion varieties may not be wise, since onions with a stronger flavor—and more potent astringency—have the highest level of antioxidants and superior health-promoting properties.

Ginger boasts a characteristic odor and taste. Its diterpenoids lower the risk of blood clot formation and, hence, increase bleeding time. These powerful diterpenes are as active in inhibiting blood clots as the sulfur compounds in onions.

A Taste for Turmeric

The warm, spicy taste and bright gold color of turmeric adds a richness to mashed tofu, rice, and curry powders.

The bright pigment is curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory compound and phenolic antioxidant that protects against cardiovascular disease by inhibiting myocardial infarction, lowering serum cholesterol levels, inhibiting LDL oxidation, and preventing blood clot formation.

Seeds of Health

An extract of the seeds of grapes contain high levels of proanthocyanidins: potent flavonoid compounds that act as antioxidants and are more effective than either vitamin C or E. These compounds inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, protect the lining of the blood vessel walls, and improve venous tone.

Grape seed extract reduces capillary permeability and fragility and is used for the treatment and prevention of vascular or circulatory disorders such as venous insufficiency and peripheral vascular disease. Persons at risk of heart attack or stroke have also turned to grape seed extract for protection.

The active ingredients of this extract are similar to those found in pine bark extract, commercially marketed as pycnogenol. Cran-berries, blueberries, and other berries also contain these health-promoting proanthocyanidins.

Flaxseed is very rich in mucilaginous fiber, while its oil is very high in omega-3 fat. Flax-seed flour is commonly added to breads, cereals, and bakery goods to increase their nutritional and health benefits. Ground flaxseed is useful for lowering serum cholesterol levels due to its soluble fiber content and very low levels of saturated fat.

Proof Positive

When 15 patients with elevated blood cholesterol levels were fed 15 grams of flaxseed meal and three slices of flaxseed-containing bread daily for three months, they experienced about a 10 percent decrease in LDL cholesterol levels. They also enjoyed a substantial decrease in risk of blood clots, while their HDL “good” cholesterol and triglyceride levels remained stable.

Soluble fibers, such as those found in psyllium, can augment the cholesterol-lowering effect of a low-fat diet. Psyllium can be consumed either as a powder, or part of a fortified cereal. Food products containing psyllium are permitted to claim that its fiber is useful for decreasing the risk of heart disease.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.