Cardiac Herbs Part Two


Pheasant's Eye (Adonis vernalis)


This is an herb I wish I could get because I've had two occasions where I really could have used it.  The first was with my Father who had atrial fibrillation coupled with tachycardia.  His condition failed to respond to any of the herbs and supplements I tried, but prescription drugs didn't work either.  As a result, he had to go to the hospital and have his heart stopped and restarted (a rather dangerous and invasive procedure).


Several years later, I had a child born with a racing heart and atrial fibrillation.  Joshua had to have his heart stopped and restarted just like my father.


I first learned about false hellebore from a naturopathic doctor who was also an NSP distributor.  He told me it was illegal for him to sell it, but he would put a bottle on the counter, educate the client about how it worked and how to use it safely, then turn his back and let them “steal” it from him.  The dosage he used was eight drops, but I do not know the strength of the tincture he used.


False hellebore was used by the eclectic physicians for nervous tachycardia or arrhythmia where there are extra systoles.  It contains cardiac glycosides similar to those found in digitalis.  However, unlike digitalis, which stimulates the heart, false hellebore sedates the heart.  It increases cardiac efficiency but slows the heart rate.  Some of the indications professional herbalist David Winston suggests for this plant include: diminished arterial pressure, shortened diastole (the period where the heart stretches and draws in blood), weak intermittent pulse and dyspnea (labored breathing caused by insufficient oxygen) from a feeble heart.  It may also be useful for problems with the mitral or aorta valves. 


Obviously, this is not a remedy for beginners and isn't even legal for us to sell right now, but I've run into at least a half a dozen people who could have used it.  It is a shame it is not available even from licensed physicians.


There is a closely related plant, American hellebore (Vetratrum verde or viride) which also contains alkaloids which lower blood pressure and dilate peripheral blood vessels.  The alkaloids in this plant have been used in modern medicine to treat high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat.  It is indicated for a wildly irregular and full pulse.  I know this plant well, and could wild craft it, but have been unable to find dependable directions on how to prepare it.  When I do, I plan to make a tincture of it for emergency situations.


Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)


Foxglove is probably the most famous of all cardiac remedies.  It is the source for a group of cardiac glycosides (including digoxin and digitoxin).  Both stimulate the heart, but digoxin is safer for long term use and hence, it still used in modern medicine for treating heart failure.  Foxglove helps the heart beat more strongly, slowly and regularly without requiring more oxygen.  It also acts as a diuretic as most cardiac remedies of its nature do.


An eighteenth century herbalist named William Withering is credited with discovering the “medicine.”  A local herbalist was using a complex mixture of plants to treat dropsy (water retention due to reduced heart function).   Dr. Withering searched for the “active” herb in the formula and “discovered” foxglove.


Years ago, I heard Dr. Andrew Weil discuss the subject of digitalis (digoxin) versus foxglove.  He said that in medical school he was taught that the first sign of digoxin poisoning was nausea, followed by atrial fibrillation and then ventricular fibrillation.  His teacher told him that he would never see the first symptom, nausea, only the second (atrial fibrillation) which would very rapidly be followed by ventricular fibrillation and death. 


Later, Dr. Weil learned that the indication of nausea came from the time when the whole herb was used instead of the drug.  When using foxglove, the first symptom of toxicity is nausea, an annoying, but relatively harmless effect.  Thus, when the herbalist used the whole plant and the patient started feeling nauseous, he or she knew the client was taken too much and could back off the dose.  With the drug, no such early warning signs are given.  The first symptom of overdose is potentially life-threatening cardiac malfunction.


This is why we need to revisit the issue of toxic (drug-like) botanicals.  They have built in safety factors.  The first sign of belladonna toxicity is dry mouth, the first sign of gelsimium toxicity is droopy eyelids.  These are the facts that enabled skilled herbalists of the past to safely utilize toxic botanicals. 


Even today, in modern China drugs are combined with herbs to minimize and reduce their side effects.  One wonders about the safety of the original herbalist's tea blend as opposed to the modern isolated drug.  Did that herbalist have other herbs that helped to minimize the toxicity and maximize the effectiveness of the foxglove?  It is time to start returning to the idea of synergy instead of reductionism in our understanding of herbal medicines.


Gelsemium (Gelsemium sempervirens)


This extremely toxic plant is a central nervous system depressant and is used for numbing pain.  The eclectics used it to put people under while they did surgery.  In very tiny doses, it acts on the heart to calm the heart beat and lower the blood pressure.  I have this one, but I'm very reluctant to use it except in emergencies because it is so potent. 


Indian Elecampane Root (Inula racemosa)


This plant is a relative of the Inula helenium we use in the West for respiratory ailments.  In Ayurvedic medicine it is combined with Guggul for ischaemic heart disease that produces precordial pain (pain in the chest area) and dyspnea (heavy labored breathing).  It also improves overall heart function.


Khella seed (Amni visnaga)


This member of the parsley family helps angina and impaired cardiac circulation when the cause is contracted blood vessels.  Although it relaxes the blood vessels, it does not reduce blood pressure.  This is a nontoxic remedy.  I have it, but haven't had too much experience using it.


Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)


Like foxglove, lily of the valley contains cardiac glycosides that help to strengthen, slow, and regulate the heartbeat.  Although it is classified as a toxic botanical, it is less toxic than foxglove and milder in action.  It is a remedy I have been able to get a hold of and use and it has proven helpful for some of my clients. 


The indications for this remedy include inefficiency of the heart valves causing water retention, general weakness of the heart, depression due to weakness of the heart, heart palpitations from exhaustion, rheumatic inflammation of the heart and membranes surrounding the heart (pericarditis) and arrhythmia.   It is even useful for congestive heart failure.


I have used lily of the valley with quite a few clients with very good results.  I usually mix it as part of a formula so that there is little risk of toxicity.  I often combine it with hawthorn because the two seem to work very well together. 


lobelia-inflata.gifLobelia (

Lobelia is a powerful antispasmodic herb.  Part of the way it works is by inhibiting alpha and beta adrenergic receptors.  These are the receptor sites for epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). 


Alpha adrenergic receptors promote contraction of the blood vessels and decrease activity in the digestive tract.  Lobelia attaches to these receptor sites and inhibits them resulting in relaxed blood vessels (i.e. reduced blood pressure) and increased digestive activity.   The beta receptors also contract blood vessels and stimulate the heart.  The class of drugs known as beta blockers bind to and inhibit these sites.  The lobeline alkaloid in lobelia does the same thing.


Lobelia has long been known for its ability to slow the heartbeat while relaxing the blood vessels and lowering blood pressure.  These actions make it useful for treating angina where there is a feeling of oppression in the chest, with a soreness or heaviness in the heart area.  These feelings may radiate into the left shoulder and arm.  Lobelia has been combined with black cohosh for these symptoms.


Mistletoe (Viscum album)


This highly toxic plant helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate.  It also eases panic attacks.  I've been able to source the tincture, and have had occasion to use it with someone with severe tachicardia.  It works very well.  Combining it with motherwort and lobelia improves the effect, while lowering the risk of toxicity.


Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)


This herb helps to calm the heart and reduce heart palpitations, especially ones brought on during menopause or hyper-functioning of the thyroid gland.  It improves the heart metabolism, reduces the heart rate and inhibits platelet aggregation.  A very safe, nontoxic remedy, which I have used on many occasions with great success.


Olive (Olea europaea)


Both olive oil and olive leaves help peripheral circulation, thus aiding the heart.  The leaf also helps lower blood sugar levels, which can also benefit the heart.


Periwinkle (Vinca minor)


This somewhat toxic botanical may be helpful for mild forms of cerebral arteriosclerosis with impaired memory and concentration.  I have some limited experience with this herb.


Pink Root (Spigelia marilandica)


Native to the southern regions of the US, this is a toxic plant.  It is emetic and irritant, and most commonly used for parasites.  The indications for this remedy are violent palpitation shaking the entire chest with severe pain under the sternum, pain radiating to arm and neck.  The heart palpitations are made worse with movement.  I don't have any idea where to obtain this remedy and hence, have never been able to try it.


Pulsatilla (Anemone pulsatilla)


Pulsatilla or windflower is most commonly used homeopathically because of its toxicity.  It is used for heart palpitation associated with feelings of nervousness, fear of impending danger, restlessness and dizziness.  I have the tincture, but have never tried using internally.  I've only used a homeopathic preparation.


rose.gifRose (Rosa sp.)


In my original draft of this article I neglected to include rose because rosehips are more of a remedy for blood vessels than they are for the heart itself.  However, as I was going for a drive in the mountains this weekend, I realized that rose is one of the most important remedies  we have for the emotional heart and that no article on heart remedies would be complete without considering the emotional side of heart problems.


The heart is the emotional “brain” and literally stores memory of the things we love and dislike.  Heart transplant patients often experience emotional and even actual memories of the heart donors.  Grief, sadness, loss and betrayal all wound our hearts on an emotional level.  If we are unable to resolve these emotional issues we can become emotionally “cold” or “hard-hearted.”  When we harden our hearts we lose the ability to love and be vulnerable. 


Physical heart disease often begins with emotional heart wounds and works its way into physical wounds of the heart, i.e., heart disease.  I feel that the high incidence of cardiac distress in our culture is not simply the result of diet, lack of exercise or other physical problems.  It is also a symptom that our hearts are failing us, that is, that our modern science-oriented, materialist society crowds out our emotional life.  We are literally “starved” for the emotion of love and compassion.


Rose essential oil helps to heal heart wounds of this nature.  This is probably why roses are considered a gift of love and are especially used to comfort those who are grieving or to express the “I'm sorry” when we have injured another's heart. So consider rose essential oil when you suspect that heart problems may be related to unresolved grief or other emotional issues.


The flower essence of rose is also valuable because it helps to catalyze the forces of the heart.  It warms the heart that has grown cold and lost its vitality.  I have often combined it with another flower essence, bleeding heart, to help people heal from heartbreak and grief.


Considering this, it is entirely possible that rosehips may also be overlooked as a remedy for the heart. Rosehips may carry some of these same “heart-warming” qualities as the essential oil and flower essence.   That's something to experiment with in the future.


Squill (Urginea maritima)


Another toxic botanical which contains cardiac glycosides that are strongly diuretic and relatively quick-acting.  The glycosides in this plant, however, lack the cumulative effects of those found in foxglove, so the plant is not used in modern medicine or modern herbalism.  It is however used homeopathically.


Strophanthus (Strophanthus kombe)


Here we have yet another toxic heart stimulant, again containing cardiac glycosides similar to foxglove.  This plant also slows the heart rate and improves efficiency, making it useful for angina.  Specific indications include: feeble and frequent cardiac contractions without elevated body temperature, weak heart due to muscular debility, and valve problems due to muscular debility.  I have no idea of where to obtain this plant and it is probably illegal anyway, but it is interesting to note how many plants there are with  actions similar to foxglove.


Tien Qi Ginseng Root (Panax pseudo-ginseng)


This relative of Korean and American ginseng increases coronary blood flow and reduces oxygen consumption in the heart.  This makes it useful for angina pain, reduced and myocardia ischaemia (lack of oxygen to the heart muscle).


Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)


I just learned about this remedy this summer from Matthew Wood while visiting with him at the AHG office in Georgia.     It has cardiac tonic properties and the flower essence, according to Matthew, is for people who feel they have blown their opportunities in life and need a second chance.  We made a mother tincture and I used some of it both on myself and some clients.  I liked it a lot, but have no idea how to obtain more.


Again, I'm not writing this article to commercially promote all of these remedies.  Most of you will not even be able to find most of these herbs.  Mainly, I want you to understand that  nature provides us with many different remedies for every organ and system of the body.  What I do hope is that this article has encouraged you to look beyond hawthorn when dealing with cardiac problems and recognize that there are always plenty of options to help us with every health challenge we may face.




The Spirit of Eclectic Medicine: Formulas for the Heart and Circulatory System, and Cancer by Donald R. Yance, Jr., Medicines from the Earth: Rediscovering the Roots of Herbalism, Official Proceedings, June 3-5, 2000.


Eclectic Botanical Protocols: Heart Disease and Cancer by David Winston, AHG, Medicines from the Earth: Rediscovering the Roots of Herbalism, Official Proceedings, June 3-5, 2000.


The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier, DK Publishing, New York, New York, 1996