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Herbal Simples for Heart Health

By Laurel Redmon, M.S., L.Ac.

May 2006


A sure boon for Oriental medicine is its ability to address pre-clinical cardiovascular conditions and heart conditions not yet acknowledged by Western medicine. While heart disease remains a major threat, many people who perceive symptoms pass stress tests and echocardiograms.  Factors like stress, poor diet, inactivity and heartbreak injure slowly over many years.  Herbs can offset these offenses far before they become clinically significant findings.

Pharmaceuticals typically employed for the heart can impose problems: people experience a huge range of side effects including death, especially when multiple drugs are being ingested simultaneously. While pros and cons of pharmaceutical treatment vary from person to person, most patients today are expected to take these drugs for a lifetime.

 A Western “nutriceutical” approach uses herbs in place of drugs for specific symptoms or clinical findings. For instance, garlic is employed to lower LDL levels.  In China, the herb Da Suan, dried garlic bulb, is called upon for chest or heart Qi stagnation and to kill intestinal worms.  Its hot energetic nature is noted, making it a suitable remedy for some but certainly not all people.  Atherosclerosis can be thought of as a symptom of stagnation, yes, but also damp-heat, which may respond better to a cool or neutral remedy.  We cannot overlook the sophistication that our medicine possesses in guiding us to the best course of action.

 Much can be done to prevent heart disharmonies and disease with simple lifestyle habits. A few basics

precede any discussion of remedial herbal treatment. As a daily practice for optimal heart health or repair, we should try to:

    Never eat processed food: commit to whole, organic meals.  Whole corn, wheat, legumes and fresh herbs have proven heart and numerous other benefits. Fresh basil and rosemary are especially good.

    Consume deep-colored berries and vegetables, and a few raw almonds or walnuts regularly.

    Eat whole oats, a famous nervine that can strengthen heart muscle, the nervous system and the brain as well as reduce cholesterol and plaque buildup. Oats can also prevent infections, and benefit bones and joints.

    Use ground flax seeds and oil. This can clean plaque from arteries, but is also a good anti-inflammatory. Flax seeds and oil are also important to prevent and treat many degenerative diseases.

    Exercise daily.

    Try to slow down and manage stress in a tangible way.

    Follow your heart and dreams, and always include love in your life.

 Using single herbs is a cautious approach for laypeople and those just beginning to explore the exciting world of herbal medicine. The agents listed below come with contraindications, but are also quite safe.

Specific herbs that can assist in repairing disharmonies of the heart include:

 Shan Zha/Fructus Crataegi/hawthorn berry

ENERGETICS:            Sweet, sour, warm

Liver, spleen, stomach

Reduces blood stagnation and activates circulation.

Assists indigestion and breakdown of fats, also known as “meat stagnation”.

 Lowers blood pressure and reduces cholesterol.

Cardiotonic, increasing heart muscle strength and reversing cardiac ischemia.

Treats angina, high cholesterol, hypertension.

 Caution:  Avoid use with digoxin

 Dosage: Up to 30 grams/10 qian daily in decoction

Western herbal tradition employs the leaf in addition to the fruit for analagous functions.

 Hong Qu/Monascus/red rice yeast

ENERGETICS:            Sweet, spicy, warm

Spleen, liver, large intestine

Invigorates blood and reduces stagnation.

Nourishes digestive organs and facilitates digestion.

Lowers cholesterol in a manner akin to statin drugs without undesirable side effects but caution should be exercised in cases with marked spleen qi deficiency.

 Caution with warfarin, coumadin and statins

 Dosage: Up to 12 grams/4 qian daily in decocted or powdered form.

 Suan Zao Ren/ Semen Zizyphi Spinosae/ sour date seed

ENERGETICS:            Sweet, neutral

Heart, liver

Tonifies heart and calms the spirit (shen).

Cardiotonic, sedative and analgesic.

Treats insomnia, agitation, anxiety, excessive dreaming, fatigue and night sweats.

 Caution with sedatives.

 Dosage: 10- 30 grams/3-10 qian decocted or powdered before bedtime. The dry-fried variety is warmer, more astringent, and has a shorter shelf life.  As with all oily seeds, rancidity is an important issue.  Refrigeration is recommended.

Sample formula: Suan Zao Ren Tang


He huan pi/ Cortex Albizziae/silk tree bark

ENERGETICS:            Sweet, neutral

Heart, liver

Calms spirit (shen) and releases qi constraint.

Invigorates blood.

Treats emotional problems with heart and liver involvement: insomnia, irritability and depression and stress, premenstrual syndrome.

Invigorates blood, reduces swelling and promotes healing of traumatic injury, where additional qi regulation and spirit-calming functions can assist.

in pregnancy

Dosage: 10-15/ 3-5 qian grams daily in decoction

This herb name translates to “happy dancing people bark” which evokes its power to lighten the spirit, circulate blood and release qi stagnation.

Ren Shen/Radix Ginseng/Chinese ginseng root

ENERGETICS:            Slightly bitter and warm

Lung, spleen

Nourishes source (yuan), spleen and lung qi. Calms the spirit and brightens the mind.

Paradoxically, ginseng can effectively treat insomnia, anxiety, forgetfulness and excessive dreaming while shoring up energy and mental acuity. Worry, rumination and a lack of clarity due to deficiency are also addressed by this formidable herb. Qi and blood-deficient individuals, especially with lung and spleen weakness (many Americans) should take a second look at this long-famed medicinal.

Caution in excess heat, yang rising or phlegm conditions.  This herb is not contraindicated for women, as some adherents to archaic doctrines imply.

Dosage: 5 to 10grams/1-3 qian in decoction. Some sensitive individuals may respond well to a significantly reduced dose.

Sample formula: Tian Wang Bu Xin Tang

 To summarize some applications, refer to the table below.  Perusal of a good reference book will help you get to know the other functions of each herb, which helps to differentiate them quite a lot.





Dan Shen, Da Suan


Hong Qu, Shan Zhu


Shan Zha, Du Zhong


Suan Zao Ren, Dan Shen, Ye Jiao Teng


He Huan Pi, Suan Zao Ren, Bai Shao


Suan Zao Ren; He Huan Pi, Ling Zhi


Beyond typical heart symptoms in Western medicine, herb formulas targeted to heart disharmony include protocols for insomnia, fatigue, edema and a wide range of psychological problems.
Complicated and/or chronic diseases typically involve multiple organ systems. Kidney organ or meridian involvement is common, as the heart and kidney control the fire and water balance in the body. Clear and accurate diagnosis is key in treating the heart. Allopathic diagnostics like EKG’s and stress tests can be very pertinent here. A licensed herbalist and acupuncturist can advise you on appropriate foods, herbs and formulas incorporating all of this information. Our hearts, the emperor organ, deserve the utmost care and consideration.


Bensky, Dan / Gamble, Andrew. Chinese Herbal Medicine; Materia Medica. Eastland Press: 1993
Chen, John / Chen, Tina Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press Inc.: 2004
Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone: 1994
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods. North Atlantic Books:  2002

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