In October 2011, the Washington Post reported our teeming world reached a milestone in population for the first time with 7 billion people. The World Health Organization reported in 2010 that 1.56 billion folks of the 7 billion will soon be “living with high blood pressure.” What say thee, Herbal Friends? Do 1.56 billion people being ill, which is 23% of the folks on the planet, deserve to be called an epidemic?
Globally, nearly one billion people have high blood pressure (hypertension); of these, two-thirds are in developing countries. Hypertension is one of the most important causes of premature death worldwide and the problem is growing; in 2025, an estimated 1.56 billion adults will be living with hypertension (High Blood Pressure). Hypertension kills nearly 8 million people every year, worldwide.
–World Health Organization 2010 Fact Sheet on Hypertension
Heart disease and stroke are among the nation’s leading causes of death and major causes of disability, and these conditions can be expected to increase sharply as this country’s “baby boom” generation ages. Yet these conditions are largely preventable. As expressed in the Steps to a Healthier US initiative from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, the long-term solution for our nation’s health care crisis requires embracing prevention as the first step. To reverse the epidemic of heart disease and stroke through increasingly effective prevention, action is needed now.
–A Public Health Action Plan to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011
Please come with me on an herbal exploration of this epidemic condition. Before we consider the specific herbs that help reduce high blood pressure (HBP), bear with me as I quote some scientific journals (this article is more statistics-filled than my usual offerings). First, meditate with me on this amazingly under-reported fact from Edward Freis, the grandfather and foremost pioneer in Western science’s approach to high blood pressure. Freis wrote the following in the 1976 medical journal Circulation, “It is a striking fact that hypertension is not found in unacculturated societies nor does the blood pressure rise with age as occurs in all ‘civilized’ populations.”
Freis found out this disease is completely absent in many civilizations, most notably in so called primitive or unacculturated societies. Completely absent! In his research, reported in the study “Salt, Volume and the Prevention of Hypertension,” Freis suggested a reason for this phenomenon, and he also listed seven different “uncivilized” societies that have zero incidence of the disease:
“Obviously, there must be some environmental factor which accounts for the difference. The hypotheses that have been advanced to explain the lack of hypertension in unacculturated peoples include 1) debility produced by parasitic or other diseases, 2) a simple, slow-paced and noncompetitive way of life, 3) lack of obesity and 4) a low intake of salt. The evidence suggests that it is the latter which accounts for the virtual absence of hypertension among primitive peoples.
An absence of hypertension and a failure of the blood pressure to rise with age has been observed in unacculturated populations from widely different parts of the world including New Guinea, the highlands of Malaysia, the Easter Islands, the Amazon Basin, the San Blas Islands of Panama, rural Uganda, and the Kalahari Desert of Africa…. The desert living Kalahari Bushmen were free of these diseases and were in physically excellent condition, being able to run for long distances in pursuit of game. Inhabitants of some of the more remote South Pacific islands such as Pukapuka in the Cook Islands or the Easter Islands also were in excellent health and had little or no hypertension.”
Now please meditate for two minutes on the implication of the following statement from the Seventh Report Joint National Commission on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (2003), which sets the standards and defines the drug-based treatment of high blood pressure in the U.S.: “Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) occurs in more than two-thirds of individuals after age 65. This is also the population with the lowest rates of blood pressure control.”
Lastly, consider the following facts about high blood pressure provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website:
- About one out of three U.S. adults—31.3%—has high blood pressure.
- High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.
- High blood pressure was listed as a primary or contributing cause of death for 326,000 Americans in 2006.
- In 2010, high blood pressure will cost the United States $76.6 billion in health care services, medications, and missed days of work.
- About 70% of those with high blood pressure and took medication had their high blood pressure controlled. The control rate was 46.6% among all hypertensive patients.
- 25% of American adults have prehypertension—blood pressure numbers that are higher than normal, but not yet in the high blood pressure range. Prehypertension raises your risk for high blood pressure.
See if you agree with Herbal Tom that this condition screams out for a new treatment paradigm based on prevention.
An Herbal Treatment Paradigm for HBP
Two healing questions come to mind in the effective herbal treatment of high blood pressure: What shift is needed in our ineffective paradigm that will be sufficient to prevent this “silent killer” we call high blood pressure? What are the specific herbs to begin our reversal of this condition?
The first thing needed is a fair study of the effect of herbal prevention on the development of the disease. For example, in 1994 David Hoffmann, Jim Duke, Leonard Wisneski, Anil Patel, and I proposed a study to NIH for treating stage one hypertension with two herbs, Garlic and Hawthorn. This work was so well received that I presented it along with Peter Scuccimari, an Italian physician, to the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine in Atlanta in 1995. We presented the evidence that Garlic and Hawthorn have been shown in multiple studies (over 300 actually) to reduce diastolic blood pressure an average of 8 points over a 6-month period.
Secondly, my clinical experience with the disease shows me overwhelmingly the shift needed must take into consideration the environment of the entire person, internally and externally, who suffers from hypertension. Matching the different natures of us humans to the different natures of the plants is where the more effective healing lies. Ayurveda is my choice of ways to accomplish this better healing. When we take into account the different causes of the pressure from an Ayurvedic perspective, our ability to be effective with herbal medicine increases dramatically. The intuitive logic of this approach can be briefly summarized as follows.
High Blood Pressure is predominately caused by an excess of the element of fire in the physical body. Fire is hot and builds up pressure if it cannot be released in a healthy manner. Treating the digestive system for the excess fire is a great place to start in treating HBP. However, my experience in clinical herbalism has taught me that treating hypertension according to the specific element causing it is way more effective. If a pot of water is on the stove there are three ways to reduce the pressure from building up too high: let the air out (Vata approach); reduce the heat (Pitta approach); or reduce the volume of water (Kapha approach).
Western science first treats just about everybody’s high blood pressure with diuretics, which reduce the water by making you urinate. There are herbs that do this—like Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), Buchu, Cleavers, and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). But in treating the elements, or Pranas, the first approach herbally depends on the nature of the person using the above example of the pot of water on the stove. So the new approach needed is to treat the pressure differently according to the cause of the excess pressure.
The first herbal I would use to start this process is a combination named Triphala. Triphala, which can safely be taken on a daily basis, is designed to reduce an excess of all three elements in Ayurveda: Fire, Air and Water/Earth. Treating all three aspects of digestion with Triphala is a great way to begin to bring the balance back using herbs designed to work together in a way that creates more healing than the individual herbs would hold alone.
Last week, a representative of the Gaia Herb Company from North Carolina shared with me their research clearly showing that different herbs, mixed in the proper relationship in the manufacturing process, show spikes in Liquid Chromatography more than the sum of the individual herbs. This is another example of the improved clinical result that comes from mixing the herbs together taking into account their different natures.
Scottish Herbalist David Hoffmann, who was one of the team members in our National Institute of Health study in 1994, offers a recipe of five herbs for high blood pressure that has in my experience been proven effective for about 50% of the people who take it, even without treating people according to their personal nature (dosha). The five herbs are:
- Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha)
- Garlic (Allium sativum)
- Linden (Tilia sp.)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus)
They are available in tea form, in capsules and in tinctures. Hawthorn, the most important one, is now available in two great new and convenient forms: as a syrup from the Flora company; and as a jam from the Herbalist & Alchemist company.
Finally, I leave you with a thought-provoking quote in the most quote-filled article I have probably ever done. It is an admission from some of our leaders in medical thought—an excerpt from the CDC’s 2011 report A Public Health Action Plan to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke—that our current approach not doing the best job in treating HBP:
“Interventions with the greatest impact on the population as a whole are those applied in the earliest phases of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) development. To treat victims of heart disease, stroke, or other cardiovascular conditions is clearly to intervene late in the disease process. For those who die suddenly without warning, it is too late to have any benefit. Today, only a few cents per person per year are invested in the most far-reaching intervention approaches, whereas thousands of dollars per person per year are spent in efforts to treat established risk factors, rescue the victims of acute events, restore function and reduce risk for recurrent events among survivors, and provide end-of-life care. There is a need and opportunity to support a continuum of care, from the whole population to the individual victims of CVD, but we as a nation are not doing so.”
I teach classes in herbal High Blood Pressure Management, and am starting a group at Smile Herb Shop called PATH—the People for the Alternative Treatment of High Blood Pressure. These are just a couple of ways you can take some first simple steps to prevent HBP herbally. Keep in touch; this painful situation is not going away anytime soon.
Tom Wolfe, RH