As men approach middle age, they are increasingly at risk for age-related conditions, especially those associated with heart health and the circulatory system. In addition, the effects of stress and nervous tension, which are easier for the body's systems to cope with when young, can begin to have cumulative effects on overall health.
Herbal supplements can have a positive impact on many conditions related to aging. The best-known men's health supplements contain products such as saw palmetto, which directly affect prostate health and are often marketed as supporting healthy sexual function. However, in many cases the best approach to healthy aging for men involves the use of herbs that support general health, and particularly cardiovascular and circulatory function.
"As a general rule, men over 40—and especially those who smoke—need to make cardiovascular tonic herbs the core component of any herbal regimen, and then add additional herbs that support that core strength," says David Hoffman, a British-trained medical herbalist based in Sonoma, Calif.
Hawthorne is Hoffman's first recommendation. "Hawthorne is the core tonic for the heart and a normalized blood pressure," he says. "It doesn't work in a rapid, flashy way, but if used daily as a food supplement there will be a slow, gradual normalizing of blood pressure and strengthening of heartbeat."
That recommendation is seconded by Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, based in Scotts Valley, Calif. "Hawthorne is both a general tonic and a cardiovascular formula, and tonifying the cardiovascular system is one of the best things you can do for an aging population," he says.
Though heart health is hawthorne's primary function, "Cardiovascular issues probably underlie a good proportion of the sexual issues that people take herbs for," Hoffman notes. In addition, hawthorne can be used long-term without risks. "Toxicology tests show it's safe, no matter how much of it you ram into rats and guinea pigs," he says.
Inflammation is another condition associated with aging, particularly for men who remain active in sports. "Hawthorne is a very gentle anti-inflammatory," Hoffman says, "and new treatment guidelines suggest you want to control inflammation wherever it occurs, because it can lead to long-term problems."
Hoffman's second pick for general wellness is ginkgo—though not for its reputed benefits for short-term memory loss and Alzheimer's, which are not well-supported by research. "Gingko has two primary effects relevant to male health," Hoffman says. "First, it increases the oxygen available across the blood-brain barrier. As we age, and especially for those who smoke, the resistance of this barrier increases, so the brain isn't receiving enough oxygen. Gingko is quite efficient in helping to limit this oxygen lag."
Digestion is another issue that can affect overall health in older men. "Constipation and diarrhea aren't flashy topics, but if a man is experiencing these digestive disruptions, his virility is impacted and the body's energy is going somewhere else," Hoffman says. Though the best advice for those with digestive issues is to begin with the diet, many men may require condition-specific herbs to address particular issues. "If men experience flatulence, consider chamomile," he says. "If they tend to diarrhea, think of something like meadowsweet. If constipation is the issue, I'd recommend senna in the form of a tea."
Supporting healthy liver function is another issue, especially since liver damage can be cumulative as we age. "I would recommend using milk thistle regularly in the same way as gingko and hawthorne," Hoffman says. "Milk thistle helps the liver regenerate and protect itself from toxins. Even if we have a perfect diet and lifestyle, we live in a polluted world."
Stress and exhaustion may be an unavoidable part of modern life, but they become harder on the body as we age. "My favorite herb is avena, a species of common oats," says Upton. "One company I know of spearheaded marketing avena for sexual dysfunction, but the real reason it works is that it's such a wonderful nerve tonic. A lot of times, sexual dysfunction is associated with neurological stuff, exhaustion and even emotional issues, and all these issues can be benefited by a nerve tonic."
Upton also recommends adaptogenic herbs, which help the body cope with stress and act as general tonics. "Reishi is my favorite because of its multitude of functions," he says. "It does more positive things to more systems than any other herb I know. From a pharmacological perspective, it's one of the broadest-acting immune-modulating herbs I've ever seen. It's a powerful antistress herb and energy tonic, and helps in uplifting the mind. It also has specific hepatoprotectant and cardioprotectant functions, and is so broad-acting that most older adults could benefit from it." Other important adaptogens in his medicine chest are cordyceps—like reishi, a type of mushroom—and astragalus, which increases immune resistance. Astragalus is widely used in China, not only in the form of medicine but also in syrups, teas and even as an ingredient in soup, Upton says.
His final choice is schizandra, one of the most researched adaptogens in the world. One of its key traits is its ability to help the body's cells retain their essential fluid. "A measure of aging is that our body loses its fluidity," Upton says. "Our skin is dry, our joints get creaky, our minds are stiff—everything is like old leather. Because schizandra helps hold onto that fluid, it can help with any conditions related to abnormal fluidic discharge, including incontinence related to prostate enlargement and premature ejaculation."
Some believe the herb also has certain characteristics that are useful to older men. "From a Chinese medical perspective, it's said to secure or restrain the essence," Upton says. "In Chinese medicine, the essence is what gives us our longevity and vitality. Type A personalities particularly tend to skip meals, stay up late and burn themselves out, and they end up older than their biological age. That's a squandering of essence, and schizandra can help retain that essence."
"As far as adaptogens, my favorite remains eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng," Hoffman says. "It does everything an adaptogen is meant to do, and does it safely." Unlike hawthorne and gingko, which can be taken indefinitely, Hoffman recommends that users take eleuthero for a short time, then take a break. "You're actually feeding the adrenals, and if you do it constantly they stop taking notice," he says. In addition to helping the body deal with stress, eleuthero can help reduce blood pressure, in contrast to panax ginseng, which can sometimes raise blood pressure.
Not all older men will need each of these herbs, Hoffman says. The best approach is to start with herbs that support general wellness, such as circulatory health, and that can help combat the stresses of daily life. After beginning with a cardiovascular tonic, such as hawthorne, and an adaptogen, such as reishi, schizandra or eleuthero, men should consider additional herbs that address specific conditions or health issues. By using a combination of approaches, it's possible to have a positive impact on all the body's functions.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 50-51