Herbal Help for Heart Disease

Herbal Help for Heart Disease

Healthnotes Newswire (January 6, 2005)—Berberine, a component of several medicinal herbs, may help prevent heart disease, as it can lower total cholesterol, low-density-lipoprotein (LDL, “bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, according to Nature Medicine (online publication: November 7, 2004; www.nature.com/nm).

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Several chemicals in the blood, such as cholesterol, triglycerides, homocysteine, and C-reactive protein, are closely related to the health of the heart and blood vessels. Levels of these chemicals are measured to evaluate and monitor heart disease risk. Dietary measures such as increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, soy foods, and nuts can effectively lower total and LDL-cholesterol levels and thereby reduce the risk of heart disease. A family of medications known as statins is also used to reduce levels of heart disease risk factors, as they interfere with the body’s cholesterol production.

Known for its antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties, berberine is a component from several medicinal plants including goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), and Huanlian (Coptis sinensis, an herb from traditional Chinese medicine). Berberine-containing herbs have long been used to treat respiratory and digestive infections. The effect of berberine on cholesterol levels has not been previously studied.

In the current study, extracts from 700 Chinese medicinal herbs were studied for their ability to stimulate LDL-cholesterol receptors to appear on cells in a test tube. These receptors take LDL-cholesterol out of the blood and lower circulating levels. Of all the extracts, berberine (from Huanlian) showed the strongest ability to increase the number of LDL-cholesterol receptors. Ninety-one people with elevated cholesterol levels were then randomly assigned to receive either 500 mg of berberine twice per day for three months or placebo.

In people using berberine, total cholesterol levels dropped 18%, LDL-cholesterol levels dropped 20%, and triglyceride levels dropped 28%, while there was no change in people using placebo. The effect of berberine was even more pronounced in people who were not doing any other cholesterol-lowering treatment: a 29% drop in total-cholesterol levels, a 25% drop in LDL-cholesterol levels, and a 35% drop in triglycerides.

The results of this study suggest that berberine might be a useful therapy for lowering heart disease risk. More research is needed to identify the best amount to use and the long-term effects of supplementation. The combined effect of berberine and other cholesterol-lowering therapies, such as dietary changes and statin drugs, also needs further study.

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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