Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.): An Anti-Anxiety Herb?

nutrition diet healthHawthorn (Crataegus sp.) is a deciduous tree that is found in temperate regions, particularly in Europe and North America, but also Northern Asia. Other common names include the May tree due to the period in which it flowers in the United Kingdom. It is well known as a shrub that is used to make hedgerows in the United Kingdom, and is well recognised for its small prickly thorns, its white flowers and its red, yellow or black berries. Hawthorn belongs to the Rosaceae (rose) family and can grow upto 15 meters in height, but is most commonly found in hedgerows. The berries from the hawthorn plant are referred to as haws, and they are edible. The leaves of the plant are also edible, and can be used in salads when tender. The hawthorn plant has been used medicinally for its cardioprotective effects. A number of studies have shown that in subjects with chronic heart failure, hawthorn has significant benefits including an improvement in work tolerance, reductions in fatigue and reductions in shortness of breath.

hawthorn anxiety

A number of substances that could confer antioxidant properties are present in hawthorn, and these are likely candidates for potential health effects. Phenolic acids can act as antioxidants, and those present in hawthorn include malic acid, citric acid, succinic acid, quinic acid, tartaric acid and salicylic acid. The fruits are also a rich source of the antioxidant nutrient vitamin C. Hydroxycinnamic acids are another class of antioxidants present in the hawthorn fruit. Hawthorn also contains a number of antioxidant flavonoids. Hawthorn flowers are rich in flavonols, whereas hawthorn leaves contain mainly flavones. As flavones have been shown to exert anxiolytic effects through reaction with the benzodiazepine receptor, hawthorn leaf extract may potentially be a better treatment for anxiety compared to the fruit or flowers. The fruit also contains flavonoids but with a different profile to both the leaves and the flowers.

Hawthorns is therefore a useful tonic for cardioprotection. However, in addition to its well evidence cardioprotective effects, hawthorn may also have a beneficial effect on mood. The number of studies that have been performed on hawthorne in this regard are limited. However, a number of human clinical trials on the effects of hawthorn of anxiety have been performed. For example, in one study, subjects with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) were administered the herbal compound Sympathyl, a herbal preparation prescribed for mild anxiety. Subjects were administered Sympathyl in a dose of 300 mg of hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), 80 mg of extract of California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) and 300 mg of elemental magnesium per day for 3 months. This combination of herbs and magnesium caused a significant reduction in the anxiety scores of the subjects compared to the placebo. Therefore Sympathyl may be an effective treatment for individuals with mild to moderate anxiety.

hawthorn anxiety

The chemical composition of hawthorn has been investigated and a number of phytochemicals identified. These phytochemicals may explain the physiological effects of extracts of the herb. The fruits of the hawthorn plant are known to contain a number of sugars including glucose, sucrose, xylose and fructose. Also present are the sugar alcohols sorbitol and myo-inositol. However, it is unlikely that sugars contribute greatly to the physiological effects.

California poppy is known to have anxiolytic effects in humans, and so it is not clear from this study, which herbs was causing the improvements in mood. However, it has been noted that hawthorne appears to have a calming effect when used in patients with cardiovascular disease. The calming effect of hawthorn may be mild, but its inclusion in formulas with other anxiolytic herbs seems justified as some studies have shown beneficial effects with the use of hawthorne in isolation. For example, in another study, subjects with mildly elevated levels of blood pressure were administered either 500 mg of hawthorn, 600 mg of magnesium, or a combination of the two. After 10 weeks there was a trend towards a reduction in the diastolic blood pressure and anxiety of the subjects, and also a trend towards a reduction in the anxiety experienced by the subjects. The evidence that hawthorn is an effective cardioprotective agent is therefore strong, but the evidence that it enhances mood is more limited, although consistent in its findings.

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Guo, R., Pittler, M. H. and Ernst, E. 2008. Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure. The Cochrane Collaboration. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005312.pub2
Walker, A. F., Marakis, G., Morris, A. P. and Robinson, P. A. 2002. Promising hypotensive effect of hawthorn extract: a randomized double-blind pilot study of mild, essential hypertension. Phytotherapy Research. 16: 48-54
Hanus, M., Lafon, J. and Matheiu, M. 2004. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) and magnesium in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders. Current Medical Research Opinion. 20: 63-71
Edwards, J. E., Brown, P. N., Talent, N., Dickinson, T. A. and Shipley, P. R. 2012. A review of the chemistry of the genus Crataegus. Phytochemistry. 79:  5-26

About Robert Barrington

Robert Barrington is a writer, nutritionist, lecturer and philosopher.
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