February is American Heart Month!
Did you know that heart disease is the number one cause of death by illness in our country according to the CDC? Did you also know that it’s one of the most preventable diseases through healthy eating habits & lifestyle? Mindful choices like consuming colorful whole foods, exercising regularly, & abstaining from smoking can go a long way in preventing heart disease from occurring, but if you’re not quite ready for major change, these simple supplement additions can go a long way in steering you away from dis-ease.
Here are 3 well-researched, commonly effective, & generally safe supplements for improving your cardiovascular health:
AGED BLACK GARLIC
You’ve probably heard that garlic, especially raw, contains compounds that are great for your cardiovascular system. But did you know that aged black garlic (ABG) may be even more beneficial than its “younger” friend? ABG actually has an even stronger antioxidant capacity & is a better promoter of fat loss than plain ‘ole garlic.1 Although it's a tasty culinary delicacy, it's also available in the form of capsules.
So what is ABG? It’s garlic that has been fermented using a very specific process. Over several weeks, the garlic is placed in a heated & humid environment which causes a Maillard Reaction. This is that same reaction that occurs when you’re cooking something on high heat or barbecuing & producing browning & grill marks. It’s the browning that occurs on your food, & it makes whatever's cooking real tasty. Despite its nom factor though, this browning effect is typically unfavorable for cardiovascular health. But when it comes to ABG however, the Maillard Reaction actually produces more beneficial compounds than the garlic had before! & better yet, that fermentation process removes the pungent smell & taste that can keep some folks away from it.2
ABG has been found to help decrease body fat.
It works by telling your fat cells to stop producing fat & instead break down more of it for the body to use up as energy.3 Although fat loss (losing weight) isn’t always the key to improving overall health, turning off the pro-inflammatory, obesogenic physiology within your fat cells is super important! ABG does the work to help reduce the obesogenic signaling in your fat cells & reduce inflammation within that tissue thanks to its ability to tell fat cells to stop storing so much & instead break more of it down.
ABG is also an antioxidant powerhouse, which can help to further reduce inflammation in the body & protect the cardiovascular system. In addition, it has anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-allergic, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and anti-clotting effects!4
The ABG supplement I recommend most is by a brand called Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract, and the product is their Cardiovascular Original Formula. It contains a safe dose at 600mg/day, it’s odorless, and 100% organic. Like all supplements mentioned in this article, you can find it at WILLOWTREE Market or order it through their Wellevate platform on their homepage.
BLACK SEED OIL
Black seed oil (BSO) is the extract of Nigella sativa aka black cumin seeds aka black seeds. The main active constituent found in these seeds is called thymoquinone, & most studies on the effects of black seeds focus on this nutrient in isolation.
BSO benefits heart health by improving lipid levels.5,6 These are things like total triglycerides, the total amount of fats in your bloodstream, LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol, & HDL cholesterol, the good kind of cholesterol.
What do cholesterol and lipid levels have to do with cardiovascular health? Having high total triglycerides, high LDL, & low HDL is strongly linked to the incidence of cardiac events such as a heart attack.5 Keeping your lipid & cholesterol levels within a healthy range is the goal most healthcare providers have in mind when looking out for your heart health.
Interestingly, a systematic review & meta-analysis investigating the effects of BSO on lipid levels found that the oil was effective for lowering total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and total triglycerides.6 They also found that powdered black seeds, but not BSO, seem to be effective for increasing HDL cholesterol.6
Maintaining stable blood sugar is another critical component of cardiovascular health. Many scientists posit that having high blood sugar greatly increases your risk for atherosclerosis because having high blood sugar can contribute to higher blood pressure. If your blood pressure is chronically increased, it can cause damage to the inner lining of your blood vessels & trigger the start of plaque formation. Additionally, think of a sugar molecule… It’s a pentagonal or hexagonal ring with sharp, pointy corners. Some believe that when your blood sugar is elevated, in combination with the increase in blood pressure it instigates, the sugar molecules themselves can directly assault the inner vessel walls & trigger the inflammatory process that leads to atherosclerosis.
BSO has been found to improve blood sugar control. In particular, one study showed that black seed powder is effective for lowering blood sugar levels directly.7 Another study’s results indicated that BSO can lower hemoglobin A1C levels, which is a laboratory result healthcare practitioners use to analyze what’s been happening with your blood sugar over the last 3 months or so.8 A higher HbA1C indicates your blood sugar has, on average, been high, so lowering HbA1C is favorable for your health.
That active constituent of BSO, thymoquinone itself is also a strong antioxidant, making it anti-inflammatory overall, meaning it’s great for improving cellular health & preventing a cardiovascular event.9 In addition to this supplement having tremendous benefit for your cardiovascular system, it’s also anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, analgesic, anti-microbial, a bronchodilator, hepato-protective, renal-protective, and gastro-protective, meaning it’s helpful for your lungs, liver, kidneys, GI system, pain relief, & systemic wellness.9
Wow, what a powerful seed!
Dosing for this one is quite individually dependent, but doses from ⅓ of a teaspoon all the way up to 2 tablespoons/day are recognized as effective. In my practice, I often prefer to be more conservative in dosing & would recommend a teaspoon or less/day for most folks. The brand I prefer for both BSO and powdered black seeds is Heritage Store as they cold-press their oils to maximize the nutrient content of their black seed products.
HAWTHORN (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
The use of this heart-serving herb dates way back with evidence of the Chinese using it as long ago as 659 AD!10 They were focused on harnessing hawthorn’s power to tonify the spleen as Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that doing so improves digestion & blood circulation by dissipating blood stasis.10
Fast forward to the present, and transport yourself back over to the western world, & you’ll find that hawthorn, the leaves, flowers, & berries are all commonly recognized as having cardioprotective qualities.10 One of the mechanisms by which hawthorn protects your cardiovascular system is by preventing atherosclerosis & complications from it.
Atherosclerosis is the term used to describe the formation of plaques on the inner lining of blood vessels. It’s an extremely common component in the progression of cardiovascular disease, especially because these plaques can break free from the vessel walls & travel to places like the arteries of the heart & brain where they can cause blocks in blood flow to these crucial organs, i.e. heart attacks & strokes.
The cause of atherosclerosis is complex, but what’s important to know is that having high LDL along with low HDL & living an inflammatory lifestyle are two of the biggest risk factors. The great news is that hawthorn extract is a great one for lowering LDL, just like our previously mentioned plant friend, BSO.10 In addition, hawthorn has also been shown to help improve the integrity of existing plaques residing within blood vessels, meaning it makes them less likely to break free, thus reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.10
Besides having concrete evidence for physiologically improving your cardiovascular health & reducing your risk for heart-related disease, herbalists have long coveted hawthorn’s ability to provide spiritual support surrounding matters of the heart.
This plant extends a sweet, gentle hand to aid the grieving process related to the loss of love.
Going through a break-up or suffering the loss of a loved one? Take hawthorn liberally, meditate to tune into how it’s affecting you, & feel how it tenderly holds you as a parent would a child in distress. The emotional healing this plant offers is just profound! You can steep the herb in tea, take it in a capsule, or for a stronger dose, drop it into your system via tincture.
Dosing for this herb varies. If you are otherwise very healthy but coping with love-related grief, you can take up to 10 droppers full/day of tincture. If you prefer capsules, most folks do well with 200-500mg of the plant/day.
Please keep in mind with regard to dosing advice provided in this post that it’s strongly recommended to work with a healthcare practitioner when starting any new diet or supplement regime. Additionally, it’s good practice with any herb to not exceed three weeks straight of taking it. Every three weeks, give yourself at least three days off to allow your body to detox anything that may be accumulating as a result of continued supplementation. It also gives you a chance to check in with how your body feels when you’re not taking it.
In sum, heart health is of big concern in this country, and although it’s a complicated disease with a vast array of potential etiologies, there are loads of actions you can take to prevent it from becoming a problem for you. Adding these supplements into your life could be a simple way to improve &/or maintain your overall cardiovascular health to live a long & prosperous life.
Remember that the information contained in this post is meant to be educational only. Though the supplements mentioned in this article are relatively very safe, you should always consult your healthcare practitioner before beginning any new eating, lifestyle, or supplement changes, and be sure to identify potential side effects or interactions that they could have with your pre-existing conditions &/or medications.
Sophie Knapp (MScN, RN) of Knapp Nutrition is available for nutrition consults via Zoom or in-person at the Wellness Studio at WILLOWTREE Health Market. Her work specializes in personalizing your eating & lifestyle recommendations using an evidence-based approach. Together, you’ll work to uncover your bio-individuality & discover the optimal changes you need to feel like the best version of yourself in a way that aligns with your values & works for your personality. Visit her website today to book a FREE 20-minute consult!
Zhang X, Li N, Lu X, et al. Effects of temperature on the quality of black garlic. J Sci Food Agric. 2016;96:2366-2372. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.7351.
Lanzotti V. The analysis of onion and garlic. J Chromatogr A. 2006;1112:3-22. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2005.12.016.
Nam H, Jung H, Kim Y, et al. Aged black garlic extract regulates lipid metabolism by inhibiting lipogenesis and promoting lipolysis in mature 3T3-L1 adipocytes. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2018;27(2):575-579. doi: 10.1007/s10068-017-0268-y.
Ryu J, Kang D. Physicochemical properties, biological activity, health benefits, and general limitations of aged black garlic: a review. Molecules. 2017;22(6):919. doi: 10.3390/molecules22060919.
Nelson R. Hyperlipidemia as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Prim Care. 2013; 40(1):195-211. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2012.11.003.
Sahebkar A, Beccuti G, Simental-Mendia L, et al. Nigella sativa (black seed) effects on plasma lipid concentrations in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized placebo controlled trials. Pharmacol Res. 2016;106:37-50. doi: 10.1016/j.phrs.2016.02.008.
Heshmati J, Namazi N. Effects of black seed (Nigella sativa) on metabolic parameters in diabetes mellitus: a systematic review. Complement Ther Med. 2015; 23(2):275-82. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2015.01.013.
Rachman P, Akrom, Darmawan E. The efficacy of black cumin seed (Nigella sativa) oil and hypoglycemic drug combination to reduce HbA1C level in patients with metabolic syndrome risk. Confr Ser: Mater Sci Eng. 2017; 259:012018. doi: 10.1088/1757-899X/259/1/012018.
Tavvakoli A, Ahmadi A, Razavi B, et al. Black seed (Nigella sativa) and its constituent thymoquinone as an antidote or a protective agent against natural or chemical toxicities. Iran J Parhm Res. 2017;16:2-23. PMID: 29844772.
Wu M, Liu L, Xing Y, et al. Roles and mechanisms of hawthorn and its extracts on atherosclerosis: a review. Front Pharmacol. 2020; 11:118. doi: 10.2289/fphar.2020.00118.