These days, the general population is living longer with the expectation of a full and productive working life. Additionally, most hope to work towards an active and healthy retirement, the expectation being that this will be a time to realise the plans not possible in the busy years of raising families and/or establishing careers.
Unfortunately for many, these are also the years when health problems may manifest, most commonly heart disease, circulatory disorders, and perhaps cruelest of all, failing memory or dementia.
Such ailments are frequently considered normal effects of ageing. In developed countries, cerebral vascular insufficiency is such a common condition of the elderly that many consider it a side effect of ageing.
The common thread that runs through many ageing disorders is a disruption in normal circulation to the periphery, including the brain, and to the general circulation.
Herbally, there are many therapeutics which are employed for these types of disorders; however a few stand out both for clinical efficacy and scientific research. These include ginkgo (Gingko biloba), ginseng (Panax ginseng), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).
Ginkgo – the living fossil Gingko biloba is paradoxically both the oldest, and the most recent addition to herbs which benefit the circulatory system.
The oldest known tree (it is known as a living fossil) ginkgo leaf extract has only become part of herbal therapeutics in the last 30 years – as a direct result of scientific research.
It was the presence of flavonoids in extract of Gingko biloba that led scientists to assume (correctly) that it may have a beneficial action on the body’s vascular system. Over years of research gingko has been shown to:
Significantly increase blood flow to the brain
inhibit blood platelet aggregation;
prevent oedema of cerebral tissue by stabilising the membranes
involved in the blood-brain barrier;
reduce or even eliminate the neurological consequences of cerebral oedema;
inhibit free-radical activity and proliferation;
prevent onset and severity of visual impairment and;
improve visual acuity in patients suffering from senile macular degeneration.
Prevention and treatment of peripheral arterial disease (particularly intermittent claudication)
Protection and treatment of diabetic vascular disease
Of particular interest is the specific action of Gingko biloba extract on the noradrenergic system. In the ageing process this system, especially in the brain, begins to lose vigor; associated symptoms of memory loss, speech defects, and decrease in alertness appear.
Due to its potential to reactivate the noradrenergic system of the cerebral cortex, Ginkgo is one of the most important herbs in the prevention of premature ageing.
The King of Tonics
Panax ginseng (asian ginseng) has long been valued in China as a tonic for the elderly and studies confirm the benefits of Ginseng for this age group. Such clinical benefits include:
Positive effects on sleep quality and increase in REM sleep were noted in one ten week double-blind study.
Improved cerebrovascular circulation was noted on treatment with ginseng in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study over three months.
In a double-blind cross-over study ginseng was shown to improv reaction time. Participants also felt slightly more alert and energetic. No major side effects were noted and the oft quoted negative influence on blood pressure was not noted.
Ginseng has also been shown to reduce total serum cholesterol, triglycerides and fatty acid levels, while raising HDL levels.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study,treatment with ginseng showed a clinically significantimprovement in recovery rate from physical exercise, and in visual and auditory reaction times.
Numerous studies have shown ginseng to be effective inmaintaining or improving general immunity and wellbeing. Korean scientists have found a significant reduction in the incidence of cancer with increased regular use of ginsen
Better Health from Berries
The beneficial effects of Vaccinium myrtilus (bilberry) are due to its high content of anthocyanins, the blue pigments found in the berries.
Anthocyanins are used therapeutically in the prevention and treatment of vascular disorders particularly when associated with venous or capillary fragility.
Anthocyanins have been shown to decrease edema and to increase regeneration of visual purple (rhodopsin), the light sensitive pigment found in the rods of the retina.
There have been numerous clinical trials during the last thirty years, most of them based on a standardized extract of bilberry. The beneficial effects are summarized below:
Reduced edema of lower limb varicose syndrome
Reduced protein exudate of varicose ulcers
Improvement in chronic venous insufficiency
Relief of hemorrhoids during pregnancy
Improvement of symptoms, and mobility of finger joints in patients with Raynaud’s syndrome
Improvement of many visual degenerative disorders, particularly macular degeneration, diabetic-induced glaucoma, cataracts, and vascular retinal disturbances.
The Heart-felt Herb
If asked the desired effects of the perfect drug for the aging heart, most cardiologists would answer that it should maintain good coronary blood flow, improve the use of available oxygen, reduce arterial blood pressure, reduce peripheral resistance and be mildly positively inotropic.
Fortunately, nature has already designed the perfect drug for the aging heart – Crataegus spp. (hawthorn).
Preparations of the leaves or berries of hawthorn can be used as a non-stimulating, general tonic for the heart, even in absence of any clinical heart disease.
The active constituents in hawthorn include oligomeric procyanidins (OPC’s) and flavonoids (quercetin, vitexin and others).
Hawthorn does not contain cardiac glycosides.
The cardiac activity of hawthorn may be due to its inhibition of intracellular cyclic AMP phosphodiesterase, however, as always in herbal medicine, it is the subtle interaction of the sum of constituents which confer the positive effects of hawthorn on the heart and circulation.
Clinically hawthorn is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of:
Hypertension, both essential and renal (mild effect)
Cardiac arrhythmia and mild cardiac heart failure
Exercised-induced cardiac weakness and breathlessness
Studies have shown that using hawthorn with digoxin therapy improves the effectiveness of the drug without increasing its toxicity.
Much of the aging process is induced by the accumulation of free radicals in the body.
All the herbs mentioned have been shown to have significant antioxidant property thus they all possess protective properties, and can be used prophylactically against many common diseases associated with aging.
Research into safe and effective treatments for an increasingly aging population is gaining priority as the health care costs of this age group are potentially crippling to individuals, their families and to governments around the world.
Botanical medicine shows great promise in this area, not only because the risk of side effects is substantially reduce compared to drug therapy but because the herbs have the potential to prevent disease and also to act therapeutically on a variety of related medical conditions simultaneously.
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