Crataegus: Mental and emotional indications

by Deborah Frances ND

Medical Herbalism 10-31-96 8(3): 1, 4

Some years ago it struck me that crataegus (hawthorn), a nutritive heart tonic used in a wide variety of cardiovascular disorders, might be well-indicated for certain emotional states that lead us to “close down our hearts,” and that prescribing Crataegus at these times might, in fact, help to prevent cardiovascular disease in later life.

In the intervening years, I’ve had many experiences to confirm my hunch; and while sometimes the emotional effects of an herbal remedy are more subtle and slow, on other occasions they can be quite dramatic.

A woman came to my office in May of 1995 complaining of severe depression and fatigue. She was “close to despair” with suicidal feelings, yet so reserved and closed that her husband was unaware she even felt down. She said the depression was lifelong and confessed to a tendency to dwell on old wounds that caused her to feel resentful and distrustful. She was given homeopathic Aurum and a tincture of hypericum (St Johnswort) and cimicifuga (black cohosh) to be taken thirty drops four times a day. On follow up a few weeks later, she reported feeling much better with significantly less depression and fatigue. At that time I changed her tincture to add crataegus, thirty drops per ounce, which gave her approximately one drop of crataegus per dose of herbs. One month later she said:

“That new herb you added to my tincture is incredible! Since I started that bottle, I actually feel lighthearted and happy!” Throughout the interview she kept adding, “I want you to know I think that crataegus is really helping me.”

I believe this illustrates quite dramatically how a botanical medicine prescribed on specific indications may work even in minute doses.

Crataegus, in my experience, has an ability to open out hearts again when disappointments or grief led us to close down or distrust. I think of it as a heart cleanser for it seems to help people let go of old wounds and resentments and be more receptive. Yet it does not allow us to open naively, for its thorns teach protection. I would say it teaches patients who have built up walls of protection around themselves to replace those walls with something more like semi-permeable membrane. It brings gentleness to people who are hard on themselves or others. Another patient used the same words as this woman in describing crataegus when she said: “It makes me feel lighthearted and happy.”

A man came into my office complaining of a persistent pain in his back since a bout of pneumonia treated by the medical doctors a few weeks previously. Physical examination revealed restricted motion in the thoracic spine, pronounced at level T3-T4 and T4-T5 with some hypertonicity of surrounding muscles. Spinal manipulation was done with the usual massage and heat packs and the patient was released with a formula of antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory herbs. Usually I find that such a formula makes a significant difference in musculoskeletal cases, but not this time. The muscles continued to be hypertonic and recurrent adjustments to the spine proved always a challenge, never holding for long. I decided to try a different approach.

As my initial work with this man has been in the context of a Jungian dream group, I knew him to be a mild, gentle and generous person whose dreams recurrently suggested that he needed to be more forceful and assertive. Although he could see intellectually what his dreams were telling him, his resentment of his loud, domineering, and aggressive father created a block to integrating his own warrior spirit. His heart was closed. Based on this knowledge, the history of a chest condition (pneumonia), and a general constriction in the area of the “heart chakra,” I decided to get creative and prescribed a tincture of crataegus to be taken thirty drops four times a day. On return visit one week later, his muscles were less hypertonic and for the first time the manipulation went quickly and easily. He looked visibly more relaxed and said himself that the tincture made him feel “more open in my heart.” In the weeks that followed he was able to integrate more assertiveness and confidence and even to appreciate his father a little more.

It struck me that since crataegus is useful for heart conditions that involve a sense of constriction and closing down, it might also be useful for lung conditions with the same symptoms of constriction and tightness in the chest. Shortly thereafter, I developed a case of bronchitis with just those symptoms. At one point, when the sensation of constriction was particularly strong, I took a few drops of crataegus tincture. Within moments I felt my chest open up, my breathing became easier and my entire chest and back began to perspire.

Since then, I’ve had patients with similar symptoms report that the crataegus seems to “ease breathing” and bring a sensation of “strength in the heart and lungs.” There is not much historical precedent for this use, but Charlotte Ericksen Brown make a brief reference to the use of one species of crataegus for “coughs and whooping cough” in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants (New York: Dover Publications, 1979).

A last case was a sixty-three year-old woman, very uptight and proper who spent a great deal of the intake complaining about her husband. There was nothing subtle about this case. Here was a woman who was angry, judgmental, hard, and closed. She described herself, quite righteously, as “an old-fashioned person” who adhered to the old ways of a strict authoritarian morality.

I gave this patient, among other things, crataegus solid extract, one half teaspoon twice per day. On her return visit, she was dramatically changed, which could partly be attributed to other treatments, but she kept saying, “I just love that hawthorne berry” over and over. Finally I asked here “What is it you like so much about the Hawthorne?”

“Oh,” she said, “Every time I take it, I feel a warmth spread all through my heart and something just opens up inside there!”
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner




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