The goals of alternative treatment for heart disease are often to control cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and improve heart health. When it comes to alternative treatments for any disease or condition, opinions are often mixed as to the effectiveness of the methods—typically, research on these complimentary treatment methods is limited compared to that on traditional medicine treatments. The Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA) goes so far as to state that there is no evidence that alternative or herbal therapies improve the risk of heart failure.
However, many people have experienced success in using alternative treatments to manage many diseases and conditions, including heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, few natural products have been clinically proven to reduce cholesterol. However, some cholesterol-lowering supplements and natural remedies might be helpful.
Before trying any alternative treatments, check with your doctor to be sure that the methods are safe for you. The ingredients in some alternative therapies can interfere with the action of heart failure medicines and may have other harmful effects. It’s especially important to talk to your doctor about any natural remedies or supplements if you’re currently taking other medications.
Astralagus is an herb used to support the immune system in traditional Chinese medicine. It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. The herb is considered to be an “adaptogen,” which means that it’s thought to help protect the body against various stresses. Limited studies suggest that it may improve heart health. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), recent research in China suggests that astralagus may help relieve symptoms and improve heart function by acting as an antioxidant in people with severe forms of heart disease. However, the UMMC also notes that more research is needed.
Hawthorn is a shrub related to the rose. Its berries, leaves, and flowers have been used for heart problems since as far back as the time of the Roman Empire. Studies have found that the plant may be an effective treatment for milder forms of heart failure, and evidence also suggests it may relieve chest pain from heart disease. However, study results are conflicting. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that there’s not enough scientific evidence to determine if hawthorn works for other heart problems.
Flaxseed comes from the flax plant, which is an annual herb. Both flaxseed and flaxseed oil contain high levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that may be helpful for heart disease. Flaxseed is thought to lower blood pressure and levels of "bad" cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack—however, the UMMC notes that research has shown mixed results.
While in lab tests and animal studies the seeds and oil of the flax plant were reported to lower cholesterol, results have been less clear in human studies. One human study found that those who added flaxseed to a low-cholesterol diet lowered their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and the level of triglycerides (fats) in their blood. More research is needed.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These are chemicals found in large quantities in fish and fish oils. A few studies have found omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the incidence of sudden cardiac death in people with and without pre-existing heart disease.
The Mayo Clinic reports that eating one or two servings of fish high in omega-3s every week could reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by a third or more. People who have heart disease may also benefit from taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements or from eating other foods that contain omega-3s such as walnuts, canola oil, and soybeans. However, Mayo Clinic notes that evidence is stronger for the benefits of eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids than for supplements or non-fish options.
The results of research on garlic have been mixed, but it may help lower blood pressure, reduce blood cholesterol levels, and slow the progress of atherosclerosis. Some evidence suggests that taking garlic supplements can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels.
As with many of these alternative therapies, studies on garlic have yielded mixed results. For example, studies have shown positive effects for short-term use of one to three months. However, an NCCAM-funded study on the safety and effectiveness of three garlic preparations found no long-term effect on lowering blood cholesterol levels.
If you and your doctor decide to incorporate natural remedies into your plan for a cholesterol-lowering diet, remember the importance of an overall healthy lifestyle as well. A combination of lifestyle changes—losing weight, eating healthy foods, increasing physical activity, and quitting smoking—will help bring your numbers down.