The rich flavonoid content found in hawthorn berries (genus Crataegus) has helped reverse the effects of cardiovascular disease, improve skin and support digestion and liver metabolism.1
Nearly 6 in every 10 adults living in the U.S. have at least one chronic disease and 4 of every 10 have two or more, which are the leading causes of death and disability.2 You can make a difference in your overall health and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases through lifestyle choices. In some cases, you’ll choose to stop something, and in others, you’ll choose to start.
According to the American Heart Association,3 nearly 50% of all adults living in the U.S. are affected by cardiovascular disease. This umbrella term includes several conditions, including heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmias.4
Cardiovascular diseases affect the heart and supportive tissues that deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,5 heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and stroke is No. 5. Atherosclerosis is a significant factor associated with cardiovascular disease.
Yet, there are choices you can make that have an impact on your health, even after chronic diseases have developed. Consuming hawthorn berries or their extract may be one of those choices.
Hawthorn Berries Are Good for Your Heart
The medicinal use of hawthorn berries dates back to 659 AD in China.6 By the early 1800s, doctors in the U.S. were using it to treat heart conditions, including high blood pressure, heart failure and atherosclerosis.7
Modern research studies have found hawthorn berry extract demonstrates anti-atherosclerotic effects that may be related to signaling pathways affecting inflammation and apoptosis.8 Scientists have discovered four principal pathways in which hawthorn berries influence the cardiovascular system.9 These include antioxidation, anti-inflammatory, endothelial protection and lipid-lowering properties.
A review of the literature found the flavones in hawthorn demonstrated the ability to mitigate endothelial impairment following a coronary bypass graft operation. Hawthorn extract has also demonstrated the ability to maintain normal endothelial function in the lab and in vivo.
The extract helps reduce lipid retention and vascular plaque formation. This starts a process that ultimately reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines and reactive oxygen species (ROS). In turn, this helps maintain normal function and protect the vascular system from infiltration of circulating macrophages and monocytes, thus continuing to reduce inflammation.
Several human trials have demonstrated that participants taking hawthorn extract could increase their working capacity and reduce the symptoms of congestive heart failure.10 In one study11 of 952 patients with documented heart failure, researchers found those who received hawthorn as an add-on therapy for two years demonstrated significantly fewer symptoms of congestive heart failure — fatigue, dyspnea and palpitations.
Vascular protection also includes the ability to support calcium signaling activity in the heart and blood vessels.12 Several animal studies have shown that hawthorn acts as a vasodilator,13 including acting to raise levels of nitric oxide.14,15
In one 16-week study16 of individuals with Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, participants took 1,200 milligrams (mg) of hawthorn extract each day or a placebo. Those taking the extract demonstrated greater improvements in blood pressure over the placebo group. The researchers reported no interactions with the drugs the patients were already taking and there were only minor health complaints in both groups.
Liver Metabolism Benefits From Hawthorn Berries
Hawthorn berries also have traditionally been used to treat digestive issues, including constipation. The berries contain fiber that acts as a prebiotic to feed your healthy gut bacteria. In one animal study, those treated with hawthorn extract reduced the transit time of food in the digestive tract.17
In another animal study using rats with stomach ulcers, the extract showed protective effects on the stomach lining similar to those of an anti-ulcer medication.18 Hawthorn extract has also demonstrated the ability to lessen fat accumulation within the liver in animals fed a high-fat diet.
Fat accumulation in the liver that occurs without alcohol use is called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).19 A more severe form is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which triggers swelling and permanent damage to the organ.
Liver diseases are emerging as a global health concern, and NAFLD and alcoholic liver disease are the two most common.20 Although there is a wide variation found from country to country, the pooled prevalence globally is 25.24% of the population.
The highest prevalence has been found in the Middle East and South American countries, and the lowest prevalence is found in Africa. In the U.S. and North America, the prevalence is between 21% and 24.7%. In one animal study,21 researchers found that hawthorn leaf flavonoids, the most bioactive extracts found in hawthorn leaves, had a positive influence over diet-induced hepatic steatosis.
They also discovered the supplementation lowered the animals’ body weight and liver weight, and improved serum parameters and liver function. It appeared this was the result of increasing circulating adiponectin levels, which is a hormone involved in the regulation of glucose and fatty acid breakdown.
In addition, it activated AMPK. This led the researchers to conclude that hawthorn leaf extract helps ameliorate “hepatic steatosis by enhancing the adiponectin/AMPK pathway in the liver of HFD [high fat diet] induced NAFLD rats.”22
Antiaging Benefits Include Protection Against Wrinkles
Polyphenols have long been studied for the contribution they make helping to protect your skin from ultraviolet light and modulating skin characteristics. While hawthorn berry is rich in flavonoids, it is highest in proanthocyanidins, oligomeric proanthocyanidin (OPCs) or procyanidolic oligomers (PCOs).23 An analysis of hawthorn extract using high-performance liquid chromatography showed it was also high in epicatechins.24
The combination of chlorogenic acid, proanthocyanidins B2 and epicatechins accounted for 51.4% of the total amount of polyphenols in the fruit. These compounds are strong antioxidants. Like other areas of your body, the connective tissue in your skin is subject to the damaging effects of chronic inflammation and reactive oxygen species.25
Studies have demonstrated the powerful effects that epicatechins and proanthocyanidins have on photoprotection and the structure and function of your skin. One study26 evaluated the effect hawthorn extract has on skin aging triggered by UVB light that increases matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) production and the degradation of collagen.
This combination of damage from UVB light leads to the formation of wrinkles. Using an animal model, the researchers found treatments reversed epidermal thickening and damage caused by UVB light, which “suppressed MMP expression and stimulated the production of type I procollagen.”27 This suggested to the researchers that hawthorn extract may help “prevent UVB radiation-induced skin photoaging.”28
Another review of the literature29 found PCO and quercetin are specific bioflavonoids that are beneficial to connective tissue as they are associated with increased local circulation and promote the development of a strong collagen matrix.
Catechins are also strong antioxidants that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. In one study30 using green tea polyphenols, researchers engaged 60 women in a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. The intervention group drank a beverage with 1,402 mg of total catechins per day.
Their skin structure, function and photoprotection were measured throughout the study. After exposure to a solar simulator, researchers found that those drinking the polyphenol beverage had better oxygen delivery and blood flow to the skin. The structural characteristics of the skin that were positively affected in the experimental group included density, elasticity, roughness and scaling.
What Is Hawthorn Berry?
The hawthorn plant is native to Northern temperate zones and commonly found in North America. It grows wild and is also cultivated as a garden ornamental.31 It's commonly called a thornapple in reference to the apple-like fruit and thorns that protect the plant. They are sometimes planted as a thorny hedged barrier against livestock.
The plant is a member of the rose family. In the early spring, the plant has white or pink flowers that are followed by small apple-like fruit, which can range in color from red to black. Although the fruit can vary in flavor and texture, depending on the hawthorn plant, they are edible and, as I already mentioned, often used as herbal medicine.
Depending on the species, the plants can grow as a shorter rounded bush or a tree, reaching up to 25 feet tall. You'll find hawthorn trees at nurseries as either seedlings or grafted trees.32 The plants enjoy full or partial sun and are susceptible to a number of diseases.33
If you decide to plant one in your garden, look for a variety that is disease-resistant. If you're not using it as a barrier, avoid planting a tree with thorns as the thorns can grow up to 3 inches long. Although the trees don't need much pruning, it's wise to remove the suckers that come from the base of the trunk as they increase the size and density of the plant as it ages.
At one time, the hawthorn tree was known as the “bread and cheese tree” since the flowers, berries and leaves are safe to eat and it was a lifesaver during times of famine.34 The berries are also sometimes used to make wine, jam or syrup.
Easy Steps to Add Hawthorn to Your Diet
Hawthorn berries are likely going to be difficult to find at your local grocery store. However, you may find them sold at farmers markets, online or at specialty health food stores. There are several different ways you can incorporate them into your diet. The raw berries have a slightly sweet, yet tart taste and make a great snack.35
However, while the berries are not poisonous, the seeds are. The seeds contain amygdalin, which converts to deadly hydrogen cyanide in your small intestines.36 An adult may tolerate one or two seeds, but even this small amount in a child may be lethal.
You can also find hawthorn tea made with leaves or berries, or you can dry them and make your own tea at home.37 Hawthorn supplements are also available. According to a paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology38 from the Foundation Task Force on Clinical Expert Consensus Documents, the minimum effective dose of hawthorn extract for cardiac performance is 300 mg per day.
The authors found that the maximum benefit in most of the trials they reviewed was found after six to eight weeks of taking the supplement. Improved exercise tolerance in individuals with congestive heart failure was demonstrated in several studies they reviewed. The preparation was also found to be “well-tolerated and safe.”39