Do herbal heart medicines work?

July 13, 2009 5:06:00 PM PDT
U.S. scientists are giving Chinese herbal medicines a second look. For 5,000 years, the Chinese have used 250 common herbs, many for heart problems. Now a study by Houston researchers that is being published in a scientific journal has government researchers interested. Some very old medicines are making some modern day news. Millions of people over the centuries have taken Chinese traditional medicine. One of them is Dr. Yong-Jian Geng.

Dr. Geng is a believer, but the Director of the UT Center for Cardiovascular Biology isn't living in the past either. He works on stem cell research to repair the heart and he thinks this new research may benefit from a 5,000 year-old-tradition.

"Maybe herbal medicine can improve heart function through improved stem cell function," said Dr. Geng.

These are the not-so secret ingredients of the top selling heart medicines in China: Tree bark, vegetable root and a very strong-smelling mineral. Scientists here say they not only work, they're looking for why they work.

Watch as they mix up a heart potion for us in the lab of Dr. Nathan Bryan of the UT Institute of Molecular Medicine.

"They do work, and we've known for many years that they work, but now we're finally getting a handle on how they work and why they're working," said Dr. Bryan.

When people take herbal heart medicines, they found it increases the nitric oxide in the body which helps prevent sticky plaques and even opens the arteries.

"It actually dilates the vessels, improves blood flow and oxygen delivery," Dr. Bryan said.

Watch what happens when they put the herbal mixture we made into a machine that measures nitric oxide. The red line showing the nitric oxide level shoots straight up. One lifesaving drug that capitalizes on the nitric oxide feature is called nitroglycerin. These Houston scientists say they'd like to come up with many more.

As the Houston scientists identify the active ingredients in these herbal medicines, the National Institutes of Health has asked them to pass on the information. There may be an interesting future for some remedies from the past.

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Christi Myers is ABC13's Healthcheck reporter

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