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How Herbal Medicines Lower Blood Pressure

Scientists are excited to learn how many herbal medicines lower blood pressure. They activate a potassium channel KCNQ5 that relaxes blood vessels.
How Herbal Medicines Lower Blood Pressure
Lavender herb flower leaf sprigs with an aromatherapy essential oil dropper bottle over white background.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, have made a fascinating discovery (PNAS, Sep. 30, 2019). They have identified the mechanism by which some traditional herbal medicines lower blood pressure. In an intriguing twist, the botanicals they examined come from around the world and are not related to each other.

Herbal Medicines Lower Blood Pressure Through Potassium Channels:

Humans have been using plants to treat their ailments since before recorded history. While traditional medical systems in China and India did not have a diagnostic category of hypertension, practitioners treated syndromes we would associate with high blood pressure. The researchers at UC-Irvine compared herbs used to lower blood pressure to those used for other purposes.

They used extracts of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), basil (Ocimum basilicum), oregano (Origanum vulgaris) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). In addition, they analyzed extracts of marjoram (Origanum majorana), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and two Chinese herbs, Sophora flavescens and Sophora tonkinensis. All these herbal medicines lower blood pressure. The scientists compared them to herbs not believed to lower blood pressure, including spearmint (Mentha spicata), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), wheatgrass (Triticum aestivum) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum).

Potassium Channels Relax Blood Vessels:

In the laboratory, all the botanicals used for hypertension activate a specific potassium channel called KCNQ5. This potassium channel is able to make blood vessels relax, lowering blood pressure. The small molecule aloperine is responsible for this activity in the Chinese herb Sophora flavescens. In contrast, none of the herbal medicines used for comparison had any effect on KCNQ5.

No modern antihypertensive drugs use this mechanism of action. The investigators don’t recommend herbal medicines to lower blood pressure. They believe, however, that further research on this and related potassium channels might yield some new approaches to keeping blood pressure under control.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Manville RW et al, "KCNQ5 activation is a unifying molecular mechanism shared by genetically and culturally diverse botanical hypotensive folk medicines." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sep. 30, 2019. doi/10.1073/pnas.1907511116
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