The Effects of Hawthorn as an Adaptogen

Why Hawthorn?

History of Hawthorn

Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) belongs to the Rosaceae (rose) family. It is a large berry and flower producing shrub that grows like a tree in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia and has traditionally been used by Chinese, European, and Native American cultures for medicinal purposes. However, hawthorn trees are incredibly adaptable and are also found in the United States.

The trunk of the hawthorn tree is so dense it creates scorching fires making it an excellent wood to use in campfires. Birds are drawn to hawthorn berries, which is often used to make jams, jellies, and liqueur. At the same time, bees are particularly fond of hawthorn flowers.

Furthermore, over one hundred species of butterflies are hatched from the branches of the hawthorn tree. However, it’s important to note, hawthorn has spikey, two-inch thorns that can poke holes in one’s clothing and slice away at exposed skin underneath. Other names for hawthorn are English Hawthorn, Haw (the berries), Mayblossom, Maythorn, Shan Zha, Thornapple, Whitehorn, or simply Crataegus.

In medieval times, people had mixed feelings about the thorns. While some believed bringing the thorns into the home would invite fairies to visit others thought the presence of the thorns would cause someone to die.

Interestingly enough, hawthorn flowers have been noted to smell like rotting meat. However, the leaves, when dried, attain a floral scent. Hawthorn berries smell a bit like citrus when crushed, and its leaves have almost no scent at all.

Hawthorn is known as an adaptogen among herbalists. Adaptogens work to combat stress and bring about batter balance in the body. Stress has long been understood to cause negative changes in the body that can lead to the damage of the body’s endocrine, immune, and neurological systems. Adaptogens, such as hawthorn, help to prevent harmful effects by harmonizing the adrenal, hypothalamic, and pituitary glands, which all play a role in the human stress response. But, how do adaptogens really work?

When the body faces any kind of stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, it goes through a cycle of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the alarm phase, it releases adrenaline to increase focus, strength, and performance to see the mind and body through the resistance phase with increased energy. Afterward, one enters the fatigued stage, where one needs to rest. This is all part of a completely normal physical stress response and one that causes no damage unless it is ongoing. When stress levels are high and ongoing, it can lead to adrenal exhaustion and poor cardiovascular health. This is where adaptogens come into play.

Adaptogens, such as hawthorn, can be used to encourage well-being. When used along with traditional medicines, they can help to promote overall health. Adaptogens can also be used to help those with particular conditions, including those that are acute, chronic, or age-related. For example, adaptogens have been found to improve mental clarity in those who are fatigued and boost productivity in those who are depressed. It has also been known to help people recover from colds and flu more quickly.

Medicinal Benefits of Hawthorn

Allergies: Hawthorn berries contain a tremendous amount of antioxidants and are exceptionally high in OPCs (oligomeric procyanidins). This particular class of antioxidants is what deems hawthorn so special. POCs enhance the antioxidant activity of vitamins A, C, and E. They can also reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and reduce histamine production, making hawthorn a useful natural remedy in the treatment of allergies.

Asthma: In the STARZ series, Outlander, Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe), offers a friend a pipe containing crushed hawthorn berries and leaves to smoke to improve symptoms of asthma. Indeed, hawthorn can relieve symptoms of asthma when smoked, as well as when taken in other forms due to its ability to relax constricted blood vessels of the bronchial tubes and lungs.

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF): Research suggests that hawthorn may be a worthy adaptogen for treating congestive heart failure, but the jury is still out on whether it can help all other heart-related issues. Human research studies indicate special compounds in hawthorn work synergistically to provide antioxidant protection to the heart, promote coronary blood flow, and strengthen the heart’s pumping capacity.

Blood Pressure: When it comes to matters of the heart, hawthorn creates balance by raising low blood pressure and lowering high blood pressure. Both conditions can be life-threatening. It does this by improving heart contractions by way of mildly dilating the blood vessels of the heart.

Angina: Angina is a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. This serves to tone the heart muscle and increase the use of oxygen throughout the rest of the body.

Cardiovascular Improvement: The leaf tips and berries of hawthorn contain a wide variety of flavonoids, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiallergic properties. These properties help to increase blood flow in the cardiovascular system, improving circulation and the essential function of the heart.

Veins & Capillaries: Not only does hawthorn improve blood flow, but it encourages healthy veins and capillaries and helps to relieve conditions such as bloodshot eyes, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins.

Cortisol Reduction: It is said that hawthorn also helps to reduce cortisol, which is a steroid hormone released under stress that regulates many processes in the body, including that of immune response and metabolism.

Digestion: Hawthorn is known to help digestion due to bitter alkaloids found in the leaves and flowers of the hawthorn tree. Bitter alkaloids produce a bitter taste and are best known for their potential to be toxic. However, some alkaloids have been used for symptoms of Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome due to their anti-inflammatory properties. High concentrations of catechins (a type of phenolic compound) that are found in tea, cocoa, and berries and produce antioxidant activity in the body are also found in hawthorn. All antioxidant activity. Even the weakest cup of hawthorn tea offers a bit of digestive relief.

Anxiety: Due to its mild sedative effect, hawthorn may help to reduce anxiety and depression. However, more research is necessary.

Leukemia: While the verdict is still out on whether hawthorn can be used to eliminate leukemia, studies have shown that rutins (a bioflavonoid containing powerful antioxidant properties) in hawthorn have obliterated leukemic cells in lab tests. Studies are also being performed to see if hawthorn acts against Lupus.

Skin Conditions: Topical application of hawthorn to the skin or when used as a wash may help to heal acne, boils, sores, ulcers. It may also help to relieve itching and frostbite.

Parasites: Hawthorn has been used to treat tapeworm and other parasital infections.

Additionally, hawthorn may help with certain infections, some types of cancers, diabetes (type 2), lowering cholesterol, and the prevention of prematurely aging skin and kidney stones. Hawthorn may also help to improve exercise duration and performance, decrease unhealthy blood fats and muscle pain, relieve constipation, increase urine output, calm PMS, and reduce hair loss.

Hawthorn Berry List of Nutrients

  • B-Vitamins, (antioxidants)
  • Vitamin C (for cardiovascular, immunity, and skin health)
  • Calcium
  • Catechins (a special kind of antioxidant)
  • Flavonoid rutin (an antioxidant that improves blood flow by helping to dilate blood vessels)
  • Iron
  • Phenols (antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties)
  • Procyanidins (antioxidants)
  • Saponins (help the body absorb nutrients)
  • Vitexin (an antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory)

dried hawthorn berries

How to Use Hawthorn

  • Tinctures can be made from the berries, leaves, and flowers in a base of alcohol.
  • Tea can be made from the berries, leaves, and flowers of the shrub or purchased premade online.
  • Jams, jellies, and candied fruit slices for nutritional and medicinal use can be made from the berries.
  • Raw berries are both slightly sweet and tart. They are great for natural snacking.
  • Pie fillings and syrups can be made from Hawthorn berries, referred to as haws.
  • Smoking hawthorn leaves are a non-tobacco alternative for smoking. Even when used this way, hawthorn is good for the heart.
  • Wine and vinegar can be made out of fermented hawthorn berries.
  • Powder and liquid forms of concentrated hawthorn can be taken in supplement forms, which usually contain a mix of berries, leaves, and flowers.

Typical Hawthorn Dosages


  • Leaves and Flowers: 1 teaspoon to 8 ounces of boiling water up to 3 times per day after meals


  • Liquid extract: 0.5-1 ml orally three times per day
  • Berries (deseeded and crushed): 1-2 tsp per 8 ounces of boiling water up to 3 times per day
  • Berry Powder (using deseeded berries): 1 – 2 tsp added to water or mixed with juice or smoothies
  • Capsules (powdered): 300-1000 mg per day divided into three servings
  • Tincture: 1-3 ml tincture orally up to 3 times per day or as recommended by a qualified herbal practitioner.
  • Syrup: 1 teaspoon orally two to three times per day

Hawthorn Precautions

  • The seeds of the berries should always be discarded before eating or using. They contain amygdalin (cyanide bonded with sugar), which changes to hydrogen cyanide in the small intestine and can cause death.
  • People who are taking the prescription drugs Beta-blockers, Calcium channel blockers, Digoxin, ED medications, Nitrates, Phenylephrine should consult their physician before using hawthorn due to the herb acting similarly to these prescriptions and possible “double-dosing.”
  • Furthermore, anyone diagnosed with heart problems, even if not taking medication, should only use hawthorn without consulting a medical doctor or qualified health practitioner.
  • Ingesting too much hawthorn may cause a sudden drop in blood pressure.
  • Using too much hawthorn may cause a sedative effect.
  • Pregnant or nursing mothers should avoid using hawthorn unless it is under a doctor’s guidance.
  • Hawthorn may slow blood clotting and increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery. The use of hawthorn should stop at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
  • Hawthorn is most noted for being a gentle nervine and a heart tonic that works well to relieve heart palpitations related to stress and hormonal changes. However, hawthorn is not suitable for children.

Side-Effects of Hawthorn

Hawthorn’s side effects are uncommon. However, they do exist. Dizziness, mild nausea, skin rash, and sweating have occasionally been reported. Still, the full list of possible side-effects is as follows.

  • Agitation
  • Circulatory disturbances
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Nosebleeds
  • Palpitations
  • Sleep disturbances (insomnia)
  • Stomach upset
  • Sweating

In rare instances, reports of diarrhea have occurred. Symptoms should dissipate with nonuse.

In Summary

Hawthorn appears to work best for matters related to the heart, such as repairing heart damage, improving the pumping action of the heart and cardiovascular blood flow, strengthening arteries, veins, and capillaries, and balancing one’s blood pressure. Because it is an adaptogen, it helps to reduce stress.

Note, it may take hawthorn four to eight weeks to harmonize an unbalanced system. However, hawthorn can be used with other adaptogens, such as Astragalus, Ginseng, and Turmeric, to strengthen its positive impact on the body and hasten its effects.


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