On Valentine’s Day we celebrate our love with flowers, candles, music and a lovely romantic meal. Red is the color of the heart and certain heart-protector foods.

I could inform you about their natural chemicals, including antioxidants, polyphenols, and their ability to thin the blood to prevent stroke until I’m red in the face, but put more simply in my book Heart to Heart: Care for your Heart Naturally, these foods are good for your heart: Tomato, tart cherry, cranberry, red and purple grapes and red pears cool inflammation that damages blood vessels. Cayenne and other hot peppers help reduce blood cholesterol, triglycerides levels, and platelet aggregation, while increasing the body’s ability to dissolve fibrin, a substance integral to the formation of blood clots.

Cultures where hot peppers are used liberally have a much lower rate of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism. You might add a dash of cayenne to your salad dressing. In summer try a refreshing watermelon, tomato, red onion and arugula salad. The red ingredients enhance circulation. You can use any of these red foods, even peppers, to make tasty jellies.

Tomatoes

Ask any Italian about the health benefits of tomatoes! Numerous scientific studies find that women with the highest intake of lycopene-rich tomato-based foods have a significantly reduced risk of heart disease. Aside from lycopene, tomatoes are loaded with vitamins A, C and E and have very few calories. In a five year women’s health study of nearly 40,000 middle-aged and elderly women, as the women’s blood levels of lycopene went up, risk for cardiovascular disease significantly dropped to a 50% reduced risk compared to women with the lowest blood levels of lycopene. Why? Fresh tomatoes and tomato extracts lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides and help prevent unwanted clumping together (aggregation) of platelet cells in the blood, a factor especially important in lowering risk of heart problems like atherosclerosis. Excessive clumping of our platelet cells result in blood vessel blockage. Tomatoes are truly a heart healthy food. No body system has a greater need for antioxidant protection than the cardiovascular system.

Choose bright red or orange tomatoes with smooth skin and consume them within one week. When cooking use the seeds and skin which are full of valuable nutrients. Conventionally grown cherry tomatoes typically have pesticide residues. Buy local and organic. Avoid tomato leaf. It causes symptoms of poisoning, including severe mouth and throat irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, mild spasms, and death.

Quick Tomato Aspic

Here is a sweet treat made in minutes without sugar. Store it in the refrigerator. Serve it with vegetable dishes, kefir or salads. Serves 4

Ingredients:

2 – 3 packages of unflavored gelatin (Knox Gelatine or vegan)

¼ cup cold low sodium tomato juice

2 cups thinly sliced fresh organic cherry tomatoes

1 cup boiling hot Earl Grey tea

¼ tsp stevia powder

lemon juice

Mix the unflavored gelatin powder with the cold juice in a bowl, let it stand 1 minute until the gelatin is completely dissolved, Add the hot tea and sliced tomatoes, stevia and lemon juice. Pour the mixture into a sterilized glass container or dessert mold. Refrigerate it overnight to set the aspic. If you use one packet of gelatin instead of two it will be soft enough to use as jelly. Store the jelly up to 2 weeks in refrigerator or 1 year in the freezer.

Tart cherries

Pretty and delicious tart cherries are super foods. For heart health, I recommend adding at least 1 teaspoon of tart cherry juice to tea twice daily. The sour taste is cheery, refreshing and reduces chronic inflammatory discomforts.

Tart cherries get their deep red color from disease-fighting phenols called anthocyanins. Slightly more than 3 ounces (100 grams) of tart cherry juice concentrate delivers four times the necessary amount needed to maintain a good antioxidant defense system. A quarter cup of dried tart cherries daily is enough to keep you healthy. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that tart cherries surpass antioxidants like red wine, dark chocolate and orange juice. Regularly enjoying tart cherries may also improve sleep. Tart cherry contains melatonin.

Red and Purple Grapes

         Grapes are anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, and blood sugar-regulating for longevity. The science about grapes is enough to make a convert to Bacchus, the god of wine. Resveratrol found in the skin of red and purple grapes improves blood flow by stimulating production and release of nitric oxide which helps in dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow.

In addition to providing vitamin C and manganese, grapes are filled with antioxidant nutrients into the hundreds. However most research has been done on whole grapes including the seeds. How often do you get red wine made from grape seeds? How can you get the full benefit of grapes, especially when all you can find in supermarkets are seedless grapes? You might take grapeseed extract pills available at most health shops and even big chain stores. But if you enjoy making your own health wine, try my recipe for grape juice “Retsina” made with whole organic grapes and myrrh. Avoid using myrrh or other blood-moving herbs during pregnancy.

Use only organic grapes. Conventionally grown grapes are one of worst fruits for pesticide residues. If you have space you might grow grape vines out in the yard. Use neem to keep bugs away. I have seen grape vines grown indoors using large 5 gallon pots placed in sunshine, next to a wall or bookcase and away from your radiator.

The following heart benefits have been demonstrated for grapes and grape components:

  • blood pressure regulation, including high blood pressure
  • total cholesterol regulation, reduced LDL cholesterol and LDL oxidation
  • less clumping of platelet cells and cell adhesion to blood vessel walls
  • better inflammatory regulation in the blood
  • increased levels of glutathione in the blood

Home Made “Retsina”

Delicious Greek Retsina is a clear pale yellow tart wine made from Savatiano grapes from the vineyards on the slopes of Mt. Parnes in Attica, Greece. It has a delicate aroma of pine. It is fresh and rich on the palate from being flavored during fermentation with resin from Aleppo pine. There is no perfect substitute for this excellent wine that goes so well with Mediterranean fish or any Greek dish. What if you have been advised by your doctor to give up alcohol?

My non-alcoholic Retsina health drink, a tonic for heart patients, is made from fresh whole grapes including the seeds, tea, and the astringent liquid extract of myrrh, an evergreen tree resin long praised for its ability to heal wounds, reverse decay and preserve health. Myrrh extract gives the grape juice a tangy flavor not unlike a wine made with pine.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If your are pregnant use only the blender grape juice, tea and add lemon juice to taste. Do not add myrrh which cleanses internal organs including the uterus. Blood-moving herbs threaten pregnancy when used in higher doses. Myrrh is contraindicated when kidney dysfunction or stomach pain is apparent, or for women who have excessive uterine bleeding.

Ingredients:

2 cups organic grapes including peel, seeds and a little stem

or organic grapes and the equivalent of 1 gram grape seed extract from capsules.

1 cup strongly brewed black tea

Myrrh extract to taste (no more than 10 drops per 8 0z.)

Blend the grapes and tea to a smooth liquid, adding more tea as needed. Strain this liquid into an airtight bottle or decanter. When ready to serve chilled, add a dose of liquid myrrh extract as needed. If you have a very weak heart, tend to be dizzy or headachy drink the grape juice plain or add only a drop or two of the extract. Otherwise you can use up to one dropper full for each wine glass.

Myrrh is a resin from the evergreen (Commipihora myrrha.) The essential oil has a rich, smoky, balsamic aroma that is purifying, restorative, revitalizing, and uplifting. It has a high level of sesquiterpenes, compounds that effect the hypothalamus, pituitary, and amygdala, the seat of our emotions. Myrrh purifies and heals. Frankincense and myrrh, both powerful healing herbs, were gifts brought by the three kings of Orient. Astronomers and doctors, they followed a star to find Jesus.

TCM classifies myrrh as bitter and spicy and is said to have special efficacy on the heart, liver, and spleen meridians, as well as “blood-moving” powers to purge “stagnant blood” from the uterus. (I have recommended it along with aloe vera juice for women who have irregular periods and endometriosis.) Myrrh is often recommended for rheumatic, arthritis and circulatory problems and is an ingredient in numerous Chinese herbal anti-cancer treatments.

 

Herbal Tonics

         Recently Inga Bylinkina gave a class at Academy of Healing Nutrition featuring a Taoist approach to “kidney/adrenal and Jing” herbal tonics. Her teaching is enjoyable as she loves to describe tonic herbs as “magical elixirs.” These highly-respected herbal tonics may be enjoyed occasionally as beverages that lift our spirit and refresh our health. However if we use herbs as medicines either long term or in a concentrated dose, we need be mindful of individual needs.

Blood enhancing Chinese herbs, aside from their nutritive value, can be cooling or warming, calming or stimulating and may also engage our emotions and immunity. Blood is at the root of who we are. It nourishes our organs, bones and bone marrow, skin, hair, nails, eyes and affects every organ function including water balance and hormones. Herbal blood tonics often enhance yin (moisture and water balance, deep internal yin organs including heart, spleen, lungs, kidney/hormones and liver.) Energy tonics more often affect yang organs (including small intestine, stomach, large intestine, bladder and gallbladder) and Qi (organ functions and circulation.) Some herbal tonic combinations of yin, yang and qi herbs, for example goji berry and yin yang huo (lusty goat weed) tea, help replenish Jing, our bone marrow and “inherited health.”

TCM diagnosis takes years to learn but some important simple rules apply. Here is advice for using popular blood tonics that enhance blood production and may affect circulation and/or emotions.

First, in general: If you have a fever from cold or flu or other infection do not use tonic herbs because the herbs affect deep organ functions: The herbs could take the infection deeper making it more difficult to treat the infection. If you have a cold, treat the cold to regain balance. When you have recovered you can use tonic herbs as needed or sometimes long term. Herb choice depends on our internal temperature and constitution, our current level of health and lifestyle.

  • If you have a pale tongue, slow pulse, facial pallor, chills, slow metabolism; if your diet is primarily made up of cold or raw foods or you often have fatigue from runny diarrhea, you will feel better using a warming herbal tonic such as Dong Quai AKA Tang Kuai (an estrogenic blood tonic that increases circulation) Dong Quai is useful for girls who have a pale, skimpy period with menstrual cramps that feel better after the blood gets moving. Dong Quai tastes nicely semi-sweet and can be added to chicken soup for the family.

 

  • If your tongue is more red and you feel flushed or warm, if you need fewer clothes and bed covers, if you have acne or over-indulge in hot spices, alcohol or if you smoke, if your hair is getting thin, skin is dry and nails cracked, if menstruation is difficult with sharp cramps, irritability, insomnia, night sweats and fevers, you will feel better using a cooling blood tonic.

They include herbs that rejuvenate the liver and kidney tissue such as He Shou Wu (AKA Fo-Ti, Polygonum multiflori) made into a convenient beverage called Shou Wu Chih found in Chinese groceries and herb shops. It is a processed herb that looks like black tar and tastes semi-sweet and is moistening. If someone with a pale tongue, slow metabolism and edema would use such a cooling, moistening herb they might feel miserable, water-logged, weak, heavy, slow and depressed. Moisture is needed to correct dryness or hyperactivity, not necessarily on a daily basis.

Another cooling moistening blood tonic is Rehmannia glutinosa, used as a primary herb in cooling herbal tonic combinations such as Lui Wei Di Huang Wan (6 flavor tea pills) a Chinese patent remedy used to correct afternoon fever, night sweats, night time excess urination, hypertension, and diabetes. Rehmannia is high in arginine and therefore should be avoided by anyone with herpes. It can bring out a rash. If a person is blood deficient with both hot and cold symptoms (fever, night sweats and diarrhea) then both warming and cooling herbs are used such as 8 flavor tea pills AKA Sexoton, (which adds cinnamon and cornelian cherry to 6 flavor tea pills.) This is similar to making a spiced tea.

When using tonic herbs observe how your body, mind and spirit react. The interaction of you with the herb is what causes the reaction. For example, cooling moistening blood-building herbs used over time may bring you deeper into your emotions, memories, frustrations and dreams. Use blood tonics as a tool. Blood nourishes us to our core so that foods and herbs which enhance our core wellness have a profound effect upon our wellbeing, development and growth.