Natural Healing: Astringent Herbs for Varicose Veins

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Recipe: Varicose Veins Massage Oil 

Varicose veins are veins that have become enlarged, twisted, or swollen. This is a common, annoying, and often painful problem that affects one out of seven adults in North America; it’s a symptom of poor circulation that results in loss of elasticity of the blood vessels. Although varicose veins affect men, they are four times more common in women.

Varicose veins affect more than 50 percent of the middle-aged population, although they can also afflict younger adults. Those most affected include people in service positions who must stand on their feet for hours, causing a tenfold increase in venous pressure. Risk also increases with overweight individuals who have a lack of muscle and tissue tone and are more likely to have weakened vein walls. Chronic constipation or pregnancy can increase venous pressure in the legs, and some individuals have a hereditary predisposition to this malady. Age is a factor, compounded by lack of muscle tone and degenerative changes in supporting connective tissue. The cause of varicose veins can be multifaceted and can also include a low-fiber diet, liver malfunction, and vitamin deficiency.

Most varicosities are close to the skin’s surface and although they are not a severe threat to health, they may hint at chronic circulatory problems. If ignored, they can become quite troublesome and painful, not to mention unsightly. Deeper varicose veins can be quite serious, leading to stroke, thrombophlebitis, or heart problems.

Varicose veins are certainly not confined to the legs. Much more common are hemorrhoids, which are varicose veins in the rectum. This condition frequently affects pregnant women due to the added demands of the body as well as the extra pressure and weight in the perineal area.

But don’t despair! There are a number of healing herbs that can be quite helpful, and are even more effective when integrated with appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes.

The internal use of herbs (in the form of teas or tinctures) taken three to four times a day can assist the healing of varicose veins from the inside. The actions of the medicinal plants listed here can increase elasticity in the veins, reduce fragility of blood vessels, stimulate circulation, and reduce water retention.

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is an excellent remedy that not only strengthens the blood vessels, but is an effective astringent as well. The shiny brown fruits of this beautiful ornamental shade tree have a long history of use in the treatment of varicose veins. Current research shows some animal, clinical, and in vitro evidence of benefit for circulatory problems. Horse chestnut reduces capillary fragility and swelling through regulation of capillary permeability, and helps strengthen and repair blood vessels that have lost their elasticity. Because it is a blood vessel tonic, it is also used to reduce bruises (which are broken blood vessels) wherever they occur in the body. Commercial extracts of aescin (an active compound found in horse chestnut) have demonstrated antithrombic activity, thereby reducing excessive clotting. The herb is also rich in flavonoids.

Horse chestnut is most often used as a tincture and can be applied externally. It is also sold as a massage oil. The tincture and the massage oil can be combined with essential oils, suggested below.

Horse chestnut is a fairly toxic herb, particularly to children (who don’t normally have varicose veins). Cautionary notes on the internal use of this herb are conflicting. Though it is often included in references on poisonous plants, the therapeutic index is high with low acute and chronic toxicities noted. Nevertheless, care should be taken when using this tincture internally, as commercial preparations of this herb vary widely. Some German pharmaceutical companies have special compounds for internal use, often in combination with other herbs or nutritional substances including C and B vitamins. Because strengths and formulations vary, it is best to follow the manufacturer’s recommended dosage on the label. Pregnant women should consult their health-care practitioners before ingesting any horse chestnut product, though the external use of gel, ointment, tea, or tincture forms poses no harm. Those using anticoagulant medications should consult with their health practitioners, as horse chestnut contains coumarins that could potentiate the action of prescription blood thinners. Again, the external use should not be a problem.

Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) has historical use in the treatment of varicose veins, but research has also shown that it may be of benefit both internally and in topical application for poor circulation symptoms such as blood pooling in the legs, swelling, and constricted blood vessels. Its active constituents are two saponins, neoruscogenin and ruscogenins. They are anti-inflammatory and vasoconstricting. In a double-blind clinical trial, Ruscus extract increased the tone of venous walls, showing a decrease in venous capacity and blood pooling in the lower legs. Another double-blind crossover study found significant decrease in swelling and cramps. Butcher’s broom improves the tone of the veins and encourages blood flow. The tea or tincture can be taken internally up to three times a day, or applied directly. Don’t use the herb internally if you’re pregnant.

Other good astringent herbs that can be found at your local herb store include white oak bark (Quercus alba) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The healing and anti-inflammatory action of calendula (Calendula officinalis) is also well suited for this condition. These herbs can be taken as teas and used in sitz baths or compresses with a few drops of the essential oils added for their synergistic effects. A salve can be made of any of the above herbs for the treatment of hemorrhoids.

Also recommended are herbs that stimulate peripheral circulation, thereby aiding blood flow in the legs. These include ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginger (Zingiber officinale), cayenne (Capsicum annuum), and prickly ash (Zanthoxylum spp.). Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) will improve circulation by safely toning the heart muscle.

Liver tonic and cleansing herbs such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum), dandelion (taraxacum officinale), and burdock (Arctium lappa) are important. My favorite is yellow dock (Rumex crispus); although not for varicose veins specifically, it is helpful as a good liver tonic and cleanser, and is a safe, mild laxative.

Hydrotherapy in the form of sitz baths (for hemorrhoids) or hot and cold compresses (for varicose veins in the legs) can provide the greatest immediate relief from pain. Simply apply the hot and cold water in one- to three-minute intervals. The improved circulation will help decongest the veins.

Mindy Green of Boulder, Colorado, is the author of Natural Perfumes: Simple Aromatherapy Recipes (Interweave Press, 1999), and the education director at the Herb Research Foundation.