I have secondary lymphedema in my lower left leg and am interested in whatever can be helpful with that condition. I take ginkgo and eat many flavonoid-rich foods, and I also practice yoga—could these be helpful for lymphedema?
—K. N., via e-mail
Keville responds: Yes, ginkgo, foods rich in flavonoids and yoga are exactly what you need to increase circulation and move the congested lymph and accumulating fluid. You could also try concentrated flavonoid supplements from bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) or elder (Sambucus nigra). A lymphatic massage with an aromatherapy massage oil designed for lymph drainage would be great for you. To make the massage oil, use pure essential oils: 6 drops lemon, 6 drops grapefruit, 3 drops rosemary, and 2 drops juniper in 2 oz. of vegetable oil. It’s best to find someone trained in lymph massage to work on you, but you can even give yourself a lymphatic massage—use long, deep strokes up the leg.
Another idea is a hydrotherapy footbath. Use two buckets that are deep and wide enough to put your feet into them as far up to your knees as possible. Put cold water in one and hot in the other with about 6 drops each of lavender and rosemary essential oils. Alternate your legs back and forth between the two buckets several times. Stay in the hot bucket for at least three minutes, then try to remain in the cold at least one minute.
For internal treatment, cleavers (Galium aparine) helps drain excessive fluid buildup. A typical herbal formula to help move lymph is equal parts of cleavers, mullein (Verbascum spp.), prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum spp.) and red clover flowers (Trifolium pratense). Secondary lymphedema is tough, but I think you’ll be surprised at the results you’ll see after doing these treatments.
Rountree responds: One of the best treatments for lymphedema is a form of massage called Manual Lymphatic Drainage. When performed regularly, it can be very effective for this condition. Certified practitioners are available all over the country. Yoga should be an excellent complement to this therapy. If you’re on your feet a lot, you might also need to use graduated compression stockings to keep the swelling down.
Eating a lot of vitamin C and flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, onions, and citrus fruits helps to strengthen the walls of the capillaries, thus improving general circulation. While ginkgo has been shown in medical studies to increase arterial blood flow, it may work better when combined with gotu kola (Centella asiatica) or horse chestnut seed (Aesculus hippocastanum), which are more specific for venous insufficiency. Studies show that gotu kola increases blood flow through the veins by enhancing the integrity of the surrounding connective tissue. Lymph is basically fluid that leaks out of the veins. Increasing venous blood flow should decrease the accumulation of lymph in the connective tissues, relieving your lymphatic system of the burden of draining it back out again. The dose of gotu kola is 2 to 4 g daily of the dried leaves, or 60 to 120 mg daily of an extract standardized to 40 percent asiaticoside.
Horse chestnut is used for varicose veins and associated edema of the legs. In addition to capillary-strengthening flavonoids, it contains a complex mixture of sugar-like molecules called aescin, which has several beneficial properties. Like gotu kola, aescin decreases the excessive leakage of lymph from the veins. The dose is based on aescin content and should provide the equivalent of 90 to 150 mg daily, which can be reduced by half following improvement.
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association (www.jps.net/ahaherb) and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine. He is coauthor of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994) and Immunotics (Putnam, 2000) and is an Herb Research Foundation advisory board member.
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.