Varicose veins are swollen, bulging and twisted blood vessels. Perhaps you’ve noticed these blue, serpentine bulges appearing on your own legs. If you have, you know they can make your legs throb and feel heavy. Legs and feet may swell slightly, and overlying skin may itch. Though they’re most common in the legs, varicose veins can occur in almost any part of the body. Prevention can help keep the problem from occurring, and many treatments exist — with varying degrees of effectiveness. Herbs can help.
Here’s what happens: Leg veins have the Herculean task of returning blood to the heart, oftentimes working against gravity. When you move, leg muscles massage the vein, “milking” the blood upward. Normally, valves keep the blood from flowing backward. If a valve becomes incompetent, the blood does flow backward. The vein then dilates, which puts pressure on the valve below.
Anything that increases pressure in the legs raises the risk of developing varicose veins: obesity, pregnancy and activities that involve prolonged standing or heavy lifting. In addition to cosmetic considerations, varicose veins can raise the risk of inflammation of the vein (thrombophlebitis) and blood clots (deep vein thrombosis).
What can you do? For mild symptoms, support pantyhose, knee-highs or knee socks can help. Pharmacies or department stores often carry compression stockings made of light elastic. For more serious situations, doctors can prescribe special compression stockings, available from medical supply stores.
Other simple measures can reduce the pressure in your leg veins. For instance, you can avoid crossing your legs when sitting. If you have to sit for long periods, get up and move about every 30 to 45 minutes. If you are overweight, eating fewer calories and exercising more will help take off some of the pounds.
Eating plenty of fiber and drinking lots of water will help you avoid the straining (which puts pressure against leg veins) associated with constipation. When you have a chance to get off your feet, elevate your legs above the level of your heart. While you’re lying on your back, circle your feet at the ankles, then point and flex your feet.
A variety of medical procedures can eliminate problem veins. Options include sclerotherapy (injection of an irritating solution that causes the veins to scar shut), surgical stripping, newer laser techniques and radiofrequency occlusion (in which a catheter inside the vein delivers radiofrequency energy to the vein wall, causing it to heat, collapse and seal shut).
Herbally Healthy Veins
Before you try these more extreme treatments, you might want to give herbs a chance. A general step is to consume plenty of foods rich in flavonoids, the water-soluble pigments that give plants their color. These compounds tone veins and protect them from inflammation and oxidative damage. Food sources are numerous and include berries, citrus fruits, parsley, red grapes, green tea, red wine and red cabbage. Several studies have shown a mixture of citrus bioflavonoids called rutosides to be helpful in treating varicose veins. Bilberry extract (Vaccinum myrtillus), which is rich in flavonoids called anthocyanosides, can also be helpful.
Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is the most popular herbal treatment for varicose veins in Germany. The herb’s active component is thought to be aescin. Extracts of the seed of this tree counter inflammation, tone and protect veins, scavenge tissue-damaging free radicals and block enzymes that break down supporting tissue. Horse chestnut extract (containing 50 mg per day of aescin) works as effectively as physician-prescribed compression stockings. An analysis of 13 studies judged horse chestnut extract a safe and effective treatment for varicose veins.
According to the German Commission E (the regulatory body overseeing medicinal herbs), the initial dosage is usually 250 mg twice daily of an extract standardized to contain 20 percent aescin, or 313 mg twice daily of a 16 percent extract. Either way, you take about 100 mg of aescin daily. Once symptom relief is noticed in a week or two, the dose can be halved. Controlled-release, enteric-coated forms of the supplement minimize stomach discomfort.
Horse chestnut is not recommended for people with liver or kidney disease. You shouldn’t take this herb in combination with blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin). Safety during pregnancy and nursing has not been established.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a tropical plant that enhances the integrity of blood vessels and speeds wound healing. It keeps small vessels from “leaking,” thereby decreasing swelling. One study compared two different doses (120 mg per day and 60 mg per day) of gotu kola extract and a placebo over a two-month period. Another study compared placebo treatment to 90 mg per day (30 mg three times daily) and 180 mg per day (60 mg three times daily) of gotu kola extract. In both studies, the herb was more effective than the placebo and the higher dose outperformed the lower dose. Thrice-daily topical application of gotu kola extract is also helpful.
Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is a yellow-flowered shrub that, by virtue of its anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, tones the veins. Scientific research now supports a long history of folk use in treating varicose veins. Butcher’s broom extracts inhibit enzymes that degrade structural components of veins and render small vessels less permeable (inhibiting fluid from leaking out into the surrounding tissues). A 1988 Italian study showed that a combination of butcher’s broom, vitamin C and hesperidin (a citrus bioflavonoid) was safe and more effective than both a placebo and rutoside (a citrus bioflavonoid complex).
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is rich in anti-inflammatory substances and tannins (the mouth-puckering astringent substances also found in red wine and tea). Extracts of the bark of this North American tree, easily found in most pharmacies, have a long tradition of topical use for skin inflammation, hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
Linda B. White, M.D. is the co-author of Kids, Herbs, & Health (Interweave, 1998), The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000) and Healing Young Minds (Rodale, 2004).
1869 Rte. 9H, Ste. 1
Hudson, NY 12534
Venaforce Horse Chestnut Tablets and Soothing Horse Chestnut Leg Gel, an internal and external treatment program for varicose veins
Healthy Legs and Feet Too!
6342 SW Macadam Ave.
Portland, OR 97239
A variety of support stockings and pantyhose
P.O. Box 116
Williams, OR 97544
High-quality, organically grown gotu kola extract
2049 High Ridge Rd.
Boynton Beach, FL 33426
Several brands of bilberry extract