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, too.
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 (thombophlebitis) and blood clots (deep vein thrombosis).
Before you try extreme/surgical measures, 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, also can 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. 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 (see Bookshelf, Page 54) and Healing Young Minds (Rodale, 2004).
Please note: The information provided is for educational purposes and should not be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified health-care practitioner.
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