HERBS and HEALTH

article image

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).

HERBALLY HEALTHY VEINS

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.