Smooth Kickin'
Herbs can help you get a leg up on treating varicose veins

By Chris O'Brien

If you find yourself in the office of Morel Laronn, MD, and he says strip, he may be talking about more than your clothes. Stripping is actually a surgical technique for removing varicose veins, which Laronn practices at the Vein Treatment Center in Greenwood Village, Colorado. But although surgery is an option for the treatment of unsightly and sometimes painful varicose veins, for many it is the last resort and may be avoided with the right combination of lifestyle, diet, and the help of some herbal supplements.

Varicose veins constitute a class of living, damaged veins that includes spider veins and hemorrhoids. Typically, varicose veins are characterized by bulging, blue and sometimes painful and inflamed veins, primarily in the calves and thighs. Although they can indicate a more serious condition such as phlebitis—blood clot-rich inflamed veins that can pose other health risks—varicose veins are usually more unsightly and embarrassing than physically threatening.

Running wild
Herbs, acupuncture and homeopathy offer natural support for your hard-working legs. You can also help keep the blood flowing by eating right, getting plenty of exercise, avoiding high-fat foods and remembering to put your feet up every once in a while. "Arteries are lined with muscles that contract and move blood through the body," says JoHannah Reilly, ND, in Boulder, Colorado. "Veins don't have their own muscles, so they rely on large skeletal muscle movement to move blood. One-way valves keep the blood flowing in the right direction. But with weak valves or too much back pressure, the blood pools and creates a varicose vein." Pooling blood stretches the vein, causing injury to the vein lining and swelling that leads to the distorted appearance.

Women are three times more prone to the condition than men, with 41 percent of women aged 40 to 50 and 72 percent of women aged 60 to 70 having unsightly leg veins. Eighty percent of all cases are due to heredity because weaker valves are thought to be genetic, says Laronn. Also at play are hormonal changes from pregnancy and hormone supplementation that can weaken valves, pressure from pregnancy and obesity, and long periods of inactivity or standing that stagnate blood flow.

Overall dietary health is a crucial issue, too. "The valves in your veins, and your circulatory system in general, need certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals," says Janine Malcolm, instructor at the Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute in Hot Springs, Montana. "If one is eating a lot of fats and greasy foods, then the veins and valves won't get enough nutrition and will weaken over time."

Natural Treatments
According to Laronn, surgery is the only alternative. He says it's "wishful thinking to hope that there is something that can be taken by mouth or smudged on the skin that will reverse or prevent the condition." However, although there is minimal danger in surgical removal—the blood flow is simply diverted to healthy veins—some believe it unnecessary. Naturopathic medical practitioners, for example, have reaped success using natural treatments such as diet regulation, acupuncture and homeopathy. And scientific studies confirm the ability of several herbs to arrest the progression and prevent further varicose veins from developing, although herbal treatment has not been able to reverse the condition.

A popular botanical for varicose veins, horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) was first used in 19th-century France as a treatment for hemorrhoids. The large seed from the chestnut tree contains chemicals that have been found to reduce fluid leakage from vessel walls. Human studies have found horse chestnut effective at reducing pain, swelling and "heaviness" associated with varicose veins. The dose is typically 300 mg twice daily of extract standardized to 50 mg escin per dose. Never eat the whole nut or leaves, both of which are toxic.

Additional compounds that can alleviate the symptoms of varicose veins are fruit- and vegetable-derived bioflavonoids, which include oxerutin, diosmin and hesperdin. Oxerutin has been well-tested and used in Europe for more than 30 years to treat varicose veins, although it is difficult to find in North America (the typical dose is 500 mg twice daily). And bioflavonoids are safe, having no side effects or toxicity. Oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), a distinct type of bioflavonoid that comes from grape seeds and pine bark, support the integrity of collagen—the elastic connective tissue that gives veins their strength and resilience. OPCs have also been found to reduce inflammation and capillary leakage. In dosages of 150 to 300 mg daily, OPCs are safe and nontoxic, rarely causing stomach upset.

The tropical plant gotu kola (Centella asiatica), originally used in Indonesia to control leprosy, also has been used successfully to reduce swelling, prevent fluid leakage and alleviate discomfort in varicose veins. A safe dose is 20 to 60 mg of standardized extract three times daily.

The Mediterranean bush butcher's broom (Cytisus scoparius) acquired its name from branches traditionally used to make whiskbrooms. A compound in the plant, ruscogenin, has been used to treat venous insufficiency in hemorrhoids and varicose veins. A typical dose should include 5-10 mg of ruscogenin daily.

Nonherbal treatments such as acupuncture and homeopathic remedies also have been used successfully to stop the progression of varicose veins. "I use acupuncture with great results," says Malcolm. "In Traditional Chinese Medicine, [varicose veins] have to do with blood stagnation, so we treat certain points and use Chinese herbs to get the blood moving." A typical acupuncture treatment might involve needling points at the beginning or end of a channel (called jing-well points) to increase flow through that channel, says Robin Zdravkovic, an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in Denver, Colorado. "Needling around points of pain and along the affected channel can move qi [pronounced "chee"] and blood and reduce pain," she says.

Homeopathic treatments also work well for a variety of conditions; formulas include arnica for bruised and sore veins, hamamelis for large and painful veins, Calcarea carbonica for pain while standing or walking, pulsatilla for swelling and heaviness, and Carbo vegetabilis for poor circulation. Work with a trained practitioner to find the treatments that best suit your condition.

Tips For Prevention
To get rid of existing varicose veins completely, you'll probably have to resort to surgery or another conventional technique such as schlerotherapy, intense pulsed light (IPL), or VNUS (see "In a Conventional Vein"). But don't wait until it's too late. In addition to supplementing with herbs, there are several things you can do to help prevent varicose veins:

Eat right. You don't have to chew on pine bark or eat grape seeds to have healthy veins. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables will give you a vein-healthy dose of bioflavonoids. "I recommend dark berries like blueberries, dark cherries and blackberries," says Malcolm. From a naturopathic perspective, pressure on the vascular system from liver deficiency can contribute to varicose veins, so Malcolm recommends liver-supporting foods such as carrots, onions, beets, artichoke hearts and dark green leafy vegetables.

Exercise. Remember, veins need muscle contraction to move blood. Sitting or standing for long periods of time make it difficult for blood to circulate effectively. Exercise can also help keep off extra pounds, which in turn supports healthy circulation.

Avoid unhealthy habits. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, high-fat foods and too much coffee wreak havoc on veins by contributing to free radical damage, possibly raising blood pressure and weakening vein walls.

Rest. If you're on your feet a lot, take time to give your legs a break. Conversely, if you spend most of your time seated, make sure to move around periodically to keep blood flowing. You can also wear hose to give veins support when you're on your feet.

Remember, this information is not intended as medical advice. Although alternative and complementary therapies for varicose veins are often effective and generally harmless, it is always important to consult with your health care practitioner before beginning any new treatments.

Chris O'Brien contributes regularly to several natural product and health publications.