Our leg veins have a tough job, which is to pump blood back up to the heart against gravity. When the small valves within those veins become weak, they are no longer able to keep blood from drifting back down and pooling in the legs. This situation is known as venous insufficiency and includes “heavy legs,” spider veins and varicose veins, where veins near the skin’s surface are damaged and considered unsightly. Women are affected by varicose veins two to three times more than men.
Natural approaches to varicose veins centre on strengthening the walls of the veins to prevent further damage and to relieve symptoms of pain and swelling.
Horse Chestnut: Used in 19th Century France to treat hemorrhoids (a form of varicose veins), horse chestnut is the most popular European herbal treatment for this condition and the third most commonly prescribed herb in Germany. A trial on 240 patients showed that horse chestnut was as effective as compression stockings in helping edema, or fluid buildup in the legs, without the hassle. An active ingredient in horse chestnut is escin, which decreases the permeability of capillary walls. Escin is also a venotonic which strengthens the elastic fibres of the vein wall. A recent review of multiple studies found that horse chestnut reduced leg pain and swelling in almost all cases.
Vitamins C and E: A shortage of these two basic nutrients may up the risk for varicose veins. Vitamin C is well known to support the production of collagen, elastin and connective tissue, including that associated with veins. Many vitamin C formulations come with rutin and other bioflavonoids which further support vein integrity. According to one researcher, the Western diet — and particularly, even a slight deficiency of vitamin E —makes the vein walls susceptible to damage that can result in varicose veins.
Grapeseed Extract: This popular antioxidant contains bioflavonoids (OPCs) that improve the integrity of the vein wall, reduce leakage and control inflammation. OPCs are reported to protect a chemical that keeps enzymes from breaking down collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid — all essential to vein health and a youthful appearance in general. Placebo-controlled studies show the OPCs in grape seed extract provide significant benefits for sufferers of varicose veins. In one of these studies, 75% of those taking grape seed extract experienced improvements, compared to 41% in the placebo group.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (2nd Ed) by M Murray and J Pizzorno, Prima:1998; Natural Health Bible by S Bratman, MD, Prima:2000; Dietary Supplement Information Bureau(www.supplementinfo.org); Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;2:CD003230