A very high proportion of the population will develop haemorrhoids during their lives. Yet many people aren't aware they have them, because haemorrhoids often have few symptoms. When they flare up, natural remedies may have more to offer than conventional treatments.

What is it?

Haemorrhoids (also known as piles) are essentially enlarged (varicose) veins in the anus or rectum. Veins are vessels that return deoxygenated blood to the heart, but sometimes the law of gravity slows down this process in the lower half of the body. Blood can pool in the veins, stretching and weakening them. The veins in the rectum and anus are particularly susceptible. Not only are they in the lower body, but – unlike other veins – they do not have valves to prevent the backward flow of blood. (Weak or faulty valves contribute to varicose veins in the legs.)

There are two types of haemorrhoids. The internal ones develop inside the rectum; they sometimes cause bleeding after a bowel movement, but otherwise have no symptoms because there are no pain sensors in the rectum. External haemorrhoids occur around the anal opening. They may be painful and itchy and can be fragile, bleeding easily after a bowel movement or when wiped with toilet paper.

What causes it?

Straining during bowel movement is a primary cause of haemorrhoids, because it puts excess pressure on the veins in the anus and rectum. Being overweight or pregnant also weakens these veins. Experts disagree as to whether constipation directly causes haemorrhoids, but people who are constipated often strain to defecate, so at the very least this problem makes haemorrhoids worse. Studies show that frequent diarrhoea also increases the likelihood of haemorrhoids.

In addition, long periods of standing or sitting can lead to the development of haemorrhoids. The muscles that help to propel blood through the veins lose tone with age, so haemorrhoids are more common in older people. They also tend to run in families.

What are the symptoms?

  • Streaks of blood on toilet tissue.
  • Bowel movements that are bloody and painful.
  • Itching in the anal area.
  • Painful bump on or near the anus.
  • Mucous discharge from the anus.

Are there any natural therapies?

Supplements are meant to be used in conjunction with a high-fibre diet and regular exercise. Fibre is of value in bulking up and softening the stool, which makes it easier to pass. Exercise is important in toning the muscles that surround the veins; it also promotes regular bowel movements.

Unlike over-the-counter ointments, the recommended vitamins and herbs will aid in strengthening the veins and minimising irritation as they heal. In combination, try vitamin C, flavonoids and the herb butcher's broom to help tone and shrink the veins. Zinc plays a role in wound healing; copper is needed with long-term use of zinc, however, because zinc interferes with copper absorption. If you don't get enough fibre in your diet or need an extra fibre boost, take psyllium or flaxseeds. Both are effective in easing the passage of stool. When haemorrhoids are painful, apply an ointment containing the herb St John's wort several times a day, especially after bowel movements. This ointment helps to shrink swollen tissues, as does witch-hazel lotion or extract, applied several times a day.

What else can I do?

  • Incrase your fibre intake by eating lots of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Fluid is important in preventing the constipation associated with haemorrhoids.
  • Breathe normally when lifting weights or heavy objects, or during a bowel movement. Holding your breath increases pressure in the abdomen.

Did you know?

Haemorrhoids can be the result of overzealous cleaning of the anal area, which inflames the veins. Practise good but gentle hygiene. Use moistened toilet paper or special wipes to clean the rectal opening after a bowel movement.