Varicose Veins

The bulging, bluish blood vessels that can pop up on the legs are often unsightly and painful. You may be able to avoid invasive surgery by eating the right foods, making a few lifestyle changes, taking an adequate supply of vitamins and using some helpful herbs.

What is it?

Normal veins – the vessels that carry blood to the heart – contain valves that open and close to permit blood to flow in only one direction. If these valves become weak and don't fully close, blood flows backwards and collects, resulting in bulging veins. Commonly referred to as varicose veins, they almost always develop in the legs (although haemorrhoids are actually varicose veins in the anus).

In most people, varicose veins produce only mild discomfort. In severe cases, however, blood and other fluids leak out of the veins into the surrounding tissue, causing scaly, itchy skin or swelling in the ankles from the fluid that has pooled in the legs. Sometimes the legs ache or feel heavy, particularly after extended periods of standing. Without treatment, varicose veins tend to worsen over time.

What causes it?

Genetic and hormonal factors play key roles in the occurrence of varicose veins. The condition tends to run in families, and is four times more common in women than men.

Other possible causes include obesity, pregnancy or frequent heavy lifting, all of which can create excessive pressure on the veins. Pregnancy also produces hormonal changes believed to weaken the veins in the legs. Varicose veins tend to affect people who spend a lot of time on their feet, who habitually cross their legs or who get too little exercise. Also at risk are people with congestive heart failure (an inability of the heart to pump blood properly) or liver disease.

What are the symptoms?

  • Swollen, snake-like purple veins, usually on the calf, behind the knee, or inside the thigh.
  • Painful, aching legs, especially after long periods of standing.
  • In severe cases, swollen ankles.

Are there any natural therapies?

If you have varicose veins, taking vitamin C with flavonoids (which help the body use vitamin C) and vtamin E can improve blood circulation and strengthen the walls of the veins and capillaries. The herb gotu kola can be added to these vitamins, and is probably the most valuable botanical for this condition. Gotu kola enhances blood flow, increases the tone of the connective tissue surrounding the veins and keeps the veins supple. Bilberry complements gotu kola; in fact, these two herbs are often sold in a single supplement. Horse chestnut can be used to control inflammation and swelling and to reduce the accumulation of fluid. If you can't find the standardised extract of horse chestnut, you can substitute the herb butcher's broom. It may take up to three months to see results. You can take the vitamins and herbs that work best for you indefinitely.

What else can I do?

  • Exercise regularly, but avoid high-impact activities. Walk, cycle or swim rather than jog. If you lift weights, don't use very heavy ones.
  • Elevate your legs whenever possible. This helps prevent the blood from pooling in the veins.
  • Avoid prolonged standing or sitting, and don't cross your legs.
  • Don't wear tight clothing, including shoes, pantyhose or belts. These items can constrict veins in and around the legs and make it hard to blood to move upward as it should.

Did you know?

Compression stockings are often recommended for varicose veins. They do ease symptoms, but are expensive and uncomfortable. A recent German study found that horse chestnut produced the same benefits as compression stockings in people at risk of varicose veins.