MALADY MAKEOVER

Veins, Veins, Go Away

There are natural ways to keep varicose veins from marring your legs.

By Susan Weiner

April 2009


Think “nice legs” and you probably don’t picture a woman with varicose veins. Considered unsightly and embarrassing, these bluish-purple knotty blood vessels—and their less obnoxious cousins, spider veins—are the reason many women cold-shoulder shorts or skirts, no matter how hot the weather. Other women simply grin and bear it.

“Vanity isn’t my strong suit, so I don’t give much thought to the way they look,” says 64-year-old Peggy Haine. A real estate agent in Ithaca, New York, Haine spends long hours on her feet showing properties. “I’ve had varicose veins for years and basically just wear pressure stockings, which gives my legs the appearance of a couple of baloneys, and ignore them.”

Vanity aside, varicose veins tend to worsen over time; sometimes they can result in pain, swollen ankles, discoloration and skin ulcers. Varicose veins may even indicate the presence of more serious conditions, such as venous thrombosis, blood clots in veins within the leg, or chronic venous insufficiency, poor leg circulation. Varicose veins can appear elsewhere; the most notable example are hemorrhoids, which occur in the anal region. Spider veins, smaller red or blue versions of varicose veins, may occur in the capillaries of the legs, hands and face and typically don’t cause any medical concerns.

While it’s more common for women to put up with varicose veins, men tolerate the knobby affliction as well. “Women are four times more likely than men to develop varicose veins, primarily because of hormonal factors,” explains Daivati Bharadvag, ND of Alive & Well Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. “Regardless of gender, about half of all middle-aged adults in the US can develop this condition, so it’s very common among Americans.” Varicose veins tend to run in families, which indicates that genetics also plays a role in their development.

Why Good Veins Go Bad

If you’ve ever been stuck in a traffic jam, then varicose veins are simple to understand. Like a single-lane road, veins in the legs transport blood back to the heart. When factors such as gravity, excess weight, aging, pregnancy, leg injury and excessive time spent standing take their toll, valves within the veins weaken and the vessels enlarge, allowing blood to pool. Height may play a role in varicose vein development; taller men are more likely to develop varicose veins than their shorter, lighter counterparts (Clinical Epidemiology 2/03).

Varicose vein treatments such as sclerotherapy (chemical injections that block off the affected vessel), laser therapy and surgical vein stripping can be effective. But the results are not always permanent, as varicose veins tend to resurface. Moreover, adverse reactions can include pain,

bruising, nerve damage, infections, deep vein clotting and permanent scarring.

To treat varicose veins, spider veins and hemorrhoids, Bharadvag uses horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). “These plant medicines boost collagen synthesis and connective tissue stability,” Bharadvag says, “while simultaneously reducing inflammation and enzymatic breakdown of the tissues.” In one investigation, women with chronic venous insufficiency receiving butcher’s broom two times a day for three months experienced significantly decreased leg swelling (Arzneimittel­forschung 4/02). Supple­mentation with vitamin K has also been shown to lessen, and prevent the development of, varicose veins (Journal of Vascular Research 7/07).

Once varicose veins appear, the goal is to heal the tissues that line the veins. Bioflavonoids from fruits—including blueberries, blackberries, goji berries, pomegranate, cherries and grapes—strengthen blood vessel walls. These fruits contain red and purple pigments called proanthocyanidins (available supplementally as oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes, or OPCs) and anthocyanidins, which “improve the muscle tone in veins and reduce the fragility of the vessel walls,” says Bharadvag. Bioflavonoids work well with vitamin C, which strengthens blood-vessel walls. Hawthorn, a traditional cardiac herb, also helps ease varicose veins.

Dance Your Veins Away

Many women wear compression stockings, which reduce pressure in the veins. It’s a temporary fix, though, since blood will return to the veins once the stockings are taken off.

A fiber-filled diet may provide more lasting results. “Interestingly, varicose veins are almost

unheard of in cultures around the world that eat diets high in fiber,” says Bharadvag. “This is because a high-fiber diet eases the digestive process, taking the strain out of the abdomen during a bowel movement.” Increased straining obstructs blood flow in the legs, which can lead to varicose veins. To get that fiber, Bharadvag suggests aiming for six to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, and four to five servings of whole grains, every day, along with adding beans to your diet several times a week.

Exercise contracts muscles in the lower half of the body to squeeze more blood up towards the heart, taking a heavy burden off the valves in the veins. If you stand at your job, shift your weight from one foot to the other and take short walks; if you sit, don’t cross your legs and climb a flight of steps several times a day. While you’re up, get on your tip-toes by lifting your heels off the floor; do 20 repetitions.

Want to make varicose veins go, and stay, away? Then dance in the hallway, play hopscotch or do jumping jacks. Making your legs more sightly—and comfortable—can be fun.

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