Treating Varicose Veins
By middle age almost half of all people will develop some form of varicose veins, women being four times more at risk than men. I believe it is possible to prevent and, to a degree reverse, mild to medium cases of varicose veins. But, first we must understand what causes varicose veins, before we can look at preventing and reversing them.
Our circulatory system is based on arteries that carry blood away from the heart, and veins which return the blood to the heart. Veins are like arteries but, because they move the blood under less pressure, they are weaker than arteries. Capillaries are the little vessels that link the veins and arteries, and when the capillaries pop under excess pressure we develop “spider veins”.
Symptoms of Varicose Veins Normally we have “venous valves” that in part prevent blood from pooling. If these valves become damaged the blood cannot circulate well, pressure builds-up, and water gets into the tissues, leading to edema. Eventually the veins grow inflamed, bulge out, and symptoms appear. By the time the veins are weakened and the blood vessels have swollen, the legs begin to ache and feel heavy and tired. As the lack of circulation affects the surface tissue surrounding the affected veins, the skin becomes thinner. At this point the area can become itchy and discolored, and eventually lead to ulcers forming on the skin. Hemorrhoids are also caused by the same mechanisms.
If action is taken soon after we observe the symptoms of varicose veins – swollen and achy legs, the surface blue lines of elevated and swollen veins, and the red of spider lines – these symptoms can be reversed, and further degeneration can be prevented. Of course, like with most ailments, as the condition worsens it is more difficult to treat naturally. Only in the most severe conditions should one consider surgical stripping of the veins, since removing varicose veins surgically simply adds further burden to a circulatory system that is already overloaded.
Causes of Varicose Veins Standing for long periods increases pressure on the veins by almost ten times more than normal. So, jobs requiring long periods of standing put individuals at the greatest risk of getting varicose veins. Sitting for long periods also increases pressure (the reason why deep vein thrombosis is linked to long airplane flights), and crossing the legs for long periods can also further worsen circulation. Other risk factors for increasing the pressure of the circulatory system and leading to varicose conditions include straining from constipation, obesity, and pregnancy. And simply aging makes us more predisposed to this problem since we lose muscle mass and all tissue becomes weakened.
Inflammation Superficial varicose veins, while visually unappealing, are of no harm if they are near the surface. When varicose veins become a serious problem is when the obstructions and defects in the valve affect the deeper veins in the leg. At this point they are linked to pulmonary embolism, myocardial infarction, blood clots and deep leg thrombosis, and increase the potential for stroke if one of the clots detaches and travels through the body.
Fibrin and Enzymes When we see the type of varicose vein that becomes thick and bumpy what we are seeing is “fibrin” deposits. Fibrin is a protein involved in clotting function in the blood. Some people do not break down fibrin well and they are more prone to this type of varicose problem. It is this decreased fibrinolytic activity that leads to the dangerous components of varicose veins mentioned above.
One of the most proven substances for breaking down and removing fibrin deposits from the veins is bromelain, a protein digesting enzyme derived from pineapples. All protein digesting enzymes (called “proteolytic” enzymes) have this ability, including pancreatin (derived from pigs) and serratia peptidase (derived from plant-based enzymes). These protein digesting enzymes also dramatically reduce inflammation throughout the body protecting us against all inflammatory based diseases.
Because the first job of these enzymes, as their name implies, is to digest protein, we need to take them on an empty stomach (or at least in the absence of protein) for them to perform their secondary functions of cleaning dead matter and debris out of the arteries and veins. These enzymes can also improve circulation throughout the body by helping to clean out the arteries.
When a vein has become varicosed it can no longer produce “plasminogen activator” which is what the body used to break down fibrin deposits. Proteolytic enzymes will work like plasminogen activator on the vein, helping to keep fibrin from building up, and wearing away existing deposits. Certain foods will also serve this function and should be included liberally into the diet. These are cayenne, garlic, ginger, and members of the onion family.
Loss of tissue elasticity is one of the key underlying causes of varicose veins. As we’ve seen, the increased pressure that we put on the circulatory system through modern living (standing and sitting too much, constipation, obesity, etc) can cause so much internal pressure on the veins that they expand and essentially break. But if we can strengthen the veins, they will have more elasticity along with the flexibility to expand under the increased pressure without breaking.
Perhaps the most important nutrient for maintaining the strength and flexibility of the skin, ligaments, tendons and bones is the trace mineral silica. Before it was commonly available, silica was often touted as the “beauty secret of the stars” since it strengthens hair, teeth and nails, and prevents wrinkles by keeping the skin elastic. Connective tissues in the body are made up of collagen, elastin, mucopolysaccharides and glucosaminoglycanes, all of which require silica to function, especially collagen which is really the “glue” that holds everything together. Silica can even be used topically in creams to strengthen collagen.
The richest source of silica is Bamboo extract, containing 70% silica, and being ten times more potent than the next best plant source, the herb horsetail. In this case one capsule of Bamboo Silica is equal to 7 capsules of horsetail extract, though the herb horsetail may be added to the diet in the form of tea to further provide strengthening silica to the veins and elsewhere. Bamboo Silica
Topical Treatments Horsechestnut is the favored European remedy for varicose veins and is used both internally and externally. It firms up and tones the weak veins and is available as cream and salve for external support to the healing process. Topical application of solutions of Witch Hazel morning and night will shrink and soothe inflamed veins. Other substances to look for when purchasing a topical treatment for varicose veins are arnica, comfrey, gotu kola, grape seed extract, pine bark extract, and/or rutin.
Dry brushing is a favorite beauty technique in both Europe and Asia. A natural bristle brush is used to brush all the skin towards the heart, and greatly increases circulation through the body as well as sloughing off dead skin cells allowing the body to detoxify more efficiently. This can be done either before or after bathing.
Ending your bathing with a 10 second cold water rinse of the legs, both front and back, will increase circulation to the area and soothe and constrict the circulation to the inflammation on the surface of the legs. Also good for improving circulation is alternating hot and cold rinses or foot baths.
All forms of massage (including just a foot massage) and bodywork modalities, including acupuncture and shiatsu (acupuncture without needles), will be very supportive of circulation in the body.
Diet and Nutrition
Diet can make a big difference in the prevention and reversal of varicose veins because it can influence circulation so much. As well, a diet high in flavonoids can strengthen the veins throughout the body.
Let’s start with fiber. It has been observed that varicose veins and hemorrhoids are not common in parts of the world where high fiber diets are the norm. Since straining during bowel movements increases pressure on the veins around the anus, and since these veins also run through the legs, constipation not only leads to hemorrhoids but also inhibits the return of the blood from the legs to the heart, increasing the potential of varicose veins as well.
Fiber-rich foods prevent constipation (along with probiotics), whereas refined foods (those with the fiber removed, such as white flour) worsen this condition. Whole fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables are all rich in fiber. Flax seeds are especially helpful for those with constipation since they absorb water and soften the stools (like all fiber) keeping the feces soft and easy to move. By grinding them freshly (every three days) and using them liberally in foods we gain the benefits of both the fiber and the oil (rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids). Other helpful fibers include psyllium husk and oat and wheat bran.
Speaking of Omega 3’s, it is important to be aware that good fats, like those found in fish and flax oil, help keep the blood free flowing, while bad fats thicken and slow the blood. These bad fats include deep fried foods, excessive saturated fats from meats and trans-fatty acid containing foods, found mostly in hydrogenated oils used in margarine and shortening.
Now, if we eat a meal high in saturated fats (like a burger and milkshake) our blood slows and thickens dramatically, but with as little as 500mg of vitamin C the blood will quickly return to a normal viscosity. Since vitamin C is required for the production of collagen in the body, and collagen offers elasticity to all tissues including the veins, it would be of great advantage to consume vitamin C-rich foods and regularly take vitamin C as a supplement. Vitamin C along with L-lysine is even more effective at building collagen than vitamin C alone, and of course one can also ingest collagen as a supplement or by regular intake of bone broth.
In nature vitamin C occurs with bioflavonoids, usually found in the skin or peel of fruit (especially citrus fruits). Bioflavonoids, even more so than vitamin C, contribute powerfully to the strengthening of veins and capillaries. The richest sources of bioflavonoids include berries (particularly good are cherries, blackberries and blueberries), grapes (ideally also chewing the seeds) and the skins of citrus fruits. Be sure that you buy organic, since these fruits, and especially the peel of citrus fruits, often contain high amounts of pesticides otherwise. Bioflavonoids can be found in supplement form alone, or combined with vitamin C. The best flavonoids to use for this purpose are Diosmin (from Spanish oranges) and pine bark extract (Pycnogenol), followed by grapeseed extract, hesperidin, and rutin.
Vitamin E is another nutrient that is important for circulation. As well as preventing platelet clumping and keeping the blood flowing freely, vitamin E both dilates and oxygenates the blood, and can help prevent blood clots from forming.
Why a Healthy Liver is Important
One of the commonly overlooked causes of this condition is liver congestion, which will show up on your face when it is severe. When the vertical lines between the eyebrows become pronounced and constant you will know that your liver needs some care (this is based on Oriental facial diagnosis). Think of your veins as a hose with the pressure backing up because the liver cannot process the blood fast enough (doing its job removing toxins). When the pressure builds up, the weak spots in the hose are going to balloon outwards; these weak spots become our varicose veins.
Using herbs that cleanse and support the liver can reverse this pressure after about a month or so. Goods herbs for this purpose include milk thistle, burdock, and dandelion root, all of which can be used as capsules, tinctures, or tea.
Exercising the legs by biking, running, swimming and walking, relieves pressure on the venous system by encouraging the blood return to the heart through the contraction of the leg muscles. When running or walking, doing so barefoot on earth or sand is preferable for our purposes. When we stand too long in one spot, sit for too long, or when the weather is too hot, the veins will expand and circulation will slow. To counteract this try to get some walking in, and elevate the legs above the heart at the end of the day, to alleviate some of this pressure.
Elevating the legs daily for at least 15 to 20 minutes takes the pressure off the return of blood to the heart and allows the veins to relax and return to their normal shape. Other forms of inversion also use gravity to help clear this stagnate pooled blood, from yoga head stands to inversion swings that are also used to alleviate back pain. For severe and painful conditions it may help to actually elevate the bottom of the bed about 8 to 10 inches.
For severe conditions it may be appropriate to use support hose (elastic compression stockings) but seek medical advice since the compression must be supportive without restricting blood flow.
As we have seen on our journey through the natural approach to varicose veins, there is much that we can do physically to counteract the problems of modern living that are linked to this problem. And there are many dietary and supplemental approaches that can further prevent and repair the damage to our veins.