Herbs and high-fibre foods can help you beat spider and varicose veins, says Dr Harald Gaier
I have superficial veins surrounded by blue patches on the backs of both my thighs as well as in both my calves. I feel fatigue, aching, a sense of heaviness and sometimes even pain there. There's also swelling and dark-coloured skin around them, and it looks as if my skin is ready to start weeping on the lower part of my left leg. I remember my mother and her sister having the same problems, including ulcerations, and now my daughter, who is only 17, is also beginning to develop these 'spider veins'-in exactly the same way my own horrible varicose veins started. Please help us!-Maureen and Leiticia, Northampton
Veins are really quite frail structures, so when there's a small defect in the wall of your vein, any abnormal pressure can cause it to become dilated and even damage its valves.1 If your work, for instance, requires you to stand for long periods at a time, you're at greater risk of developing these distorted veins, as standing for long periods increases the pressure exerted on your veins by as much as 10-fold.
Women are affected four times more frequently than men, possibly because of an 'auto-allergy' to the hormone progesterone, which is greatest during pregnancy, and also the time when the risk of developing these kinds of disfigurements certainly increases. In addition, age, and loss of tissue tone and muscle mass all add to the risk.2
No one is certain of the cause of either varicose veins or spider veins-which are smaller and more superficial than varicose veins-although several unconvincing theories have been proposed. I've noticed in my practice that whenever the problem seems to run in families, it definitely pays to look for allergy triggers, using a FACT (food allergen cellular test) blood test available from Genova Diagnostics (in the UK: New Malden, Surrey, tel: 020 8336 7753; in the US: Asheville, North Carolina, tel: 1 800 522 4762 ext. 727).
In one of my recent cases, the allergy turned out to be to cow's milk, which affected all of the members of this family plagued by varicosities. Cutting cow's milk products entirely out of their diet instantly stopped the problem from getting worse. In an earlier case, it was potatoes together with the whole nightshade group of foods (tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, and aubergines or eggplants). If you suspect an allergy, look first at the foods you crave most often.
Here are some other things you can try too.
More fibre.In contrast to the European Union and North America, varicose and spider veins are rarely seen in those parts of the world where unrefined, high-fibre foods are eaten.3 People consuming a low-fibre diet tend to strain more during defecation, as their smaller and harder stools are more difficult to pass during bowel movements. Such straining increases the pressure in the abdomen, which in turn obstructs the flow of blood up their legs.
This increase in pressure may over time appreciably weaken vein walls, leading to the formation of spider veins and varicosities. It can also weaken the wall of the colon and produce diverticuli (pockets) in the walls of the large intestine.
A diet rich in organic vegetables, fruits and legumes (beans, peas and lentils) promotes efficient bowel movements; fibre components attract water and form a gelatinous mass, which keeps the faeces soft, bulky and easy to pass.
Bulking agents.You could also use natural bulking compounds, particularly psyllium seed, linseed (flaxseed in the US), pectin and guar gum, which all have mild laxative actions.
Flavonoid-rich berries.To increase the strength and integrity of the walls of your veins, increase your consumption of bilberries (also called whortleberries), blackberries, cherries, hawthorne berries and any other foods that are rich sources of proanthocyanidins and anthocyanidins (like wine, and green and black teas). These bioflavonoids give berries their blue-red colour (not surprisingly, anthocyanin is the name of that particular colour).
They reduce capillary fragility, the main problem behind spider veins, and increase both the integrity and muscle tone of the vein walls.
Regular consumption of these berries will help to slow or even stop the further development of such veins where they have already appeared, and help prevent their development in the first place.4
Aesculus hippocastanum(horse chestnut) is a herbal medicine with a long folk history of use to successfully treat varicose veins.5 This 'venotonic' minimizes spider and varicose veins by reducing capillary permeability (the number and size of small pores in the capillary walls); it also lowers water retention and has anti-inflammatory properties.6
Horse chestnut can be taken orally or you can apply a cream containing aescin, the active ingredient in horse chestnut, plus cholesterol at a 1 per cent concentration directly onto the skin. This kind of cream formula can also be used to treat the bruises that often accompany varicosities. Just avoid its use in pregnancy7 and when breastfeeding.
Make sure the naturopath or herbalist prescribing this for you and your daughter is only using standardized preparations, as taking larger amounts can produce toxic reactions. And don't take it with aspirin or other anticoagulants (blood-thinners).
Centella asiatica(South African pennywort) taken by mouth as an extract containing 70 per cent triterpenic acids (asiatic acid, madecassic acid and asiaticoside) produces, in my experience, impressive clinical results not only in the treatment of varicose veins, but also of cellulite and general venous insufficiency. It also enhances connective tissues, so improving blood flow through the affected limbs.8
Ruscus aculeatus(butcher's broom), a member of the lily family, has a long stem that sends out roots. This rhizome has a long history of use for treating varicose veins because of its anti-inflammatory and vasoconstrictor effects.9
Physical support and exercise
Regularly riding a bicycle provides good leg exercise that will reduce the risk of varicose veins, as contraction of the leg muscles pushes gravity-pooled blood back into the circulation. I also encourage you to continue with any physician-prescribed physical treatments such as elastic support stockings, leg compresses and the application of cold water.10
Avoiding blood clots
Fibrinolysis is a process that prevents blood clots from growing and becoming a problem. When you have varicose veins, it's a sign of a diminished ability to break down fibrin,11 which is then deposited in the tissues around varicose veins.
In fact, the skin becomes hard and lumpy because of the fibrin and fat. Decreased fibrinolytic activity also raises the risk of blood clots, which can lead to thrombophlebitis (venous inflammation with blood clots), heart attack, pulmonary embolism (an obstructed pulmonary artery) or even stroke.
For those with a tendency to form blood clots, use herbs, spices and foods that increase the fibrinolytic activity of your blood; this includes cayenne pepper, garlic, onion and ginger. Bromelain, the enzyme from pineapple, can also break down fibrin.12
7 ways to rid yourself of varicose veins
1 Eat high-fibre foods regularly
2 Exercise frequently and use physical supports if necessary
3 Avoid standing for long periods
4 Avoid becoming overweight
5 Eat lots and lots of bilberries, blackberries, cherries and hawthorne berries, and use cayenne pepper, garlic, onions and ginger liberally
6 Take bioflavonoids and bromelain regularly
7 Have a professional prescribe herbal medicines just for you
1. Lancet, 1986; i: 320-1
2. Berkow R, ed. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 14th edn. Rahway, NJ: Merck & Co., 1982: 560-6
3. Trowell H et al. Dietary Fibre, Fibre-Depleted Foods and Disease. London: Academic Press, 1985
4. Angiologica, 1972; 9: 355-74; Plant Med Phytothera, 1977; 11: 143-51
5. Fitoterapia, 1996; 67: 483-511; Felter HW, Lloyd JU. King's American Dispensatory, 1898 (reprinted in Portland, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1983: 990-2); Reynolds JEF et al., eds. Martindale: The Extra Pharmacopoeia, 31st edn. London: Royal Pharmaceutical Society, 1996: 1670
6. Wien Med Wochenschr, 1989; 139: 385-9; Arzneimittelforschung, 1964; 14: 892-6
7. Steele NM, ed. Chestnut, in The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, February 1995
8. Clin Terap, 1981; 99: 507-13; Angiology, 1987; 38: 46-50
9. Altern Med Rev, 2001; 6: 608-12; J Cardiovasc Pharmacol, 1993; 22: 221-4
10. Blumenthal M et al., eds. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Boston, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
11. Vasa, 1983; 12: 377-82
12. Am J Clin Nutr, 1982; 35: 1452-8; Atherosclerosis, 1977; 28: 155-9; Prostaglandins Leukot Med, 1984; 13: 227-35; Arch Int Pharmacodyn Ther, 1981; 254: 157-67
Harald Gaier, one of the UK's leading experts on alternative medicine and a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London. Visit his website at www.drgaier.com.If you have a question for our Medical Detective, write to us at the usual address or firstname.lastname@example.org.