Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Varicose Veins

My friend, who is still in her 20s, is going to have a large varicose vein in her leg removed, and has been told that she needs to work to improve her vein health through diet and exercise. Unfortunately, her doctor didn't give her very much information on what she could add or subtract from her diet or what type of exercises would help improve her vein health.

I was curious if I could find out any information for her, and so I consulted one of my favorite books, "Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine" by Michael Murray, N.D. and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. I was delighted to learn a ton of great information on varicose veins, and thought that I should even start taking some preventative measures to avoid varicose veins in my own future.

Some of the interesting things I learned were:

1. A high-fiber diet is the most important componant in the treatment and prevention of varicose veins. "A low-fiber diet, high in refined foods, contributes to the development of varicose veins. Individuals who consume a low-fiber diet tend to strain more during bowel movements since their smaller and harder stools are more difficult to pass. This straining increases the pressure in the abdomen, which obstructs the flow of blood up the legs. The increased pressure may, over a period of time, significantly weaken the vein wall, leading to the formation of varicose veins or hemorrhoids, or it may weaken the wall of the large intestine and produce diverticuli (small outpouchings) in the large intestine."

2. The most notable nutrients that support the health of the vein are: Vitamin C and E, bioflavonoids and zinc.

3. Exercise and avoidance of standing for long periods of time will reduce the risk of developing varicose veins. The exercises that are especially beneficial are walking, riding a bike or jogging, because the contraction of leg muscles pushes pooled blood back into circulation.

4. There are several herbal medicines that have been shown to be useful in improving vein structure and function including Gotu Kola, Horse chestnut, Butcher's Broom, flavonoid-rich extracts, bromelain and other fibrinolytic compounds.

Some of these herbal/botanical medicines were of particular interest to me. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that horse-chestnut seed standardized for escin (a key compound) was shown to be as effective as compression stockings in a study that examined 240 patients with varicose veins.

I was also excited to learn that eating flavonoid-rich berries, such as hawthorn berries, cherries, blueberries and blackberries, help in the prevention and treatment of varicose veins. These berries are apparently very rich sources of proanthocyanidins and anthocyanidins, which improve the integrity of support structures of the veins and entire vasular system! (I'm looking forward to the ripening of the blackberries that grow in abundance around our house.)

Learning about bromelain and other fibrinolytic compounds was fascinating. Apparently, individuals with varicose veins have a decreased ability to break down fibrin, which is one of the compounds involved in clot and scar formation. And this is extremely important, since fibrin is deposited in the tissue near varicose veins. This then leads to the skin becoming hard and lumpy due to the presence of fibrin and fat. Also, having a decreased ability to break down fibrin increases the risk for other serious complications, such as thrombophlebitis, pulmonary embolism, stroke, etc.

Herbs that increase fibrin breakdown are: cayenne, garlic, onion and ginger. And bromelain, which is the proteolytic enzyme from pineapple, also aids in fibrin breakdown and may help to prevent the development of the hard and lumpy skin found around varicose veins.

So, now I have a good reason to purchase and eat a lot of pineapple, blueberries, blackberries and cherries (which, of course, I love)!