We've all seen those spidery, blue and purple lines just beneath the skin of legs of a certain age. Sometimes they bulge into unsightly, twisted cords. Indeed, varicose veins affect half of people 50 years and older, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Left untreated, varicose veins and their smaller cousins, spider veins, may become swollen, achy, tender, itchy and uncomfortable.
How do varicose veins develop? Veins carry blood back to the heart. For the leg veins to do this, blood must flow upward against the force of gravity. How? When you move, your leg muscles contract, pushing blood up, explains Dr. Suman W. Rathbun, a physician at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and education chair of the Venous Disease Coalition. In addition, leg veins contain valves that, like little gates, open to allow blood to flow upward, then close to keep it from spilling back down to your feet. But if these valves stop closing entirely, blood pools in the veins, stretching and distending them, and eventually causing varicosities. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to help ensure you never get varicose veins -- or reduce the appearance of those you have.
Herbs to the Rescue
The latest treatments for varicose vein treatment are horse chestnut and butcher's broom, two herbal remedies that have been shown to reduce varicose veins in over 20 European studies involving more than 10,000 people. "The evidence for these herbs' effectiveness is compelling," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, the nation's leading nonprofit herbal medicine education organization. "They're widely used in Europe and often prescribed by physicians. But in this country, they haven't gotten much attention. That's a shame because they're safe, and for early-stage varicose veins, they really work."
While horse chestnuts are poisonous right off the tree, the toxic constituents are removed from medicinal extracts.
The recommended doses:
Horse chestnut seed extract(Aesculus hippocastanum): 300 milligrams containing 50 milligrams of the active constituent, aescin, twice a day.
Butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus): 150 milligrams, twice a day.
More Help for Varicose Veins
In addition to horse chestnut and butcher's broom, simple lifestyle changes can often make a difference in minimizing or even preventing spider and varicose veins.
1. Work those leg muscles.
If you sit for long periods, periodically straighten your legs and flex your feet. On breaks, take walks. This will help keep blood flowing efficiently so it's less likely to pool and deform veins. If you stand for long periods, promote circulation by rising up on tiptoes and doing deep knee-bends from time to time. On breaks, take walks or put your feet up on a desk or chair to encourage blood to return to the heart.
2. Get regular exercise.
Something as simple as a daily 30- to 60-minute walk can help reduce the risk of not only varicose veins, but cancer, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease as well.
3. Maintain a healthy weight.
Obesity raises blood pressure and interferes with blood flow, which increases the strain on the valves in your veins -- making spider and varicose veins more likely.
4. Wear compression stockings.
They exert gentle pressure on the calves, which helps leg veins function properly.
5. Avoid high heels.
They discourage walking and stress the calf muscles -- exactly what you don't need when you have spider or varicose veins or hope to prevent them.
While anyone can develop varicose veins, they aren't inevitable. In fact, by keeping those leg muscles active and making other healthy lifestyle choices, you can increase your chances of lovely legs, no matter your age.
Michael Castleman has been called "one of the nation's leading health writers" (Library Journal). He is the author of 11 consumer health books and more than 1,500 health articles for magazines and the Web. Michael is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
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