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March 20, 2018  |  Login
Varicose Veins
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Two primary kinds of blood vessels exist in the circulatory system. Arteries are one kind; they deliver blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. Veins are the second type of blood vessel, and their function is to conduct blood back to the heart. Of the two kinds of vessels, veins have the more difficult task. Unlike the arteries, they cannot rely upon the heart's direct pumping motion to propel the blood to its destination. Instead, the pumping action comes from the contracting and relaxing effect of muscles surrounding the veins. Luckily, however, the veins are equipped with a series of valves that help keep the blood flowing in one direction only: toward the heart.

When one of these valves malfunctions, or when a vein wall is somehow weakened, the blood cannot continue to flow properly. Instead, it pools and accumulates within the veins, which are burdened by the excess blood. They grow weaker, and they begin to stretch and bulge. These enlarged, raised blood vessels are called varicose veins. They usually appear on the legs-especially on the thigh or the back of the calf-where the veins have to fight strong gravitational pressure as they push blood back up to the heart. Varicose veins can also appear in other parts of the body, including the anus, where they are called hemorrhoids. (For more information about anal varicose veins, see the hemorrhoids page.)

Varicose veins may be tender and painful and may cause the legs to feel tight and swollen, but in general, they do not pose a health risk. They are also quite common: about 50 percent of middle-aged Americans have some varicose veins. In many people, the condition is brought on by a genetic weakness in a vein wall or valve, but it can also be caused by anything that puts excess pressure on the veins. A diet that's high in fat and low in fiber can stress the veins (because this contributes to constipation), as can inactivity, obesity, and long periods of sitting or standing. Many women develop varicose veins during pregnancy, when the legs are burdened with a great deal of extra pressure. We often see women with hormone imbalances who have problems with varicose veins, particularly women taking a synthetic hormone replacement.

Although no one has a cure for varicose veins, home treatment is quite effective at reducing the pain and the swelling. Home therapies can also strengthen the vein walls and prevent the condition from growing worse. Of particular importance is a group of herbs known as venotonics. This class of herbs improves the tone of the venous wall. Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) are two prime examples and are discussed in this section. We find that the natural therapies in this section often prevent a further progression of varicose veins, and in some cases, there is a mild improvement. In most cases, patients find that their circulation improves. Sometimes, however, professional care is in order. In rare cases, varicose veins deep in the leg can lead to a more serious circulatory disorder, such as phlebitis or a blood clot that can travel to the lungs, resulting in a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. If you have an intense pain deep in your legs, or if you experience persistent swelling in one or both your legs, consult your doctor.


Next: What are the Symptoms of Varicose Veins

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