You name it, and I’ve seen it. Patients with just about any disease or dysfunction you can imagine have walked through the doors of my busy practice at some point. I’m kind of a last resort for a lot of people. They come to see me after conventional medicine has failed them.
But surprisingly it’s not always the patients with critical health issues who are the most desperate – or that have been let down the most by conventional doctors. In fact, one of the most common issues that brings patients – women in particular – to see me is the appearance of varicose or spider veins.
If you’re 65 or older, you have a greater than 75 per cent chance of developing the bluish, swollen lines in your legs that signal you have varicose veins. Spider veins – the varicose vein’s smaller and more superficial cousin – are equally as common. Both of these unsightly conditions can occur anywhere from your upper thigh down to your lower leg and ankle.
But these swollen and poorly functioning vessels don’t discriminate; they can appear in much younger women as well. It’s quite common for them to pop up during pregnancy or soon after childbirth, with up to 40 per cent of pregnant women reporting them.
If you have a job that keeps you on your feet all day, or you’re carrying around some extra pounds you’re at a higher risk for varicose veins. Circulation issues, cigarette smoking, wearing high heels, chronic constipation, long-term bedrest or the weakening of leg muscles can all contribute to the condition as well. There’s a hereditary risk factor too, since the condition has a genetic component and tends to run in families.
Unsightly and embarrassing
Varicose veins are rarely dangerous. In fact the main complaint patients have about them is that they’re just plain unattractive. Many women find their swollen corkscrew appearance embarrassing and they avoid wearing skirts, shorts and swimming costumes, preferring to hide them under long trousers no matter the weather or occasion.
But for some unlucky women they can be uncomfortable. The swollen veins can become warm and sore, and in some situations downright painful. In extreme cases the small clots in the vessels can become inflamed, causing something called superficial thrombophlebitis. Superficial thrombophlebitis can be treated with warm compresses, elevating the legs to reduce swelling, and by taking aspirin or, preferably, white willow bark and clot-busting enzymes such as bromelain.
Varicose veins don’t discriminate
Varicose veins can strike women of any age regardless of their lifestyle, even athletes. Summer Sanders, the most medalled US swimmer of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, is a good example. Summer, who became a television sports correspondent following her wins at the Olympics, participated in a campaign to raise awareness about varicose veins. Despite her incredibly active lifestyle, Summer developed varicose veins on her legs during her first pregnancy.
Varicose veins are a warning sign
But varicose veins aren’t always just simply a cosmetic issue. They can also be a warning sign of a far more serious deeper circulation problem called chronic venous insufficiency, or CVI. More on CVI in just a moment, but first let’s take a quick look at how veins and circulation work.
When we walk our calf and leg muscles act like pumps sending blood upwards into our body and towards our heart. Throughout our veins there are a series of valves that prevent that blood from flowing backwards.
Both spider veins (which are essentially a smaller version of varicose veins) and varicose veins occur when those valves in our veins stop working efficiently or fail. Poor blood flow… otherwise known as venous insufficiency… causes the blood to collect in the small vessels in your legs.
Eventually the pooling blood begins to clot causing the inflammation and bluish colour we see through the skin. The clotting causes even more pressure to build up on the remaining working valves and vein walls leading to even more damage. Over time venous insufficiency can lead to deep veins starting to break down, the condition I mentioned earlier known as CVI.
Blood clots can kill
When you’re suffering with CVI your legs become weak and heavy, and they swell with fluid. Areas of your skin, particularly around the ankles, can break down and form dangerous hard to heal ulcers. And most dangerous of all, the chronic swelling and poor circulation can cause a blood clot in the deep veins of your legs leading to more severe inflammation and pain.
This potentially life threating situation is a condition called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. The blood clot can easily break off and travel either to your heart where it can obstruct blood flow, or to your lungs where it can cause a pulmonary embolism or PE. Either scenario can be deadly.
Although not all people with varicose and spider veins go on to develop CVI, they’re a warning signal that shouldn’t simply be ignored. In the Edinburgh Vein Study 880 adults were followed for 13 years, and nearly half of those with CVI had their condition worsen. But even more telling was that around 1/3 of the people who only had varicose veins at the start of the study showed the skin changes and other signs of CVI by the end of the study!
4 simple steps to prevent bulging veins
Although varicose veins tend to run in families if you don’t have them yet, want to prevent more from forming, or want to improve the appearance of the ones you have, there are some simple diet and lifestyle steps you can take.
Lighten the load: As I mentioned earlier, carrying around extra weight puts increased pressure on the blood that’s trying to re-enter your body from your legs. Over time this added pressure causes venous breakdown.
Some simple changes in your diet can help you shed those extra pounds. Start by reducing the amount of sugars, starches and carbohydrates you’re eating. You’ll be surprised by how fast the weight will start to come off when you make this one change.
Tweak what you eat: Next make sure you’re taking in enough fibre. Constipation causes you to strain whenever you have a bowel movement. This straining adds extra pressure to the veins in your legs which are already working hard against gravity to move blood back up to your heart.
The damage to vein walls, and the skin above them, is caused by oxidative stress on the tissues. Green, red and yellow fruits and vegetables, which are naturally high in antioxidants, can help prevent oxidative stress and the resulting vein damage.
Make a move: Exercise will help keep your blood circulating to prevent it from pooling and clotting in your legs. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the movements of the muscles in your legs that keeps blood moving upward out of your legs towards your heart. If you have a desk job, or spend a lot of time sitting, you need to make it a habit to get up and move around more even if it’s just taking a stroll around the office or the dining room table every hour to start. And try to find a low impact hobby you enjoy that keeps you active.
Start some supplements: There are several herbs that can help prevent varicose and spider veins, as well as help relieve some of your symptoms if you already have them.
Research on ginkgo biloba suggests the herb may be able to help strengthen vein wall tissues as well as widen and relax blood vessels. I recommend an extract of at least 24% in a dose of 40 mg three times daily.
The antioxidant herb pycnogenol, extracted from a type of French pine bark, has been shown to help with blood flow. In a placebo-controlled randomised study published in the Italian journal Fitoterapia, researchers demonstrated that the herb helps to improve venous function. I typically advise my own patients to start off on a daily dose of 200 mg for two months.
Butcher’s Broom – an evergreen bush native to the Mediterranean – and Horse Chestnut – a tree common in south Eastern Europe – have long been paired together in traditional medicine to treat varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Several studies have shown that Butcher’s Broom can help reduce the swelling associated with chronic venous insufficiency. And research has proven that Horse Chestnut is able to help relieve the symptoms of CVI. I typically recommend 40 mg of Butcher’s Broom and 100 mg of Horse Chestnut twice daily.
And finally, I recommend good old vitamin C with bioflavonoids. Vitamin C can help strengthen vein walls and keep them flexible. And studies suggest flavonoids may be able to help reduce vein leakage and swelling in the legs. I recommend 500-1000 mg twice daily.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 9, Issue 10, October 2015