Varicose veins are a common concern for women as they age. They range from being an unsightly nuisance to being painful and debilitating. Surgical treatment is becoming increasingly sophisticated, but there are many lifestyle and nutritional steps that can be taken to help prevent them in the first place.
Why do varicose veins happen? Veins are low pressure, bringing blood back toward the heart with the help of muscle contractions and valves to prevent backflow. In the case of varicose veins, the veins dilate abnormally and prevent the valves from closing well. As a result, blood can flow backwards into the legs with gravity. Risk factors for varicose veins include obesity and multiple pregnancies (which put pressure on the abdomen, making it harder for blood to flow through), standing for long periods (forcing the valves to work harder against gravity), and family history. Varicose veins themselves are not concerning, but in some cases they can cause pain, swelling, and skin ulceration.
The first and simplest step to prevent varicose veins is to get moving. Walk around for a few minutes every hour. The muscle contractions in your legs will help support moving blood back toward the heart. Set reminders on your phone or FitBit so you don’t forget during a busy day. Exercise is also an excellent way to support and maintain weight loss, which will lower your risk for varicose veins and many other conditions.
Dry skin brushing is a nice daily ritual that helps move extra fluid away from the limbs and toward the core where it can be processed. This is helpful for reducing swelling in the limbs and supporting the body’s own detoxification via the lymphatic system. Using a natural bristle brush, gently stroke from the hands and feet toward the heart. Here is a YouTube video showing you how to do it.
Recently, a vascular specialist told me she advises women as young as 30 to regularly wear compression stockings if they are at risk for varicose veins. You may be skeptical, envisioning the thick beige compression stockings of yore. Nowadays, there are many fashionable options in light (8-15 mmHg) and medium (20-30 mmHg) support, both of which are appropriate for prevention. Compression socks help promote venous return to the heart and prevent swelling caused by leakage from stagnant veins. They should be worn for most of the day (especially if there’s going to be lots of standing) and removed at bedtime. If you already have varicose veins, compression stockings can be used to reduce swelling2 and prevent skin ulcerations3.
A diet rich in flavonoids helps support the structural integrity of the veins. Eat at least 5 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables daily. A specific type of flavonoid found in dark berries called proanthocyanidins may be particularly helpful in supporting vein health. If you are at risk for varicose veins, aim to eat a cup of dark berries daily. Your naturopathic doctor can direct you to an appropriate supplement to enhance your flavonoid intake if appropriate.
Several herbs have been found to be helpful for early stage varicose veins, including Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)4, Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus)5, and Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)1. Although none have been studied for the prevention of varicose veins, they may be an appropriate addition to your prevention plan. Consult your naturopathic doctor to learn more about the various options available.
1. Chong NJ and Aziz Z. “A Systematic Review of the Efficacy of Centella asiatica for Improvement of the Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Venous Insufficiency.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2013), 2013.
2. Mosti G, Picerni P, and Partsch H. “Compression stockings with moderate pressure are able to reduce chronic leg oedema.” Phlebology (2012), 27(6):289-296.
3. Nelson EA and Bells-Syer SEM. “Compression for preventing recurrence of venous ulcers (Review.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2014), 9.
4. Pittler M and Ernst E. “Horse chestnut seed extract for chronic venous insufficiency.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2012), 11.
5. Vanscheidt W, Jost V, Wolna P, et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Butcher’s Broom Preparation (Ruscus aculeatus L. extract) Compared to Placebo in Patients Suffering from Chronic Venous Insufficiency.” Arzneimittelforschung (2002), 52(4):243-250.