Natural Support for Vein Health
With summer almost here, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some natural treatments for varicose veins. Although they are primarily a “cosmetic” issue, vein health may represent the overall health of connective tissue and our blood vessels. Fortunately, there are natural compounds available from food and dietary supplements that can support both vein and connective tissue health.
What are Varicose Veins?
Varicose veins affect nearly 50% of middle-aged women and about 10% of men. There are some basic reasons for the high rate of occurrence. Fortunately, there are several natural products that address the underlying factors to not only prevent, but also improve varicose veins. Veins are fairly frail structures. Defects in the wall of a vein or excessive pressure due to obesity, pregnancy, or standing for long periods of time can lead to dilation of the vein, damage to the valves, and ultimately bulging veins.
The following theories explain the cause of varicose veins:
- Genetic or functional weakness of the veins or venous valves.
- Excessive venous pressure due to a low dietary fiber–induced increase in straining during defecation.
- Long periods of standing and/or heavy lifting.
- Damage to the veins or venous valves.
The treatment of varicose veins ranges from conservative measures to laser or surgical interventions. Conservative therapy involves the following:
- Elevating the legs periodically.
- Wearing graduated compression stockings with variable pressure gradients especially if standing for long periods of time is unavoidable.
- Exercise, especially walking, riding a bike, or jogging, is thought to be helpful as contraction of the leg muscles pushes pooled blood back into circulation.
- Achieving or maintaining ideal body weight.
- Maintaining adequate intake of dietary fiber to avoid increasing venous pressure to to straining during a bowel movement.
- Using nutritional and botanical agents to assist in improving the structural integrity of the veins.
For severely affected veins, more aggressive treatment may be necessary. The traditional surgical treatment has been vein stripping to remove the affected veins. Newer, less invasive treatments which seal the main leaking vein on the highest point of valvular dysfunction on the thigh. Because most of the blood in the legs is returned by the deep veins, the superficial veins, which return only about 10 percent of the total blood of the legs, can usually be removed or blocked off without harm.
Why is Dietary Fiber in Preventing and Dealing with Varicose Veins?
A low-fiber diet that is high in refined foods contributes to the development of varicose veins. Individuals consuming a low-fiber diet tend to strain more during bowel movements, because their smaller and harder stools are more difficult to pass. This straining raises the pressure in the abdomen, obstructing the flow of blood up the legs. The increased pressure, over time, may significantly weaken the vein walls, leading to the formation of varicose veins or hemorrhoids.
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains promotes peristalsis; and many fiber components attract water and form a gelatinous mass, which keeps the feces soft, bulky, and easy to pass. The net effect of a high-fiber diet is significantly less straining during defecation.
Dietary fiber supplements can also be used. These substances, particularly psyllium seed, pectin, and guar gum, possess mild laxative action owing to their ability to attract water and form a gelatinous mass.
What Foods or Dietary Supplements are Helpful in Varicose Veins?
Berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, and currants as well as cherries appear to be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of varicose veins. These berries are very rich sources of proanthocyanidins (PCOs) and anthocyanidins. These flavonoids are noted for their ability to improve the integrity of ground substance and the vascular system. Extracts of several of these berries are available commercially, but a better choice may be using either grape seed or pine bark extracts. These extracts have been shown to:
- Reduce capillary fragility
- Increase the integrity of the venous wall
- Inhibit the breakdown of the compounds composing the ground substance
- Improve the muscular tone of the vein
Numerous double-blind studies with grape seed or pine bark extract (namely Pycnogenol®) have validated the effectiveness of these sources of PCOs in not only in varicose veins but in more serous venous issues.
Another useful choice in the flavonoid category is micronized diosmin. Micronization involves a high-technology grinding process with a jet of air at supersonic velocities, reducing the size of standard particles from more than 20 µm to less than 2 µm. As a result there is better and faster absorption, and thus an increased bioavailability, which lends greater clinical efficacy. Micronized diosmin has shown considerable benefits in promoting the healing of varicose veins, venous ulcers and hemorrhoids.
Are There Other Natural Products that can be Helpful?
Individuals with varicose veins have a decreased ability to break down fibrin leading to fibrin being deposited in the tissue near the varicose veins. The skin then becomes hard and “lumpy” owing to the presence of the fibrin and fat (lipodermatosclerosis). In addition, decreased fibrinolytic activity raises the risk of clot formation, which may result in painful inflammation of the vein, or a heart attack or stroke.
Herbs and spices that increase the breakdown of fibrin (fibrinolysis) may be helpful. Good examples are cayenne pepper, ginger, and garlic. Even more useful are proteolytic enzyme such as bromelain and nattokinase. Vein walls are an important source of plasminogen activator, which promotes the breakdown of fibrin. Veins that have become varicosed have decreased levels of plasminogen activator. Nattokinase and bromelain act in a similar manner to plasminogen activator to cause fibrin breakdown.
Final Comments and Recommendations
There are a lot of options as far as dietary supplementation to support improving vein health including many combination formulas on the market. The caveat is for best results the formula should contain at least one of the following natural products at a dosage shown to produce positive clinical results. Here are examples of the various agents with corresponding dosage recommendations based upon clinical trials.
- Grape seed extract (95% procyanidolic oligomers): 150-300 mg daily
- Pine bark extract (95% procyanidolic oligomers): 150 to 300 mg daily.
- Horse chestnut seed extract:
- Dosage based on supplying escin at a level of 50 mg two to three times daily (e.g., if the product contains 10% escin the dosage of the total extract would be 500 mg two to three times daily.
- Butcher’s broom extract (9% to 11% ruscogenin content): 100 mg three times daily
- Micronized diosmin: 500 to 1000 mg daily
One of the following may be useful as an adjunct especially if the skin around the vein is hard and lumpy:
- Bromelain (minimum 1,200 MCU): 500 to 750 mg three times/day between meals
- Nattokinase (2,000 FU): 100 mg once or twice daily