Does horse chestnut help varicose veins?
The seeds of the horse chestnut tree (also known as conkers) have a long history of use for the symptoms of varicose veins. They act as an astringent to tighten and tone veins. They also act as an anti-inflammatory, improve blood flow back to the heart, and can reduce leakiness of capillaries and tissue swelling.
Horse chestnut can also help relieve symptoms such as tired, heavy legs, aching, painful legs, cramping legs and swollen ankles.
What are varicose veins and how do they occur?
To really understand how horse chestnut helps with varicose veins, we need to look at how our veins work and what causes varicose veins in the first place.
We have veins all over our body. Thankfully we do, because they have the important job of bringing used blood from our tissues back to the heart. It's not an easy job as the flow of blood is going against the pull of gravity. So our clever body has two mechanisms that help the veins in their endeavours.
First of all we have small valves inside our veins. They help to stop blood from flowing backwards. The second helper is our muscles. When our muscles are in action, they help the veins by pumping blood upwards; an example of this is when we walk or flex our toes towards our bodies.
For someone with varicose veins, the small valves in the veins have become damaged. This allows blood to flow backwards towards the ankles. Blood pools in the veins of the calf and foot, which causes that unsightly swollen vein popping out under the skin.
When fluid starts leaking out of the vein into surrounding tissue, you might experience heavy legs, swollen ankles and cramps in your calf muscles. This fluid can be irritating to the tissue underneath the skin so can lead to an inflamed, itchy feeling too.
How does horse chestnut help with varicose veins?
The seeds or conkers of the horse chestnut tree contain a group of saponin compounds, collectively known as aescin. Aescin is thought to be the main active ingredient that helps with symptoms of varicose veins, such as leg swelling, inflammation, heaviness and itchiness. (1)
Horse chestnuts contain lots of flavonoids too, adding to their anti-inflammatory capabilities.
How do I take horse chestnut for varicose veins?
Horse chestnut can be taken internally in the form of drops or tablets. It can also be applied externally in the form of creams, balms and gels. I recommend using a combination of both if you are suffering with varicose veins. Gels are especially convenient and effective as they are so easy to use and have very swift (though transient) effects. Ideal for inflamed, itchy legs.
It's important to follow guidelines on how much horse chestnut to take when taking it internally. Taking too much could cause irritation due to the saponin content. Always read manufacturer guidelines, or refer to a herbalist.
How long does it take to work?
Horse chestnut works cumulatively, meaning it works better over time. In most cases you would expect to see an improvement between 2 and 4 weeks. If your varicose veins are severe and the issue longstanding, it may take a little longer.
In a study carried out by GPs in Switzerland, more than 85% of patients and physicians rated the efficacy of a topically applied gel made from horse chestnut extract as moderate or good, with reduction in ankle circumference and total symptom score after 3 weeks. (2)
Are there any side effects?
High doses of horse chestnut can cause irritation to the stomach lining if taken internally, and to the skin if used externally. Severe effects such as haemolysis (rupturing of red blood cells) and kidney damage are attributed to wrong dosage administered by injection. When taken orally at the recommended dose, horse chestnut does not pose this problem, so always follow the dosage recommendations on any product you use. Products licensed to be sold over the counter will contain safe amounts of active components and will give guidelines for safe dosage.
The name horse chestnut comes from the shape of the scar left on the bark after the previous year's growth. If you look closely you will see it's in the shape of a horse shoe, complete with the dots where the horse shoe nails would be!