It’s that time of year when the symptoms of circulatory disorders such as varicose veins and Raynaud’s syndrome can flare up. Throbbing veins in the legs, and hands and feet that are blue and numb with cold, are common complaints. Often, these symptoms occur in a milder form all year round, but become worse in the winter.
Our Medical Herbalist, Deanne Greenwood, explains how herbal medicine can help, and provides some self-help tips.
Last winter, a 60-year-old woman came to see me with varicose veins that she’d lived with for 35 years, since her first pregnancy. They were always more painful in the winter, and particularly bad since she had started working in an office with central heating. Her legs throbbed, ached and itched.
I explained that varicose veins are a circulatory disorder resulting from weakened veins and valves, and the blood pooling, rather than flowing through, the veins. Standing or sitting for long periods often make this worse, so avoiding this will obviously help. Regularly sitting with legs raised up can also help relieve the symptoms of varicose veins.
There are a number of herbal remedies that can help tighten and tone the veins, and boost blood circulation, thereby easing the discomfort.
The first is distilled witch hazel, a natural astringent and anti-inflammatory that you can buy in pharmacies. Gently stroking it over the veins, using a piece of muslin or cotton wool, cools and tightens the veins and can bring instant relief.
You can use infusions of yarrow or calendula (aka marigold), both of which have the same astringent and anti-inflammatory properties, in the same way and for the same effect. (Make a tea with the dried herb, allow to cool, strain and chill in the fridge.) Or try a soothing witch hazel or calendula cream.
For longterm relief, which will include improving venous tone and blood circulation, you’ll need to see a medical herbalist for an internal remedy that will be formulated specifically for you. One herb I find very effective for internal use, in many cases, is horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). I make my own potent horse chestnut tincture from the freshest organic horse chestnut seeds, collected as they fall and processed immediately. This will be combined with other herbs according to individual requirements.
Another one is bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), which contains a compound called anthocyanosides which help strengthen blood vessel walls.
I may also use horse chestnut and bilberry in formulas for Raynaud’s phenomenon – a circulatory problem in which the small arteries that supply blood to the hands and feet narrow, causing cold and numbness, followed by burning and pain as they warm up. Other useful herbs for Raynaud’s include Prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), which are all fantastic circulatory stimulants.
It’s not simply a case of taking one of these herbs as a supplement, though. Herbal medicine is far more complex than that. To be really effective, especially when being used for longterm, chronic health problems, herbs need to be carefully selected and combined with other plants to suit the individual person. Everyone has different constitutions, susceptibilities and responses.
Find out more
If you’d like to find out more about how herbal medicine works, please take a look at my About Herbal Medicine page.