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Your Venous System

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The cardiovascular system consists of the heart, arteries and veins working in synchronicity. Taking good care of your heart is common sense. Plenty has been written on keeping arteries clear, but a system is only as strong as its weakest link. Most people don't give their venous system a second thought until it's too late..

The cardiovascular system consists of the heart, arteries and veins working in synchronicity. Taking good care of your heart is common sense. Plenty has been written on keeping arteries clear, but a system is only as strong as its weakest link. Most people don't give their venous system a second thought until it's too late.

Venous disorders are a sign that your circulatory system isn't working in tip-top shape and needs some TLC. Our hearts pump blood to all our tissues to feed them oxygen and other nutrients, and then return carbon dioxide and other toxins to the lungs, liver and kidneys for elimination. Clogged arteries (arteriosclerosis) are a major concern as they cause circulation problems that can become life-threatening. The build-up within arteries reduces their capacity and the elasticity necessary to pump blood properly from the heart. But the arteries are only half the story: the veins are the other half, completing the circuit by returning up to 7,000 litres of blood a day from the vital organs, head, arms and legs to the heart.

If the venous system isn't working properly it can result in a variety of venous disorders. These include aching, swollen legs, varicose veins, chronic venous insufficiency, phlebitis and thrombosis.

Varicose veins affect nearly 15 percent of all adults and one-half of people over the age of 50. Women are particularly susceptible to vein problems. Varicose veins exhibit a loss of tone, strength and elasticity causing relaxation and expansion. This expansion prevents valves within veins from working to stop the back-flow of blood, making the problem worse. Then blood pools in the varicosities, increasing the pressure on the weakened vein walls and causing fluids to leak out into the surrounding tissues. This is called edema. Gravity makes this fluid drop, explaining the common occurrence of swelling around the ankles.

The build-up of varicose veins is usually a slow process which can, if not addressed, proceed through the following phases:

  • Spider veins are small varicosities, unsightly but have minimal impact on health.
  • Varicose veins reduce efficiency of blood circulation and sometimes cause aching, tired, itching, swollen or heavy legs.

  • Phlebitis is an inflammation of a vein which can trigger the formation of a clot (thrombosis).

  • Embolism is part of a blood clot that can break off, travel through the blood stream and lodge in small vessels of heart or lungs and become life-threatening.
  • This progression is sped up by various factors:

Standing for long periods of time makes veins work against gravity.

  • Lifting heavy weights increases pressure in the circulatory system.

  • Obesity fat does not support veins as well as firm muscles do.

  • Pregnancy makes veins work against pressure from the weight of the baby.

  • Tight clothing and uncomfortable shoes hinder proper circulation.

  • Pressure from straining to pass a bowel movement and sitting on the toilet too long-especially relevant to hemorrhoids, which are varicose veins in a particularly personal place.

Some people suffer swelling, pain, itching, aching and heaviness of the legs without necessarily having varicose veins. If these symptoms are relieved by elevating the legs, they're probably due to a stressed venous system and preventive actions would help. If varicosities occur, something is wrong that needs to be addressed.

Horse Chestnuts: Not for Roasting

Prevention and treatment of venous problems include exercise and a healthy diet. With exercise, muscle contractions help pump blood through the veins. Exercise improves leg and vein strength and helps maintain a healthy body weight. A diet high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, with organic or free-range sources of fats and proteins, (avoiding trans fats and additives), will provide good nutrition and promote regularity. Ground flax seeds absorb water and act as a natural laxative. Other tips for vein health include reducing or eliminating alcohol and cigarette intake. Alcohol dilates blood vessels and smoking accelerates venous disorders.

The most common method for temporarily reducing the symptoms of swollen legs and varicose veins is support hose, also known as compression therapy. Support hose put even pressure on the veins, reducing blood pooling and edema. Herbalists and naturopathic doctors frequently use herbal preparations from horse chestnut seed extract for insufficiency of veins. This remedy is known to strengthen and tone the veins, reducing permeability and therefore edema. It is one of the main remedies I use in practice as part of an overall treatment regimen for patients with venous disorders.

The active ingredient in horse chestnut is aescin (also known as escin). A German review of the use of horse chestnut showed patients experienced significant relief and were more willing to use the herb over standard treatments such as compression stockings. The review concluded that there was either a marked decrease or complete disappearance of pain, tiredness, swelling, itching and edema resulting from poor vein health.

As a naturopathic physician I believe in strengthening and enhancing the normal function of the body rather than supplanting it with outside measures. The use of horse chestnut seed therefore fits with naturopathic philosophy.

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