Medical dictionaries define varicosities as enlarged and tortuous vessels, an apt and poetic description. Blood pools in a vein rather than smoothly continuing to circulate. The pooling causes distension and enlargement of the vein. This distension causes sensations of pain, heaviness, dullness and aching. Varicosities are also visible to the naked eye.
Varicosities occur commonly in pregnancy. Everyone has heard of varicose veins, but hemorrhoids are also a varicosity and occasionally varicose veins develop in the vulva. These are called either vulvar or vulval varicosities. This article specifically addresses varicosities as they develop in pregnancy or postpartum, however, all of the remedies listed may also be used any time in the life cycle or by men or children.
What causes Varicosities?
Varicosities may be hereditary as many women who have them have mothers or female relatives with varicosities as well.
The pressure exerted by the pumping heart moves the blood through the arteries but the blood returns to the heart via the veins. A series of valves play an important role in moving blood back to the heart. Many pregnant women with otherwise normal valves experience varicosities in pregnancy due to the specific pressures of pregnancy and lifestyle habits.
The growing uterus exerts great pressure on the pelvic organs and musculature and slows venous return making varicosities of all types more likely in pregnancy. Obese women are more likely to suffer from varicosities, due to the even greater pressures placed upon the venous system.
Progesterone, a hormone that is implicated in an array of pregnancy discomforts, can also play a role in varicosities in pregnancy. Progesterone weakens the walls of the vein making them more lax. A weak pelvic floor also contributes to hemorrhoids and vulvar varicosities. Varying degrees of prolapse in the pelvic floor put increased weight and pressure on the veins contributing to blood pooling. Constipation and straining associated with hard, slow stools contributes to hemorrhoids. Prolapse and weak pelvic floor also contribute to constipation. As you can see addressing pelvic floor health is essential when pregnant! So many issues involving the uterus, urinary tract, vagina, sexual health and pleasure, birth and lower g.i. tract are effected by a lack of tone in the pelvic floor.
Women who stand for great periods of time, for instance on the job, are more likely to develop varicosities. However, too sedentary of a lifestyle can also contribute to varicosities. A woman needs a good balance of movement and rest to prevent varicosities. Diet certainly plays a role in hemorrhoids as fiber-rich, nutritious diets prevent the kind of constipation and straining that can lead to hemorrhoids. Diet may play a role in preventing varicose veins in the legs as well. There are a number of vitamins, phytochemicals and trace nutrients that are important for venous integrity, including Vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and Rutin. Finally, the act of pushing a baby out of you vagina can cause hemorrhoids to develop in a woman who has thus far not suffered from hemorrhoids.
Herbs for Varicosities
There are a variety of herbs used to treat varicosities. Some are taken internally, other treatments are topical. Herbs may be astringents (tannin rich herbs used to tone lax tissues), blood movers intended to normalize circulation or nutritive tonics that provide specific nutrition to the vasculature.
Yarrow (Achillea milfolium)
Yarrow is an excellent varicosity remedy. Yarrow moves blood very effectively in the body. Yarrow works with near magic effectiveness when there is bleeding from the bowel from hemorrhoids. Bright red bleeding is a specific indication for the use of Yarrow. Yarrow is also a useful herb for the midwife as it is a truly excellent and underutilized herb for hemorrhage.
Safety: Yarrow taken internally is generally considered contraindicated in pregnancy. As a strong blood mover with an affinity to the pelvis it is considered by most herbalists to be risky for use in pregnancy. However, the external use of Yarrow as a salve, ointment, compress or sitz bath for varicosities is certainly safe during pregnancy and afterwards. Internal use of Yarrow is safe for breastfeeding and can be used by the postpartum mom.
**Practitioner Notes: I have used Yarrow in small doses, internally during pregnancy when it was well indicated. I consider Yarrow as an option during pregnancy when used by a skillful practitioner. For those who utilize tongue assessment look for a blue cast on the tongue indicating blood flow imbalance.
Taste and Preparation: Yarrow is a bitter and pungent herb that is poorly suited for tea. It is most likely to be used as a tincture, oil/salve/ointment or a compress. Yarrow is easily identified, widely distributed wild plant and can be harvested and dried in the summer for later use or tinctured fresh. Tincture is likely to be found at almost any natural food co-op or herb store. Dried herb is less common in retail outlets and is best hand-harvested or ordered from an online source.
Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum.
Horse Chestnut is a famous herbal remedy for varicosities. It is not related to the chestnuts that are sold around the holidays. Horse Chestnut contains tannins like many of our varicosity remedies to tighten and tone the veins. It also includes flavonoids providing important nutrition for venous integrity. Horse Chestnut is also used to treat insomnia, obsessive thinking, and high blood pressure.
Safety: Effective doses are small, 5-20 drops, 2 x daily. It is unlikely that it presents risks at that dosage to the pregnant or breastfeeding mother. Topical use is safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Taste and Preparations: Horse Chestnut tastes pungent and astringent. This herb will not be widely available as a bulk dried or tea herb. It is available in tincture form at most co-ops or herb stores. (See tincture dosing above.) Horse Chestnut is also available as a homeopathic remedy. For the more, cautious you may prefer to use homeopathic Aesculus hippocastanum. Horse Chestnut creams and salves are also available on the web.
Nettle (Urtica diocea)
Nettle is an excellent, nutritious pregnancy tonic. Nettle is a good preventative for varicosities. Many varicosity-prone women who judiciously drink large quantities of Nettle tea on a regular basis report that their varicosities, while not completely disappearing, remain small and less painful. Nettle manages varicosities. Nettle is so rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. It is an excellent remedy for anemia and low energy as well.
Safety: Nettles is safe for use in pregnancy at whatever doses desired or tolerated by the mother. Nettle is safe for breastfeeding. In fact, Nettle is considered a galactogogue (herb which aids in breast milk production).
Taste and Preparation: Nettles has a deep green color and taste described by some as fishy, others like a deep green leafy vegetable or sea vegetable. Many women love the taste of Nettles infusion; some hate it. Nettle is an excellent choice for a tea or infusion. It is available in tea bags or as a part of the Pregnancy Tea sold by Traditional Medicinals and other brands. An effective dose for a woman prone to varicosities will need to be much higher. The pregnant woman should buy Nettles in bulk and make a stronger infusion. She may mix the Nettle with other pregnancy herbs like Red Raspberry, Oatstraw, Alfalfa, Rosehips, Mint or Chamomile for flavor. She may add honey and drink it hot or iced. Nettle is also available as a tincture or in capsule form for those who can’t tolerate the tea. As a capsule, Nettle is effective at large doses.
Hawthorn Berry (Cratageus spp.)
In the herbal tradition Hawthorn Berry has a long history of use for any and all heart and vascular maladies. Hawthorn may be used to prevent and alleviate varicosities. As a fruit in the Rose family, Hawthorn Berries are full of Vitamin C and bioflavonoids including Rutin. Hawthorn also contains the tissue astringing tannins and cooling, anti-inflammatory fruit acids. This remedy will likely work best on those women whose constitutions are hot and inflammed.
Safety: Hawthorn Berry is safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Taste and Preparations: Hawthorn Berry has a fruity sour flavor with a bit a bitter aftertaste. It makes a truly delightful tincture. It is available dried, in bulk and can be made into a tea or added to a tea blend As a tea a women can drink as much as she desires. It is also available in syrup form and can be taken 1-2 TBS 1-2 times daily.
White Oak Bark (Quercus alba)
White Oak Bark is an extremely astringent remedy. Astringent remedies tighten and tone lax tissues (like varicosities). Blue-black knobby veins with yellow surrounding them and hemorrhoids are two specific indications for White Oak Bark. Oak is also used in Europe for treating anal fissures and fistulas and prolapse. Other specific symptoms Oak is used for include: losing hair, gum and teeth problems, leaky gut syndrome, excessive sweating, and diarrhea. All conditions listed reflecting a lack of tone in the system. It will work best in people with overall low tone. Historically, Oak was a popular remedy for postpartum hemorrhage.
Safety: White Oak Bark is safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Taste and Preparations: White Oak Bark gives a strong astringent impression in the mouth. It does not otherwise taste strongly of bitter, aromatic, salty or sweet. Oak is an herbalist’s herb. It is not likely that you will find it in the bulk bins at the local co-op, or in many teas. It is available from online bulk herb purveyors or at specialty herb stores. Tincture is probably the easiest way to take this herb orally. This herbs is quite strong. Results may be seen with 1-10 drops, 2 x daily. It is safe and users can increase dosage until the lowest effective dose is found. Salves are not common. Motivated users may purchase some dried Oak Bark and make a sitz bath or an infusion that can be used as a compress for varicosities on the legs, vulva or rectum.
Witch Hazel(Hamamelis virginaia)
Witch Hazel is a tree that grows in the Southern United States. It is a famous hemorrhoid remedy, so famous and effective that it is one of the few herbal-based products available in every drugstore and supermarket in every town in the United States. Witch Hazel is another astringent remedy, like White Oak Bark. Its’ action in the body is to tone and tighten lax tissue. On a historic note, Witch Hazel was used by American Indians and 19th century doctors for a host of obstetric and gynecological complaints including prolapse of the uterus, rectum and pelvic floor, postpartum hemorrhage, menstrual flooding, hematuria (blood in the urine). Matthew Wood cites 19th century specific indications: “abdomen full and doughy, with relaxation of the perineum, prolapse of the bowels; fullness about the anus, prolapsus ani, difficult evacuation of feces; swelling of the vulva or prepuce.”
Safety, Taste and Preparations: Witch Hazel is safe for internal and external use in pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, women should not ingest Witch Hazel products from mainstream drugstores . These products are designed only for external use. Other non-edible ingredients may be included in the preparation. Witch Hazel intended for internal use should be purchased as a dry, bulk herb to use as a tea or in a tincture from a reputable herbal company or herbalist.
Drugstores sell Witch Hazel liquid which can be applied to vulvar varicosities or hemorrhoids with a cotton ball or little pads just for this purpose. Enterprising moms can purchase bulk dried Witch Hazel for sitz baths or homemade compresses. Tea can be taken internally or tincture. This is a very astringent herb.