What’s a varicose vein?
We’ve all seen them on people’s legs: those swollen blue veins that meander their way all over the calves and thighs. They sometimes look like tiny purple spider webs just under the surface of the skin. Neither attractive nor trivial, varicose veins can become painful or hot, and cause swelling and a sense of heaviness in the legs, and that’s just for starters.
A loss of elasticity in the wall of the vein and/or the weakening of the venous valves. Think of a vein as a flexible straw within which little valves open and close to prevent blood from flowing up and then back down. If the wall of the straw loses its elasticity, it dilates and the valves, which are stretched too wide, can no longer adequately hold back the blood flow. Similarly, if the valves lose their tone, they too will no longer hold back the blood flow. In both cases, blood no longer travels upward toward the heart and instead accumulates in the vein, which becomes varicose.
Muscle contractions in the legs are the main driver that pushes blood upwards toward the heart. If your legs lack muscle tone, blood flow in the legs will be insufficient.
Heredity is the main underlying risk factor for developing varicose veins and venous insufficiency. Age, excess weight, inactivity, standing while you work, pregnancy and menopause all increase the risk of developing varicose veins. Why menopause? Because estrogen and progesterone have a positive effect on blood vessels, especially in the legs where the veins express progesterone receptors. So, when hormone levels drop as menopause approaches, the veins lose a major asset. Although there’s nothing you can do about this perfectly normal drop in hormone levels, there’s no shortage of tools for avoiding some of the main risk factors.
Avoiding the worst
Get toned! Legs are made for walking, which is exactly what they need to do! Walk, swim, pedal, water-walk, skip rope if you want to, but most importantly, get those calf and thigh muscles working, which will get your blood flowing normally. Whether you spend most of your time standing or sitting on a chair or in a car, some simple exercises will get those leg muscles moving.
Watch what you eat! Too much salt promotes water retention and contributes to swelling and a feeling of heaviness in the legs. Opt for healthy, nutritious foods that will help you maintain (or regain) a healthy weight and which will improve your health in general, including that of your veins.
Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your circulation:
- Avoid crossing your legs
- Avoid wearing overly tight clothing on your legs or around your waist or groin
- Massage your legs using upward strokes (toward the heart)
- Avoid smoking and consuming alcohol
Unfortunately for those who like it hot, excessive heat is bad for the health of your veins, which lose their tone. Long stays in the hot tub, sauna and steam bath may be delightful, but they’re best avoided. In fact, you should even finish off your daily shower with a few seconds of cold water. The initial cold shock will be followed by a feeling of well-being—it’s true, give it a try!
Horse chestnut is the plant to use for preventing and treating varicose veins. It won’t make existing ones go away completely, but it will prevent them from getting worse and, in the long run, may even shrink them significantly. One of its active principles is that it strengthens the wall of the veins which, when they get tighter, allow the valves to work properly.
When used in the form of a topical gel, horse chestnut provides fast, refreshing relief, but its effect is shorter-lasting and less powerful than the same substance taken in the form of drops or tablets.
Ginkgo, best known for its positive effects on memory and microcirculation, is rich in flavonoids and has a beneficial effect on peripheral circulation and vein walls.
Yes, menopause does have an effect on varicose veins, but for once, it’s not the biggest offender. With summer almost upon us, you won’t be alone in feeling hot, but remember that if you do get out your shorts or miniskirt, don’t cross your legs!