Horse Chestnut

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Nature's help for varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and more

Every autumn, to the delight of squirrels and children and to the dismay of homeowners and street sweepers, the stately horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) sheds not only its leaves, but also hundreds of large, soft outer coatings containing hard, dark brown nuts.

The nuts are actually a valuable herb used since the 1500s in Germany and France. Originally, it was used as a treatment for persistent fever and, later, to treat hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and phlebitis.

A native of the Balkans, horse chestnut is a durable shade tree easily identified by its "sticky buds" that burst in the first warm sunshine of spring with five- or seven-fingered leaves. In early summer, the upright flower spikes decorate the trees and are quickly followed by the formation of the spiked seed coats with the internal nut. Though the nut looks very similar to the sweet chestnut, they are in no way related and should never be confused. The horse chestnut seed is poisonous to humans if eaten as a food, though the seeds are sometimes fed to horses and cattle as fodder.

What can horse chestnut do for you?
Fortunately, based on studies from Germany and England, in particular, standardized horse chestnut extracts are available for internal consumption and provide well-documented relief for chronic venous insufficiency and edema (more commonly known as varicose veins and swelling).

The seeds are dried, pulverized, and then solubilized in alcohol and water. They contain hydroxycoumarins, flavonoids, tannins, and aescin (or escin), which is considered to be horse chestnut's most active ingredient. As with most natural substances, though, it is the combination of all the constituents that make a preparation effective. Isolating one compound does not necessarily make for more effective results.

Though scientists admit that they don't fully understand the actual mechanism of how horse chestnut works, many studies concur that it does improve circulatory vein function. In short, it helps prevent swelling in the legs and helps blood flow through the veins.

Most studies looked at the comparison of the effectiveness of wearing pressure stockings versus ingesting horse chestnut extract on lower leg volume and found that the extract was, indeed, effective; symptoms such as tiredness, itching, and edema improved markedly or disappeared completely. The bonus is that adverse reactions were rare and minor in nature. A study from Munich, Germany concluded that horse chestnut was better for treating this condition than pressure stockings.

Horse chestnut extract is also found in many skin-care preparations for the legs and is effective in relieving swelling and water retention. It is a common ingredient in lotions, creams, massage oils, and other products, often in combination with other herbs such as horsetail, cypress, rosemary, and citrus.

Horse chestnut for hemorrhoids
The extract can also be used in sitz baths for treating hemorrhoids. In homeopathy, the Aesculus remedy is used for treating hemorrhoids that have sharp, shooting pains. The recommended dosage is to take it three times per day for three days but, as with any medical condition, a health practitioner should first be consulted.

REFERENCES
Diehm C., et al. "Comparison of leg compression stocking and oral horse-chestnut seed extract therapy in patients with chronic venous insufficiency." Lancet 347(8997):292-4, Feb 3, 1996.

Greeske K., Pohlmann B.K. "Horse chestnut seed extract -- an effective therapy principle in general practice. Drug therapy of chronic venous insufficiency." Fortschr Med 114(15):196-200, May 30, 1996.

Hitzenberger, G. "The therapeutic effectiveness of chestnut extract." Wien Med Wochenschr 139(17):385-9, Sept 15, 1989.

Pittler M. H., Ernst E. "Horse-chestnut seed extract for chronic venous insufficiency. A criteria-based systematic review." Arch Dermatol 134(11):1356-60, Nov 1998.

Rehn D., et al. "Comparative clinical efficacy and tolerability of exoerutins and horse chestnut extract in patients with chronic venous insufficiency." Arzneimittelforschung 46(5):483-7, May 1996.

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By Margaret Dinsdale

Margaret Dinsdale is the author of Skin Deep: Natural Recipes for Healthy Skin and Hair, Firefly Books. She is currently working on a second book on skin care and natural ingredients.

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