The Horse Chestnut is an herb that has been used for centuries to either prevent or to ease the discomfort of circulatory disease including varicose veins.
Aesculus is the extract from the seeds of the Horse Chestnut Tree or Hippocastanaceae. The horse chestnut can grow between 4 and 30 metres high. The tree has a spiny fruit, which contains up to three large seeds known as horse chestnuts or as we more commonly call them, “conkers”.
In ancient civilisations the word Aesculus referred to oak trees and it is thought that the reason the botanical name was adopted for the horse chestnut was because of its use as horse and cattle feed. The tree arrived in Europe in the 16th century and the first medicinal application was in the treatment of piles. Carrying conkers was said to help prevent rheumatism but this property only apparently became effective if the chestnuts had been “borrowed”. Traditionally the extract went on to be used as a tonic, to treat rheumatic pain and to thin the blood.
In modern day usage we still use aesculus for these conditions but we do have a little more scientific research to back up ancient healers’ knowledge and country folklore.
There are many components collectively known as aescine, found in aesculus including saponins, flavanoids, proanthocyanidins and coumarin.
Saponins are actually natural detergents that are found in many plants. They get their name from the soapwort plant, the root of which was traditionally used as soap in ancient civilisations. The Native American Indians used the Yucca plant as soap and shampoo, and also to fight dandruff and hair loss.
A great deal of research has gone into establishing the therapeutic value of saponins, particularly as they are the plant’s active immune system.
Saponins are glycosides (a group of compounds derived from monosaccharides or sugars in the plant). Apart from the foaming characteristic, which led to the use of the plant as soap, they can also be toxic. Certain plants are still used by indigenous native tribes to tip arrows with poison or to add in large amounts to water to stun or kill fish.
Some of the modern day applications of saponins are in cough remedies, diuretics, toothpaste and shampoos.
From a medical perspective, research indicates that they may lower the risk of cancer by inhibiting cancerous cell growth, as well as killing existing ones. They do this without killing healthy cells, which occurs when conventional cancer drugs are used and do not have side effects. Saponins are also a natural antibiotic, may reduce cholesterol levels, and in the form of digitalis, from the foxglove, they are used to stimulate heart contractions. In the case of varicose veins, or haemorrhoids, it would appear to both reduce the oedema around the damaged blood-vessels, seal the leaking capillaries as well as acting as an anti-inflammatory and toner.
Flavonoids are phytochemicals also called polyphenols that are linked by research to many health benefits. They are an antioxidant so help prevent oxidative damage to the body but they also help defend against heart disease and cancer. The plant will synthesise flavonoids in response to any kind of stress, but particularly disease, and to ultraviolet light that would be very damaging to the plant.
Flavonoids exhibit an anti-inflammatory action, which will reduce the swelling and oedema around the damaged blood-vessels. They have also been linked to a reduction in histamine response following an allergic attack as well as preventing blood clots from forming leading to strokes.
One of the flavonoids present in aesculus helps stabilise capillary walls, maintaining microcirculation and therefore helping to minimise varicose veins.
Proanthocyanidins are responsible for the pigmentation in our plants including high levels in red wine and red grape juice, renowned for their effect on heart disease and cancer risk in Mediterranean countries. In fact in a study conducted using aspirin, red wine and red grape juice an interesting result emerged. Both aspirin and red wine exhibited a 45% anti-clotting ability whilst the red grape juice exhibited a 75% anti-clotting ability. This illustrates that whilst drinking moderate amounts of red wine might be beneficial, drinking the non-alcoholic variety would be more so.
Coumarin is an anticoagulant, which will help reduce the risk of blood clots around and in the damaged area of blood-vessels. Warfarin a modern day medicinal anti-coagulant is a derivative of this natural plant extract.
Apart from its use to treat circulatory problems, Aesculus may help relieve inflammation in the joint and muscles.
The herb is available in tincture and tablet form or as a gel that can be applied topically. It is not recommended for children and should be taken after meals to prevent any stomach upsets caused by the high saponin content.
It is rare to suffer any severe side effects but as with any natural medicine care should be taken when using with prescribed medication especially if it is in the form of an anti-coagulant. If you should experience headaches, skin rash or dizziness then stop taking immediately. If you are currently taking any prescribed medication then do consult your doctor before self-prescribing this herbal medicine.
You must not take in conjunction with any blood-thinning medication such as Aspirin, , Diclofenac, Ibuprofen. Heparin and Warfarin. The rule is that if you are taking any over the counter or prescribed medication you must always check for interactions before taking herbal medicine. Just because it is labelled as alternative you have to remember that it is a medicine that has an effect on your body.
You will find the other herbs in the series here.
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