By Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D.
Bilberry, centella, butcher's broom and ginkgo might be just what the doctor ordered for preventing circulatory problems.
You've heard the old adage "Cold hands, warm heart." Unfortunately, cold hands can indicate more than a warm heart; they can signal a problem in the body's vascular system, which encompasses the heart as well as the blood and blood vessels.
The heart is the central organ of the vascular system. When the heart contracts, blood is pumped to all parts of the body through arteries, which end in minute vessels called arterioles. Arterioles in turn open into a network of microscopic vessels called capillaries. In its passage through the capillaries, the blood gives up nutrients to the tissues and takes on waste products resulting from tissue metabolism. After passing through the capillaries, blood is collected into larger vessels called venules, and then to veins, by which it's returned to the heart.
A network of healthy blood vessels including arteries, veins and capillaries is necessary for transporting blood to all areas of the body. If vessels are permeable, weak, fragile or brittle, blood can't circulate properly, nutrients and oxygen can't reach tissues, nor can waste products be carried away. This can result in many vascular-related conditions such as varicose veins, PMS, phlebitis (vein inflammation), visual deficits and more serious problems such as atherosclerosis.
Four well-researched herbal preparations are useful for strengthening blood vessel walls and have been the subject of intense European investigation during the past 20 to 30 years. They include bilberry, centella, butcher's broom and ginkgo. Consult with your health practitioner to determine if herbal therapy would benefit you.
Ginkgo the Anticoagulant
The primary therapeutic property of ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) from the stately ginkgo tree is to increase the flow of blood into the brain, lower limbs and all arteries, veins, and tiny capillaries. Whether vascular insufficiency is arterial or venous, peripheral or central, functional or structural, ginkgo is significantly effective in improving the vascular system.
The active constituents of ginkgo are the proanthocyanidins, flavonoids and terpenes known as ginkgolides and bilobalides. Ginkgo is particularly rich in kaempferol and quercetin, two of the most important flavonoids.
Ginkgo biloba extract facilitates blood flow by inhibiting blood platelet aggregation, meaning that it effectively reduces the tendency of blood components to stick together. Platelets keep us alive by stopping bleeding in emergencies, but when they stick together chronically, they can make blood more viscous and may also secrete chemicals that cause blood vessels to constrict and help form plaque deposits that scar and narrow blood vessel walls, says Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., in his book Ginkgo: Elixir of Youth (Botanica Press). Ginkgo's ability to inhibit blood clots may render it an effective agent in the prevention of coronary thrombosis and helps in recovery from strokes and heart attacks (Archives Internationales de Pharmacodynamic et de Therapie, 1980, vol. 243).
Ginkgo extract also neutralizes free radicals. Possessing a particular affinity for the central nervous system, it protects the heart blood vessels and brain against the devastating effects of these tissue-destroying substances (Presse Medicale, 1986, vol. 15, no. 31).
Studies show that in persons recovering from blood clots in the heart artery, ginkgo lowered blood pressure and dilated peripheral vessels including the capillaries (Arzneimittel Forschung, 18, 1968).
Today, ginkgo is used to prevent and treat senility, heart disease, visual deficits, proctological and gynecological disorders, and generally to prevent degenerative conditions associated with aging including Alzheimer's disease.
Although ginkgo is powerful medicine, be prepared to use it for several weeks before feeling benefits. A dose of 40 mg. of a 24 percent standardized extract three times per day is normally recommended.
Bilberry for Your Eyes
Certain herbs are considered organ specific by many health professionals, and bilberry (Vacinium myrtillus) seems to show affinity for the eyes. Bilberry's effectiveness in treating visual problems is due to a complex network of actions that strengthen capillary integrity and promote healthy interplay of important enzymes.
The active constituents in bilberry are anthocyanosides (pigment substances), which interact with phospholipids in the membranes of capillary walls and protect those membranes from damage due to free radicals. Anthocyanosides also favorably affect the operation of crucial enzymes in retinal cellular metabolism and function (Biochemical Pharmacology, 1970, vol. 19).
Studies show that bilberry strengthens arteries including those in the eyes by inhibiting cholesterol-induced atherosclerosis—thickening, hardening and diminishing of elasticity of artery walls (Paroi Arterielle, 1979, vol. 5, no. 181).
Another benefit demonstrated by bilberry is improved night vision. British Royal Air Force pilots during WWII consumed bilberry jam prepared by their mothers and spouses to help the pilots maintain their vision while undertaking night flights. This practice led to research that firmly established the ability of bilberry extract to improve night vision. Clinical trials since WWII support bilberry's ability to improve adaptation to dark and visual acuity in dim light (Therapie, 1964, vol. 19, no. 171).
In patients with pigmentary retinitis, a symptom of which is a restricted field of vision, bilberry has helped enlarge their range of vision and increase responsive dark adaptation (Annali Di Ottalmologiae Clinica Oculistica, 1968, vol. 93).
Promise of vision improvement also extends to patients with cataracts, diabetic retinopathy or blindness brought on by advancing diabetes. Currently, the best hope for diabetics with sight loss is bilberry extract (Fitoterapia, 1996, vol. 66). Numerous studies have provided strong evidence implicating this herb in significant improvement in diabetic retinopathy over periods ranging from one to six months (Klinische Monatsblatt Alginheilkunde, 1987, vol. 178).
Bilberry also effectively stimulates wound repair including eye wounds. In the digestive tract, bilberry increases gastric mucus secretion by stimulating the synthesis of proteoglycans in the mucus layer. Proteoglycans are essential constituents of blood vessel capillary walls that modulate the permeability and flexibility of vessel walls. Along these lines, this herb has the ability to cross-link collagen fibers, resulting in strengthened connective tissue and other tissues involved in vascular health.
The normal daily dose of standardized, or guaranteed potency, extract of bilberry can range from 100 to 500 mg. per day. Bilberry is free of side effects.
Centella for Circulation
Centella (Centella asiatica), also known as gotu kola, has been extensively investigated as a potent healer of skin and blood disorders, infections, fevers, senility, gynecological problems, cellulitis and all manner of venous insufficiency (decrease in blood flow through the veins). While bilberry seems to target mainly the eyes, centella targets the peripheral limbs of the body.
Centella, whose active constituents are asiaticosides and other terpenes, helps strengthen the veins in many ways. It helps reinforce and repair the connective and supporting tissues around the veins. This reduces the gravitational strain and improves circulatory reflexes in the veins. Centella also helps decrease the fragility of capillaries. In addition, it provides nutritional support to the veins. Centella nourishes motor neurons, which stimulate growth and metabolism in peripheral organs and tissues.
The most significant manifestation of venous insufficiency is phlebitis, or inflammation of the veins, particularly in the legs. Often a difficult condition to treat, phlebitis responds well to centella. In one study, 72 percent of 125 patients suffering from phlebitis, capillary fragility and periphlebitis were successfully treated with this herb (Gazette Medicale de France, 1971, vol. 78). The success rate of other studies involving centella has ranged from 70 to 90 percent.
In a 30-day study, 40 men and women with chronic venous insufficiency were treated with centella, which effectively ameliorated symptoms of swelling or edema of the lower limbs, blood vessel dilation and ulcerative conditions, and it improved the health of the skin (Clinica Europea, 1982, vol. 21).
In addition to the symptoms cited, heaviness of the legs, tingling and nocturnal cramps have responded well to centella treatment.
Centella appears to be completely nontoxic. A daily dose of two to four capsules of centella standardized to contain 25 mg. triterpenes each is normally recommended.
Butcher's Broom Sweeps Away Varicose Veins
The primary active constituents of butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) are the saponins ruscogenin and neoruscogenin. The standardized extract of the rhizome (root) of butcher's broom is a European import used to prevent and treat vascular disorders, especially varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It's also used in the treatment of venous pain, cramps, edema, varicose ulcers, and all of these especially during and after pregnancy.
Because butcher's broom reduces vasoconstrictive (blood vessel- narrowing) action, the signs and symptoms of both external and internal hemorrhoids including bleeding, itching, soreness and swelling have been successfully treated with repeated application of this herb over several days or weeks (Mediterranee Medicale, 1976, vol. 92). This action makes the herb an effective agent for decreasing arterial resistance and increasing venous back pressure, both necessary processes to reduce varicose veins and spider veins. An enzymatic action also helps reduce pain and swelling.
Postoperative circulatory disturbances are routinely treated by Europeans with butcher's broom extract. In hospitals, this herb is used to accelerate recovery after surgery, especially when there's prolonged and heavy bleeding or in patients with phlebitis (Fitoterapia, 1972, vol. 43). Additionally, women often use butcher's broom to modulate menstrual flow and reduce PMS and other discomforts such as breast pain, cramps, pelvic pain and congestion, and hot flashes associated with menopause.
Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D., is president of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah. For more information on these herbs, read his book, Guaranteed Potency Herbs: Next Generation Herbal Medicine (Victory Publications).
Reprinted with permission from the April 1997 issue of Delicious! Magazine, a publication of New Hope Communications, Boulder, CO.