Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a safe and effective approach to treating and preventing spider veins and varicose veins, based on a clinical framework tested and refined over millennia of use.
by Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP
Western biomedicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine largely agree on why varicose veins form. Western medicine sees varicose veins developing as a result of weakened one-way valves in veins. All blood vessel traffic is one-way only, and both arteries and veins have many one-way valves along their length. These valves are supposed to prevent blood from flowing backwards, especially where gravity is working against blood flow. One area of the body where gravity regularly helps blood enter — and hampers blood leaving — is your legs. This is why varicose veins develop most often in the legs, and more rarely in other parts of the body.
When we walk, the repeated contraction and relaxation of leg muscles creates a kind of pumping action, which combines with the one-way valves in veins to move the blood in our legs back up towards the heart. When we are lying down, the blood in our legs isn’t fighting gravity to make its way back to the heart. But sitting still for extended periods, for example during a long flight, can invite blood to pool in the legs — and standing for long periods is even worse. For those who do a lot of sitting or standing over time, the persistent pressure of pooling blood can stretch out the walls of leg veins and damage their valves, causing varicose veins.
Once this damage has taken place, the affected veins don’t usually recover. Specific leg exercises can help prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis on long flights, while a quick online search yields a number of exercises that can be done while performing sitting or standing work, to help prevent varicose veins. Sclerotherapy can often safely destroy small veins, and large ones can sometimes be replaced with grafts, but sclerotherapy is painful and grafting is a significant surgical procedure; both risk scarring, and neither addresses the underlying causes of weak blood vessels — so the problem is likely to recur.
This is where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has something special to offer: Diagnosis and treatment of the systemic factors which promote the development of varicose and spider veins.
TCM agrees with Western biomedicine that poor blood circulation is a primary cause of varicose veins; this is called blood stasis in TCM. Both approaches agree that appropriate exercise is crucial to blood circulation, and that smoking is bad for blood vessels. But TCM goes beyond Western biomedicine in identifying another key factor in varicosity, a key factor besides smoking which governs the strength and elasticity of the blood vessels themselves. TCM calls this factor Spleen qi.
So what is Spleen qi, and how does it affect blood vessels? Is there something besides exercises, or quitting smoking, which people suffering from varicose veins can do that will improve their outcomes?
Yes — they can strengthen their digestive systems.
Treating blood vessels as an extension of the digestive system isn’t as strange as it may sound. Consider some of the structural and functional similarities between the digestive tract and blood vessels: Both are long tubes, made of smooth muscle. From esophagus to colon, the digestive tract relaxes just in front of the bolus, and contracts behind it to move material through; this is called peristalsis. Similarly, the blood vessel relaxes just in front of the pulse, and contracts just behind it, moving the blood through.
Functionally, the digestive system produces nutrients and discharges wastes; the nutrients reach all the cells of the body via the circulatory system, which also carries metabolic wastes away from cells so they can be excreted.
Viewed in these terms, the digestive and circulatory systems are clearly co-extensive; that is, each finishes what the other starts. Not to mention that one source of Vitamin K, an important blood-clotting factor, is its production by friendly flora in the gut.
None of this is intended to prove anything; rather, it is intended to help minds make the imaginative leap, from one way of seeing to another, very different way of seeing. It suggests that, far from being separate and distinct physiologic systems, circulation and digestion have a common structure and purpose.
This common structure and purpose is represented in TCM by the Spleen organ. The Spleen in TCM is NOT identical to the spleen in Western biomedicine, so we cannot expect a TCM diagnosis to have an exact counterpart in the form of a Western biomedical diagnosis. In TCM, the Spleen is tasked with breaking down food and drink, and creating nutrients out of the resultant raw materials. Usually we think of this as the stomach’s job, but in TCM the Stomach is primarily responsible for holding the food while the Spleen works on it, then descending it in a timely fashion.
What does this have to do with blood vessels?
According to TCM, the Spleen produces Blood, the Spleen governs muscle (including smooth muscle), and Spleen qi holds Blood in the vessels. Therefore, weak Spleen qi can cause some types of bleeding disorders (such as heavy menses, or easy bruising), as well as weakened blood vessels, which cause both varicose and spider veins in TCM. If the Spleen qi is weak, there will also be poor absorption, so the Spleen will not be able to make enough Blood. This can result in various types of deficiency, including anemias.
Once there is not enough Blood, the circulation will be compromised. In other words, Spleen qi deficiency is often a factor in poor blood circulation, which is a factor in varicosity and spider veins. Blood circulation is effectively a hydraulic pressure system, and it can’t work properly where there isn’t enough hydraulic fluid. This isn’t about blood volume so much as it is about the concentration of blood cells: for example, drinking fluids will help your blood volume return to normal a few hours after donating blood — but it will be weeks before you have fully made up the blood cells you donated.
TCM tells us that we need enough Blood before it can circulate properly, and that Spleen qi is responsible not only for making Blood, but also for keeping it inside the vessels, and regulating the smooth muscle composing vessel walls. This is good news! It means that by strengthening digestion, by choosing to eat some things and avoiding others, we can normalize Blood circulation and strengthen Blood vessels.
Which foods strengthen Spleen qi? And which ones weaken Spleen qi?
In general, regular eating habits, and a diet comprising a wide variety of unprocessed foods, will strengthen Spleen qi. This is hardly controversial; what may be more difficult to grasp are the foods and drinks that are seen as weakening Spleen qi.
Concentrated sugars are not just ‘empty calories’ that displace more nutritious foods: Too much sugar actively weakens digestive capacity, according to TCM. So far so good, right? Okay, how about this: Salads can damage digestion. Yes, I just said that. According to TCM, raw and cold foods are not only more difficult to digest, they are capable of weakening digestion. So an occasional salad may be okay for some people, but others should eat only cooked food. And eating a raw carrot cold from the fridge is not such a good idea for anyone.
This idea that raw foods are cold-natured, and that cold food can damage digestion, is not as easy to get on board with. But it’s an important idea within TCM, and it’s one of the reasons TCM can offer viable alternatives to biomedical diagnosis and treatment — because we start with an alternative way of looking at things. Which brings us to dairy…
Dairy products are considered cold-natured, but they are also Damp. Damp by its nature is heavy, and cold sinks; therefore dairy foods place a particular burden on Spleen qi, weakening both digestive capacity AND the ability to hold Blood in the vessels. So for people affected by weak digestion, poor blood circulation, any type of ptosis or prolapse, some types of bleeding, or easy bruising, or varicose or spider veins, dairy in any form is particularly bad. Cold dairy is even worse, and sweetened frozen yogurt or ice cream are truly your Spleen’s worst nightmare — and your Blood vessels’ worst enemy.
Changing the way you eat can be difficult, and even time-consuming; try starting with one small and relatively simple thing, such as skipping ice cubes in drinks, or substituting soups for salads and smoothies, or cutting out ice cream. One important aspect of digestive health is regular eating habits, especially not skipping breakfast. Establishing good eating habits may not be easy, but the hope of a specific benefit, rather than a vague idea that it’s good for you, can help you stay focused.
What about acupuncture? Can treatment using needles and moxibustion help prevent and heal weakened blood vessels?
Yes! Acupuncture treatment can not only strengthen Spleen qi, there are acupoints whose actions specifically target blood vessels. Your acupuncturist can provide a highly specific and personalized treatment that works synergistically with the more general systemic benefits of dietary changes. For more severe or long-standing cases, consider adding in customized herbal formulas.
Dietary therapy is very important to help prevent and treat varicose veins and spider veins. But by itself, dietary therapy would take much longer to show results. The same is true of acupuncture alone. If the diet is not addressed, acupuncture will take much longer to work, and the benefits will start to wear off once acupuncture is discontinued. For more rapid improvement (usually visible within weeks), and lasting results, dietary changes and acupuncture are both necessary
Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP provides acupuncture services at Pacific Wellness and is available for appointments four days a week. If you would like to explore how acupuncture could help your health concerns please call us at 416-929-6958. Acupuncture treatments are covered by most employee benefits.