Several herbs for edema in legs and ankles can be helpful. They represent the best step among other natural treatments for swelling in the lower limbs.
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Why Herbs for Edema?
In answer to that question, the main reason is the gentleness of using herbs for reducing swelling due to fluid retention.
In other words, herbs acting as diuretics. At least, that’s how to treat the symptoms of edema.
Fixing whatever has gone wrong in leading to edema is another level of treatment. Herbs play a role there, too.
In my opinion, exploring that level is much more fruitful than merely reducing fluid accumulation. I’ll get to that approach toward the end of this post.
First, though, a few basics.
Fancy terminology aside, edema is simply the buildup of fluid due to leakage in whatever conduit shouldn’t be leaking. In legs and ankles (and sometimes in hands, arms, and feet), it’s further distinguished by referring to it as peripheral edema.
Diuretics are substances causing the passing of urine. The idea is to pee more to reduce fluid buildup.
The use of diuretics a simple concept, although it really only addresses symptoms. The potential causes are many.
In fact, edema is an ‘umbrella’ term covering a myriad of health issues that can lead to fluid buildup.
Diagnosing what the underlying issues might be is certainly something for your doctor to decide. Just be forewarned – it’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole to nail the problem down. And, regardless of the diagnosis, a prescription for a diuretic drug will almost certainly be the outcome.
This is where herbs really shine, mainly because their side effects are often minimal or nonexistent. You know, unlike synthetic drugs.
Should You Be Worried?
That’s a hard maybe.
If you simply look at the edema page at the Mayo Clinic, it seems a little scary.
The good folks at Mayo, bless their hearts, start out innocuously enough, with mild causes of edema, as follows:
- Sitting or staying in one position for too long. This is especially common on long flights. It usually reverses on it own once you get off the plane and get moving again.
- Eating too much salty food.
- Having premenstrual signs and symptoms.
- Being pregnant.
They move on to side effects of certain kinds of drugs, such as:
- High blood pressure medications.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Steroid drugs.
- Certain diabetes medications called thiazolidinediones.
These two lists do give you an opening on how to treat edema. Just stop doing whatever causes it.
Yeah, some stoppages are going to be easier than others. It’s easy to sit less and move around more (although the Mayo has no comment on what that means). Cutting back on salt intake may help. Ridding yourself of premenstrual symptoms is a challenge in itself. Being pregnant is temporary.
Then come the drugs. Getting off any of them can be hazardous. Taking them presents a medical conundrum requiring some deep thinking about why you need them and what you can do instead.
Now for the really scary stuff – the medical conditions potentially leading to edema directly. These include:
- Congestive heart failure. This condition can also cause swelling in your abdomen or fluid buildup in your lungs (pulmonary edema), causing shortness of breath.
- Liver disease.
- Kidney disease. Usually associated with swelling in your legs and around your eyes.
- Veinous insufficiency. Weak valves in veins let fluid leak downward instead of moving upward.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Sudden appearance of swelling in one leg, accompanied by pain in the calf muscle, can be due to a blood clot. This is super serious and requires immediate medical attention.
- Slow lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps clear excess fluids. Fluids accumulate when the system is damaged by surgery or other trauma.
- Severe, long-term protein deficiency.
Of all those scary causes, what are the most common ones?
You can probably rule out protein deficiency, at least in our culture. It’s more of a problem in famine-stricken areas of the world. (You’ve probably seen heartbreaking pictures of children with swollen abdomens due to starvation-induced edema.)
The two most common “causes” of peripheral edema are probably: 1) venous insufficiency; and, 2) slow lymphatic flow.
The reason I put quotes around the term causes is because these aren’t really causes. Suggesting they are is a typical weak-minded strategy of mainstream medicine when causes are supposedly unknown or too difficult to reverse by conventional treatments (i.e., drugs, surgery, etc.).
Venous insufficiency and slow lymphatic flow are effects, not causes.
What we’re really interested in are the causes of those two symptoms. I’ll have some ideas about what those might be, and what you can do about them, below.
The lymph system has no valves to herd fluids along. It’s dependent on your movements. If you are too sedentary, flow slows down. If you move around a lot, so does your lymphatic fluid.
How do you know if your edema is due to lymphatic slowdown? Here’s one potential indicator I picked up on recently: Your left leg and ankle swell a bit more than your right. Lymphatic flow is a bit more circuitous upward through the groin on the left side. Since the route it takes is longer, the backup can be greater.
If you’re interested in a ‘movement treatment’, consider gentle jumping up and down on a mini-trampoline for 10 minutes or so every day. This type of movement will do nicely to get lymphatic flow going.
Plenty of articles online advocate this strategy. To get you started, just take a look at this one in the Well Being Journal: Rebounding: Good for the Lymph System.
In addition, you can do lymphatic-specific exercises. One of my favorite videos showing what they are and how to do them is by a couple of pretty entertaining doctors explaining and demonstrating them here (well worth the 11-minute watch):
So, if your lymphatic fluid isn’t speeding around fast enough for you, movement is the key to getting it going faster.
Venous insufficiency is a bit more challenging, since it reveals damage to veins. One of the more obvious outcomes of such damage is varicose veins. Symptoms may also show up as purplish blotches on feet and ankles that look like bruises.
Besides those indicators, how can you know whether your edema is due to venous insufficiency? Fancy scanning machines can diagnose it. However, if you’re more concerned with keeping costs down, just the mere presence of varicose veins and/or bruises that never go away are the simplest indicators.
Mainstream medicine offers a handful of symptom-reversing strategies for leaky veins, as follows:
- Keeping your legs elevated (i.e., above your heart) as much as possible.
- Wearing compression stockings.
- Keeping legs uncrossed when seated.
- Exercising regularly.
Again, these recommendations don’t address underlying causation. In addition, although they help improve blood flow, they don’t do much to get rid of varicose veins or splotchy bruises.
Modern medicine does have a few options for replacing bad veins, though. They’re rather brutal treatments used in cases where venous failure is particularly nasty. They include surgeries to remove or repair veins, sclerotherapy (destroying nonfunctional veins), vein bypass, and laser treatments. There’s even a ‘vein glue’ that can be injected into nonfunctional veins to close them up.
Now Back to the Plant Kingdom
The title of this article promises information about the top 6 herbs for edema.
I’m going to break them down into two categories: 1) diuretics; and, 2) repairers.
As mentioned earlier, medical recommendations for treating edema will almost always involve prescription diuretics.
As such, they treat the symptoms of edema – i.e., peripheral swelling due to fluid accumulation.
The same can be said for herbal diuretics. The difference being the long list of side effects associated with synthetic drugs vs. the typically shorter, milder list associated with herbs.
If you, like me, prefer herbs, here are three of the best herbal diuretics:
Taraxacum vulgare. The root of this common garden weed is more widely known than its leaves as a powerful medicinal herb. It helps detoxification and reduces inflammation.
However, the leaves and flowers are also valuable.
All provide a strong diuretic effect.
The simplest method of taking herbal diuretics is as teas.
Regardless of which plant part you use, making dandelion tea takes a little time. You should steep it for up to 30 minutes in boiling water. Strain it if you wish. (I don’t.)
Add stevia as a sweetener if you like your tea sweet.
Have 1-2 cups a day.
You can find dried dandelion tea in most supermarkets and all health food stores. If you’re looking for fresh herbs, your best bet is your local health food store. Roots are usually in the ‘health’ section, whereas leaves will be among the salad greens.
Adding dandelion greens to your salads provides another source of diuretic activity.
Petroselinum crispum. Parsley is one of the most convenient and effective herbs as a diuretic tea.
It’s available fresh in all supermarkets. (Of course, certified organic is best.)
Meking parsley tea is faster than making dandelion tea. Simply add a quarter cup of chopped leaves to a cup of hot water and let it steep for 5 minutes. Strain the leaves out if you wish. Personally I prefer to swallow bits of leaves with my tea. (Of course, I eat the parsley garnish at restaurants, too – why waste such a wonderful medicinal herb?)
Again, add stevia as a sweetener if you wish.
Drink a couple of cups a day.
Two herbs yield essential oils known as natural diuretics. One is grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) and the other is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
Both oils also help detoxify and relieve inflammation.
Both oils are widely available in health food stores, in small dropper bottles. They’re super inexpensive, too.
To use grapefruit oil, mix 3-4 drops in about a tsp. of coconut (or MCT) oil. Use it to massage areas where you have swelling. Do this at least a couple of times a day until swelling begins to go down.
Likewise, combine 3-4 drops of fennel oil in a tsp. of the same carrier oil and massage swollen areas. Also use this mixture a couple of times a day.
How About ‘Repair’ Herbs?
This is where your doctor will most likely have no expertise. It’s up to you to either work with a naturopathic doctor or other natural-healthcare professional to figure out which herbs can actually help you repair damage leading to edema.
This is an area where you might have to go overseas (not literally) to find good solutions. Indeed, I learned about the two best vein-repair herbs while on sabbatical leave at the Universität Heidelberg, Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie, in the 1980s.
It was a pleasant experience to work in Germany, since it’s one of the hotbeds for research on and application of medicinal plants.
I realize most folks won’t know how to search for these solutions, so I’ve done it for you. All I did was search Google using these keywords: ‘venöse Insuffizienz Pflanzen’. (Not using quote marks.)
One of the first results is an article in the Deutsche Apotheker Zeitung, Chronisch venöse Insuffizienz: Pflanzliche Arzneimittel bei Venenleiden.
It cites those two herbs I mentioned above, which in English are known as horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus).
These two are so well known for vascular support they are widely available as supplements. You can find them online at many sites. The best prices are usually to be found at Vitacost.com, so go to that link to search for the products I use, which are:
I have to admit that my bias is for herbs whose active ingredients are phenolics. This group of plant substances, especially the flavonoid subclass, has been at the core of my research for decades.
Which brings me to the BEST all-time herbal source of ingredients for vascular support – Ginkgo biloba. The flavonoids (and certain kinds of terpenoids) are well-established as beneficial for vascular health in many ways.
Keep in mind that phenolics typically work together synergistically with vitamin C. In fact, technically vitamin C is a flavonoid-containing complex that’s much more complicated than ascorbic acid. (Details of why I say that appear in my earlier post, here: Vitamin C Supplements Don’t Contain Vitamin C. It’s a fascinating story about how the supplement industry has been duping the public about vitamin C since the 1940s.)
For the truly serious, below I’ve listed a recent review in the references section addressing that topic. It’s by an old colleague, Dr. David Seigler, who is the best plant chemist I’ve ever known.
Based on what I’ve learned from Dr. Seigler, I’ve modified my venous insufficiency treatment with three more supplements, including Ginkgo biloba.
They are also all available at Vitacost.com.
What I’ve created with this set of supplements, along with horse chestnut and butcher’s broom, is an unbeatable selection of herbs for repairing damaged veins. And adding liposomal vitamin C (actually, just ascorbic acid) makes it as close to the original vitamin C/flavonoid complex that was first isolated from Hungarian red peppers back in the late 1930s.
Oh, by the way, the ‘liposomal’ term in the vitamin C supplement refers to how it’s complexed for better absorption. It also has none of the ‘gastric distress’ (i.e., diarrhea) associated with pure ascorbic acid.
Bottom Line on Herbs for Edema
They are much more than diuretics. While reducing fluid accumulation is important, addressing underlying damage with ‘repair’ herbs is a much more valuable long-term solution to peripheral edema.
Comments or Questions?
I’d love to hear from you. This and every other post here provides a comment section at the end of the post, exactly for that purpose.
So, by all means, leave me your thoughts.
I would be especially grateful if you point out any flaws in my logic, factual errors, or ordinary typos. (I’ll give you a little ‘huzzah’ in my heart.)
Then I’ll respond as soon as I can.
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All the best in natural health,
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