Veins are a crucial part of our circulatory system, controlling the return of deoxygenated blood to the heart from the tissues (except the pulmonary veins). However, the importance of maintaining healthy veins is, unfortunately, often underemphasised.
Many people across the UK unfortunately regard venous conditions as a cosmetic issue, however this is not the case. (Read more on: Why Treat Varicose Veins & Why They Might Come Back)
To mark Vein Health Awareness Week (23rd – 29th September), leading venous expert Professor Mark Whiteley, and his specialist team at The Whiteley Clinic, are on a mission to educate all across the UK about the importance of good vein health and what to do if you think you have a venous problem.
To kick start the education process, here Professor Whiteley reveals eight essential lifestyle tips which will encourage your veins to keep on working the way they should…
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “When idle, the muscles in your legs that normally help pump blood around the body aren’t used effectively. In today’s society, many people work in office-based jobs which require sitting at a desk for large chunks of the day. However, whatever your work situation is, everyone should aim to get up and move at least once an hour. In addition, a good 30 minute walk a day will not only help the veins to stay healthy, but will also help regulate weight and help maintain a healthy heart.
Certain low-impact exercises, like walking and swimming, can be very beneficial too, by increasing the body’s ability to pump blood up the leg back toward the heart.
On the contrary, heavy lifting can cause veins to dilate. Lifting heavy-weights increases the amount of pressure in the chest, restricting blood flow from the legs, arms and head to the heart, which causes blood to pool in the veins and enlarge them.”
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “To put it bluntly, those who smoke should seek to quit as soon as possible. Whilst there is a large amount of coverage concerning the link between smoking and lung cancer, the detrimental effects that smoking has on the veins has not been covered to the same extent. The chemicals in cigarettes have unfavourable effects on the venous system: thickening blood, reducing oxygen and causing inflammation in the vein walls. As a result, the risk of blood clots is increased in smokers.”
ELEVATE YOUR LEGS
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “It may sound simple, but elevation of the legs is very effective for improving venous flow back to the heart. Basically, the venous blood has to flow up-hill from the feet to the heart. When moving, the muscles achieve this by pumping the blood. However, at rest, the blood doesn’t flow naturally up hill. Hence, by elevating your feet when at rest, say when watching television, you are helping the venous blood to flow back to the heart and reduce ankle swelling and venous pooling.”
DRINK ADEQUATE WATER
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “Drinking water has an invaluable impact on the body, including aiding venous health, as blood needs to be at an optimal concentration to work properly. Filling up on coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks does not have the same effect however. Caffeine is a diuretic, causing the kidneys to excrete more water and these drinks actually dehydrate you.
If you are dehydrated, the circulatory system can become sluggish – preventing it from working efficiently. Thicker blood is usually a sign that there is not enough water in the body – putting veins at a higher risk of blood clots.
However, if you drink too much water (which many health-conscious people are starting to do), you can get “water intoxication”. This is where the blood is too dilute, the brain swells, and you become irritable and unable to think clearly. You will also sweat excessively and will keep needing to go to the toilet – and your urine will be clear. Unless you are exercising or are in a very hot environment, you only need 1.5 litres of water a day – and this includes the water in food and drink. As a basic rule, drink when you are thirsty and your urine should be straw yellow. If darker – you need to drink more water. If colourless and clear, you are probably overdoing the water.”
DON’T SHY AWAY FROM STOCKINGS
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “Compression stockings prevent blood from pooling in the legs and feet by increasing pressure from the outside and helps to pump more blood to the heart. Those who have been diagnosed with a venous condition, such as varicose veins, should wear compression stockings as much as possible to alleviate symptoms until they have their local anaesthetic endovenous surgery that will cure the condition. NICE guidelines quite correctly point out that compression stockings should not be used as a treatment for varicose veins – but can be used temporarily to help relieve symptoms whilst waiting for surgery. However, it is also recommended for anyone embarking on a long-haul flight – even if they have normal veins – to also invest in a pair, as they stimulate venous blood flow and ease ankle swelling – warding off blood clots and deep vein thrombosis.”
WEAR APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “This is a complex area that needs more research. The foot has a venous pump in it, which is the most powerful of the venous pumps in the leg. It is activated when weight is put on the foot, and the foot arch spreads, stretching and squashing the veins in the foot, and pumping venous blood into the calf. Hence, if you have a healthy foot arch and keep fit, then shoes that mimic the effects of “bare-foot running” such as Vibrams, are probably the most healthy footwear to use.
However, if you have flat feet, fallen arches or if you are standing still for long periods of time without exercising the foot, then finding a shoe that provides enough arch support, supports the middle of your foot, which helps place an even amount of pressure on your feet and lower legs may well be beneficial.
In contrast, high heels, certainly greater than two inches high, affect the calves’ ability to pump blood back up to the legs, whilst also restricting effective muscle function – raising vein pressure in the lower legs. Therefore, whilst they may be more fashionable, high heels are not advised to be worn for long period of time, for those who suffer from venous issues, like varicose veins.”
WATCH WHAT YOU EAT & MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “Avoiding excessive weight gain is definitely of benefit to the venous system. Sustaining a healthy body weight prevents too much pressure being distributed to the feet and lower legs. One way to maintain a healthy weight is to keep an eye on what you eat! By replacing refined sugar with fruit and veg (e.g. bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, spinach), which are packed with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities can benefit the venous system. They help to diminish swelling and strengthen the collagen (connective tissue) within the vein walls – positively affecting the flow of blood.
Although excessive weight does not cause varicose veins, there is a link between the complications of varicose veins such as skin damage and leg ulcers and being overweight.”
Professor Mark Whiteley says: “Many medical professionals and patients tend to focus on simply eradicating the surface signs of varicose veins – however, if the underlying veins causing the surface veins are left untreated, they can lead to a host of many undesirable health conditions. These underlying veins are best seen with venous duplex ultrasound scanning.
For example, larger varicose veins can cause the skin that covers them to become discoloured, brittle and prone to injury, sometimes resulting in leg ulcers. Venous leg ulcers are long-lasting sores that often take many months or years to heal if only dressings and compression is used and can produce foul smelling discharge. However, most venous leg ulcers can now be cured permanently with local anaesthetic endovenous surgery.
As varicose veins prohibit blood flowing properly, deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) can also be an outcome of untreated varicose veins. DVT is the clotting of the blood in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis (causing pain and swelling). Larger DVT’s risk travelling through the venous system into the heart and then the lungs, in some cases being fatal.
Therefore, it is pivotal that these venous issues get treated at their earliest stages! This is not only my advice but is now also NICE guidelines that advise that anyone with varicose veins and symptoms or signs of any skin damage, or anyone with a venous leg ulcers, should be referred for a duplex ultrasound scan and treatment.”
From 23rd – 29th September, Professor Whiteley and his expert team at The Whiteley Clinic are launching Vein Health Awareness Week – a brand new UK wide awareness initiative aiming to educate the British public about the importance of good vein health and encourage them to #bevainabouttheirveins. Visit veinhealth.co.uk to learn more.