The Benefits of Horse Chestnut

Karen Lawton
Sunday, 20th October 2013

Karen Lawton describes how to make healing salves from the horse chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum.

This familiar, large deciduous tree graces many of our parks and green spaces, and most of us have childhood memories of going out to collect its fruit. Opening the green spiky shells to reveal ever so shiny conker nuts inside. My mother and I made animal figures with them using tooth-picks when I was small, while my brother soaked his in vinegar to harden them in preparation for some conker fighting in the playground, an activity dying out because of health and safely issues!

Our childhood friend isn’t native to Britain. It arrived in the sixteenth century and was grown initially as a specimen tree in collections such as that of plant collector, John Tradescant. Only later did it begin the process of naturalisation, probably as a result of extensive planting by landscape designers like ‘Capability’ Brown and Sir Christopher Wren, who planted a mile-long avenue of them at Bushy Park near Hampton Court. 

Medicine

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a traditional remedy for leg vein health. It tones and protects blood vessels and may be helpful in ankle edema related to poor venous return. It is used extensively throughout Europe as an anti-inflammatory agent for a variety of conditions, in addition to being used for vascular problems. The plant is taken in small doses internally for the treatment of a wide range of venous diseases, including hardening of the arteries, varicose veins, phlebitis, leg ulcers, haemorrhoids and frostbite.

Horse chestnut is an astringent, anti-inflammatory herb that helps to tone the vein walls which, when slack or distended, may become varicose, haemorrhoidal or otherwise problematic. The plant reduces fluid retention by increasing the permeability of the capillaries and allowing the re-absorption of excess fluid back into the circulatory system.

The seeds are the source of a saponin known as aescin, which is the compound that has been shown to promote normal tone in the walls of the veins, thereby improving circulation through the veins and promoting the return of blood to the heart.

Our horse chestnut remedies

We make a wonderful healing and tonifying balm for varicose veins and haemorrhoids simply by collecting first the new leaves in the spring time, drying them out for a night or two in an airing cupboard and then infusing them in almond oil for one lunar cycle.

We like to collect the aerial parts of plants near to the full moon when all the constituents are at their highest, and then macerate the leaves in the oil from full moon to full moon in a warm sunny spot. We strain out all the plant material and save the oil in a glass jar until the autumn when you can add chopped horse chestnuts that again have been slightly dried in the airing cupboard for a couple of nights. We do this to lessen the water content to prevent the oil from going mouldy. Leave the nuts in for a lunar cycle then strain. The oil is then poured into a bain-marie and then melted with beeswax and organic fairtrade cocoa/shea butter to form a creamy ointment.

The beeswax is from our local beekeeper, Michael, and arrives as a big round cake of deliciously waxy honey-smelling beauty. He cleans out his spent hives and filters the wax with rainwater. Beeswax (Latin names Cera alba and Cera flava) is the natural wax made by honeybees in the hive. A wide variety of cosmetics use beeswax as an emulsifier, emollient, and moisturiser. After processing, beeswax remains biologically active and retains anti-bacterial properties. It also contains vitamin A that is essential for human cell development. Throughout time people have used it as an antiseptic and for healing wounds.

Beeswax is added to the horse chestnut leaf and nut-infused oils to ‘set’ them, and the cocoa or shea butter (both from Africa) give the ointment a soft creamy consistency. Shea butter contains more vitamins and is said to have superior healing capabilities to cocoa butter. In the past Europeans would have used lard or egg yolk.

Recipe 

This is very simple to follow and makes a wonderfully useful vein strengthening balm.

150ml Horse chestnut leaf and nut oil

25ml Cocoa/shea butter

15ml beeswax 

It is a good idea to do a spoon test when all the ingredients are melted together to get the consistency perfect. Drop a little of the mix onto a plate and leave for five minutes, then mash it up with your fingers. If it’s too hard add more oils, too soft add more beeswax.

As we dispense the ointment into jars we add cypress essential oil (about 3-5 drops into each 60ml jar). Cypress essential oil has a valuable effect as a vasoconstrictor as well as smelling divine! 

Varicose veins and haemorrhoids 

The venous system in the body returns deoxygenated blood from all parts of the body, including the organs, to the right side of the heart and then on to the lungs to be oxygenated. From the lungs, the oxygenated blood passes to the left part of the heart, to be pumped to all the tissues and organs of the body. The venous system consists of large and small veins; the large veins tend to lie alongside arteries. Veins are more thin-walled than arteries, they act as a reservoir for blood, and about 75% of the body’s blood is in the venous system. 

Many veins have one-way valves to facilitate the flow of blood back to the heart against the force of gravity. This is especially applicable to the veins in the legs and to a lesser extent in the arms. The valves work in the same way as one-way swing doors; the blood pushing the valves open as it travels toward the heart and the valves close as blood fills that part of the vein, preventing backward flow. The delicate veins in your legs can become damaged by lifestyle, for example poor diet, which can lead to constipation. 

The valves in the veins in the legs can get stretched and damaged by the high pressures that are required to move small hard dry stools. The valves soon become incapable of holding up the blood. Without valves in good working order, a four-foot column of blood presses on the lower veins all day long. One result of this unrelieved pressure is varicose veins, the tortuous blue ‘worms’ which detract so much from the appearance of a person’s legs, often causing pain and sometimes ulcers.

Similar to varicose veins in causation if not location are haemorrhoids. You may have heard people say they got theirs from sitting on cold toilet seats or from having babies. The veins that become haemorrhoids are located in the very last parts of the intestinal tract, called the rectum and the anus. These veins at this terminus of the gut perform the important function of making a tight seal there, by means of blood-filled cushions to prevent faeces and gas from leaking out of the intestine. 

The haemorrhoid veins in the rectum suffer a fate similar to the veins in the legs. Each time veins are filled beyond their normal capacity, stretching them like over-inflated balloons, they become permanently dilated and hang out of the rectum. They become persistent and painful bulges, with the further troublesome symptoms of bleeding and itching. Anyone at any age can be affected by haemorrhoids. They are very common, about 50% of the population experiencing them at some time in their life, although they are usually more common in the elderly and during pregnancy. Diet has a pivotal role in causing and preventing haemorrhoids. People who consistently eat a high-fibre diet are less likely to get haemorrhoids as they are less likely to get constipation.

As herbalists we see many people with vein problems that can be managed very well with increasing fresh fruit, vegetables, drinking water and exercise. Horse chestnut is always included somewhere in their prescriptions.

Fabulous horse chestnut facts

The sticky sap on horse chestnut buds protects them from frost damage and insects.

Horse chestnut conkers are slightly poisonous to most animals, causing sickness if eaten.

The annual world conker championship has been held in the village of Ashton, Northants, since 1965.

‘Conker’ is derived from the word conch and the children’s game was originally played with snail shells

Karen Lawton is a traditional herbalist roaming this wonderful land gathering food and medicine from the fields and hedgerows with her colleague, Fiona. They formed Sensory Solutions, after meeting each other at university, and have been working together with plants for many years. They teach their craft through Sensory Herb-craft Apprenticeships. All that they need is provided around them, mostly growing within walking distance of their homes. See www.sensorysolutions.co.uk

Further resources

Are medical herbalists under threat?

Medicinal herbs: an antidote to modern medicine

Medicinal uses for horsetail

A look into the powerful medicinal properties of wild carrots

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