Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), also called buckeye in the United States, is a shade tree that produces white flowers and grows up to 75 feet tall. Its fruit, leaves, seeds and bark have been used as a natural remedy throughout the centuries. Today, people still turn to horse chestnut to relieve medical conditions and, in England, for another unexpected use.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), various parts of the horse chestnut tree are used to treat specific conditions.
- Horse chestnut seed and leaf are used to treat varicose veins, hemorrhoids and phlebitis.
- Horse chestnut seed is used to treat diarrhea, enlarged prostate and fever.
- Horse chestnut leaf is used to relieve menstrual pain, swelling, eczema, joint pain, cough and arthritis.
- Horse chestnut bark is used to treat malaria, skin ulcers and dysentery.
NCCIH indicates that for most conditions, little evidence exists that horse chestnut is effective. However, that is not the case for varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency. Research shows that taking 16 to 20 percent aescin, a compound found in horse chestnut, reduces poor circulation symptoms such as varicose veins, swelling, itching, pain, leg fatigue and water retention.
Horse chestnut is a natural blood thinner, and early evidence shows it is as effective at battling chronic venous insufficiency as wearing compression stockings.
It is important to note that horse chestnut does not have FDA approval for any of the above uses.
One of horse chestnut's alternate names, conkers, became popular thanks to the use of the tree's fruit in a British game. World Conker Championships states on its website that conkers likely originated from a game called "conquerors" that used conch shells. To play the game, players first make a hole through the middle of a conker and thread a knotted string about 25 cm long through the hold. Each player takes turns hitting the other player's conker. The player to break the other player's conker wins.
Side Effects and Precautions
Horse chestnut leaves, bark, flowers and seeds contain esculin, a poisonous substance that when eaten raw causes toxic side effects such as stomach upset and vomiting, kidney problems, muscle twitching, loss of coordination, diarrhea, depression or even death. Horse chestnut tea prepared with raw leaves, bark, seeds or flowers can cause poisoning.
Standardized horse chestnut products have had esculin removed but still may cause stomach upset, dizziness, itching or headache. People allergic to latex may experience allergic reaction to horse chestnut.
If you have certain conditions, you should avoid taking horse chestnut. These include:
- Pregnancy or breastfeeding
- Bleeding disorders
- Digestive problems
- Liver problems
- Kidney disease
Because horse chestnut thins the blood, you should stop taking it at least two weeks before having surgery.
Horse chestnut may interact with some prescription drugs and supplements. If you take Lithium, diabetes medications or blood-thinning medications (including aspirin) or herbs/supplements that thin the blood (e.g., ginger, garlic, clove, red clover) or lower blood sugar (e.g., garlic, psyllium, chromium, fenugreek, Siberian ginseng) you should not take horse chestnut.
Horse Chestnut Extract
Horse chestnut extract capsules are the most common form of medicinal horse chestnut, although topical creams, gels and powders are also available. Standardized extract is made from horse chestnut seed with the esculin removed.
Horse chestnut extract preparations are found in most pharmacies, natural health stores and on the Internet. Because of the risk of toxic side effects if not processed correctly, you should only purchase horse chestnut from a trusted, reliable source.
How to Take
Horse chestnut capsules, liquid extracts and topical forms should be used per the manufacturer's or a doctor's directions. Drugs.com states that the common dose of horse chestnut capsules is one capsule every twelve hours before a meal. Capsules should be taken with a full glass of water and swallowed whole.
Medline suggests taking 300 mg of horse chestnut seed extract twice daily to treat chronic venous insufficiency. Extracts should include 50 percent aescin.
Powerful Circulation Support
Horse chestnut is proven to be a powerful circulation supporter. If you suffer from painful varicose veins and other uncomfortable symptoms caused by chronic venous insufficiency, talk to your doctor or natural health practitioner to determine if horse chestnut may help. In addition, if you're fortunate enough to live near a shady horse chestnut tree, pick some fruit and try your hand at a game of conkers.