Health & Horse Chestnuts

  Horse Chestnut trees have been utilized as folk/traditional treatments for hundreds of years.  It was said that simply carrying the seed of a Horse Chestnut in your pocket would cure/treat arthritis and rheumatism. Various portions of the trees were also said to be able to help those with varicose veins, hemorrhoids, fever, cough, diarrhea, enlarged prostate gland, eczema, swelling of soft tissue, dizziness, biliary diseases, bruising, cough, kidney diseases, liver congestion, leg cramps at night, malaria, lupus ulcers, pancreatitis and menstrual pains.  On top of this, Iriquois Indians in North America used the roots in powder form for chest pains.  With this it is easy to see why the Horse Chestnut has been such a revered tree over the years.  It is presumed that these remedies, with the exception of chest pains, originated in Europe. 

                Even though the large majority of these folk remedies have not received legitimate scientific support, not all of them are unfounded.  Germany in particular supports the use of the Horse Chestnut tree as treatment for some of the previously listed ailments.  The German Commission E, an expert committee in the German government which provides support for or refutes old folk remedies, supports taking refined horse chestnut extract in some cases.  Chronic venous insufficiency and hemorrhoids could be treated by taking a dose of horse chestnut extract equivalent to about 100 mg of escin per day.  There is still controversy as to whether it does indeed help with hemorrhoids, but most experts agree that refined horse chestnut seed extract can be utilized to treat chronic venous insufficiency and varicose veins

                A study was published in 2002 by the Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy titled Horse Chestnut: A Multidisciplinary Clinical Review.  The study concluded that horse chestnut seed extract (HCSE) was as effective as compression stockings and oral oxerutins in treating chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).  It also reports that there is "insufficient human clinical trial data" to support the Horse Chestnut for anything but CVI.  The primary active ingredient is escin/aescin, a saponin mixture which helps to normalize the permeability of capillary membranes.  The extract is usually contained within a topical cream instead of an oral treatment because of the potential toxicity of the Horse Chestnut.

    Even though the Aesculus Hippocastanum has been seen throughout history as a tool for health it can indeed be the opposite. The Horse Chestnut contains esculin/aesculin, a glycoside that causes harm by primarily breaking down proteins in the blood.  However, this toxin is only harmful when ingested, not simply when handling the tree or seeds of a Horse Chestnut.  Glycosides become associated with risk when the sugar molecule attached to the rest of the compound is stripped away.  During the process of digestion this removal occurs and can result in very adverse symptoms.  Horse Chestnut poisoning is often characterized by vomiting, nausea, enlarged pupils, paralysis, diarrhea, muscle weakness and twitching, kidney problems, coma, and even fatality if enough is ingested. 

    This poisoning occurs in humans often because of the confusion between the Aesculus Hippocastanum and the Castanea dentata (Chestnut) which is associated with the sweet chestnut seed.  Grazing livestock also fall victim to poisoning by aesculin.  Non-ruminant mammals usually only experience vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.  However, aesculin causes additional neurological symptoms in ruminate mammals (i.e. cows) because of the additional digestion that occurs in the rumen.  It only requires a dose equivalent to approximately 0.5% of a calf's body weight to result in severe poisoning. Luckily, the fatalities are limited due to self-limiting by both humans and other animals who realize the adverse affects of aesculin.  Even though we cannot enjoy eating the fruit of horse chestnuts, we can enjoy eating the fruit of a Paw Paw fruit!

To read about another poisonous organims visit Belladonna and Daffodil.

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