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Butcher's broom

Relieves hemorrhoids, treats leg vein problems

Herbal medicine has no shortage of plants called broom. In addition to butcher's broom, there is broom, dyer's broom, Spanish broom and corn broom, among others. They all have tough stems and rigid leaves that make them useful for sweeping. They also are often confused with one another. To prevent mix-ups, it's a good idea to learn the Latin name for butcher's broom — Ruscus aculeatus.

Butcher's broom is closely related to asparagus, and its young shoots can be prepared and eaten just like the familiar vegetable. If the shoots go unharvested, this herb becomes a low-growing evergreen shrub.

Ancient Greek physicians recommended butcher's broom as a laxative and diuretic, but this herb did not become widely used in healing until the 1950s, when French scientists isolated two chemicals from butcher's broom rhizomes (underground stems). These chemicals have therapeutic value in that they cause blood vessels to narrow and help reduce inflammation.

Following this research, herbalists immediately began recommending butcher's broom for treatment of hemorrhoids, which result from distended veins in the anal area. The final word isn't in yet on whether or not it works. Over time, however, anecdotal reports accumulated that the herb helped treat a lower-leg condition called venous insufficiency or chronic phlebopathy, meaning that the veins there don't function properly, causing swelling, itching, tingling, cramping and a feeling of heaviness.

Studies of butcher's broom for leg vein problems have produced intriguing results. A scientifically rigorous 1988 study showed that a combination of butcher's broom, vitamin C and another chemical found in citrus fruits improved symptoms. "The swelling, itching and tingling improved greatly," says Bernie Olin, Pharm.D., editor of The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, a St. Louis-based newsletter that summarizes scientific research on medicinal herbs. Cramping and heaviness were also relieved to a small extent.

Putting the herb to work

Although questions remain about this herb's effectiveness, Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine, recommends it for venous insufficiency. "Just make sure you use a guaranteed potency extract with 10 percent total saponins (the active elements in butcher's broom). Several herb companies market them through health food stores," he says. When using a commercial preparation, follow the package directions.

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