Q: Dear Healthier Talk,
What’s the deal with chestnuts?
We all know the Christmas song, of course. But I read somewhere that chestnuts can be poisonous.
And then just last week when I was complaining about swelling in my ankles a friend of mine told me to try chestnuts.
I’m so confused!
Knee Deep in Chestnuts, Fairfield, Maine
A: Dear Knee Deep,
No wonder you’re confused. Talk about mixed messages!
But we’re here to help.
There are actually two different kinds of chestnuts…
- Sweet chestnuts
- Horse chestnuts
In that old familiar Christmas song when they sing about roasting chestnuts over an open fire (which was, incidentally, written in Los Angeles during a summer heat wave) they’re referring to sweet chestnuts.
When roasted, sweet chestnuts—pictured above on the left in the furry looking spiky husk—are a delicious nutritious snack. They’re high in protein, vitamins and fiber and they happen to
be naturally low in fat and gluten free.
Horse chestnuts, on the other hand–pictured below to the right in the smoother husk–are poisonous. The nuts themselves are also round and smooth with no tip or point at the end like the edible kind.
Unprocessed alkaloid saponins in the horse chestnut are poisonous to most animals (interestingly deer can eat them) and people when eaten raw. If you eat the raw nut it can cause a massive stomachache, diarrhea and vomiting and in extreme cases possibly death. But they’re reportedly very bitter so accidently eating one is not very likely.
However, in the right hands the horse chestnut can be turned into a useful herbal remedy. In fact in Europe horse chestnut seed extracts are commonly used to help with varicose veins, ankle and leg swelling and chronic vein insufficiency.
The extracts have also been used to treat hemorrhoids and swollen prostates and are said to be useful for relieving fluid retention.
The nut contains a substance called aescin which can reportedly help tighten up loose and leaky veins and promotes healthy circulation.
You can find horse chestnut seed extract at your local natural food store or compounding pharmacy. But, of course, you should always talk with your naturopathic or integrative medicine doctor before trying any new herbal remedy to make sure it’s the right choice for you.
Horse chestnut may slow blood clotting or lower blood sugar so if you’re on a blood thinner or blood-sugar lowering medication you should check with your doctor before using this herb.