Natural Eye Care
Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of all the universe? —Leonardo da Vinci
Think of the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. It could be a centuries-old stained glass window glowing luminously from its dark stone frame or a kaleidoscope of brightly colored alpine flowers dancing across the deep green of a springtime mountainside. Our eyes filter and define light and color, impressing upon our minds the miracles around us.
Our eyes provide testament to important events – our own baby’s first step or the first walk on the moon. Important images are captured by our eyes and delivered to our brain to be catalogued and retrieved when necessary. Our eyes provide a window to the world and our brain allows us to retain the images for as long as our memory will hold them.
A healthy human eye is truly a marvel. It can see objects miles away or observe the fine detail inches away. Its range of light and dark sensitivity is amazing. Once an eye has adapted to a dark room, the amount of light needed to stimulate the retina is 30,000 times less than when it is light adapted. However, there is no image we observe that can compare to the miracle of the eye mechanism itself.
The eye structure is built around the retina, the part of the eye that converts images into electricity for the brain to understand. Every part of the eye is involved in some way in presenting a clear, focused image to the retina. The two other major parts of the eye are the sclera, the white membrane that encases the eyeball, and the choroid, which lies underneath the sclera.
The choroid is of particular interest in understanding eye health since it provides the main source of nutrition for the eye with its thick web of blood vessels. In fact, relative to size the amount of blood flow through the eye is the greatest in the entire human body.
The eye needs to be constantly nourished with vital, fresh blood for it to function properly. The roles of nutrition and a healthy circulatory system can not be underestimated in the function of the eye.
Eyes can become unhealthy for four major reasons, leading to conditions as varied as eyestrain to glaucoma:
- Free radical damage, especially common with aging.
- Exposure to glare or sudden lighting shifts.
- Excessive eye muscular work from focusing on a fixed distance for substantial periods of time.
- Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that destroy body compounds by binding to healthy molecules and stealing one of their paired electrons – creating another free radical. Two of the most prevalent eye diseases today, macular degeneration and cataracts, can be attributed to free radical damage.
- Inadequate nutrition, especially diets low in vitamin A, can be a cause of poor eye health. Vitamin A, which the body can not manufacture on its own, enters the choroid of the eye and joins a protein molecule called opsin. The compound rhodopsin is formed from this union. When a single light photon hits rhodopsin, the pigment explodes and sends an electrical charge to the brain through neurotransmitters beneath the retina. In very simple terms, this is how a visual image is sent to the brain. When there is no vitamin A present, there is no rhodopsin and no image.
Other nutrients essential to eye health are vitamins B1 and B2, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese. Since most eye conditions involve some degree of oxidation damage to tissues, a general antioxidant program is also a wise idea. This might include, for instance, vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, selenium and alpha lipoic acid.
Our environment can greatly affect the function of the eye. Staring at computer screens all day and abrupt shifts between light and dark can deplete the eye of rhodopsin and the eye can become fatigued. Likewise any activity that requires the eyes to focus at a fixed distance for periods of time produces similar effects: reading, driving, watching television or movies, etc. This kind of muscular work also increases the demand for vital fresh blood to the musculature. Taxed eye muscles not only cause eye strain but are thought to possibly play a role in the eventual distortions of the eyeball known as near- and far-sightedness.
While proper nutrition and eye rest are the most important tools for maintaining healthy eyes, herbs can help with various aspects of proper eye function and prevention of eye problems before they start.
Bilberry is a European cousin to the American blueberry. During World War II, Royal Air Force pilots swore that eating bilberry jam improved their night vision on their nighttime sorties. This spurred clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of bilberry with remarkable results.
It has proven to be a wonderful ally in the fight to retain our precious eyesight on many fronts. In clinical trials, it has shown benefits for eye strain, glare exposure, adaptation to light/dark shifts, poor night vision, cataracts, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.
Anthocyanosides, the pigmentary substance found in bilberry, are thought to be the primary active constituents. Anthocyanosides are powerful antioxidants and free radical scavengers. This activity helps to prevent, in particular, the onset of cataracts and macular degeneration. In one study, bilberry extract plus vitamin E stopped the progression of cataracts in 97% of the subjects.
Anthocyanosides don’t just fight free radicals. They also decrease capillary permeability and fragility. These actions are particularly helpful for glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.
The most amazing thing about bilberry is that it actually helps the regeneration process of rhodopsin, the pigment in the eye necessary for sight. Some people notice this effect rather quickly after beginning to use the extract regularly. Other sources of anthocyanosides and related flavonoid compounds are grapes and other purple berries.
Traditional Eye Tonics
There are many herbs that have been used in traditional herbalism as eye tonics. Not coincidentally, most of these herbs are thought to increase circulation and/or benefit the blood vessels in some way. Remember that the eye uses vast amounts of blood to stay nourished and functioning.
Topical preparations of Rue have traditionally been applied directly to strengthen the eye. Like bilberry, it is also used to tone the capillaries and blood vessels.
Angelica root promotes good capillary circulation, a must for eye health.
Goldenseal, also called eye root by some Native American cultures, has often been used by traditional herbalists for promoting healthy eyes as an eyewash for inflamed or infected eyes and as a circulatory tonic for all the body’s extremities, including the eyes. Many traditional herbalism systems also relate eye health to a healthy liver. Goldenseal is frequently used for many liver indications.
There are a number of other lifestyle tools we can incorporate to alleviate the drain of excessive eye muscular work. Regular and frequent breaks from the computer screen or reading tasks—as often as every ten minutes—to relax the eyes and shift the range of focus out the window for example are also an important tool to put into practice.
Simple eye exercises are often very effective if practiced regularly and with some relaxed, deep breathing. Some of the most frequently recommended are slowly rolling or circling the eyes first in one direction and then the opposite, making sure to create a smooth and wide circle that encompasses all directions. Another exercise is to vary this by moving them in a figure-eight pattern in both directions consecutively.
There are many good books available on natural eye therapy, which include exercises and hands-on techniques. These often include acupressure massage and palming, which is covering the eye area with the palms of the hands while resting on the elbows and relaxing for a few minutes with some soft easy breathing.
The Gift of Sight
Our eyesight is something that is too often taken for granted. Eye disease is erroneously considered a “natural” consequence of old age. The health of our eyes depends on the healthy choices we make now, not when we have been diagnosed with eye disease in old age. How often do you question your vitamin A intake when you are glaring at your computer screen for hours (or days) at a time? Maybe it is time to start thinking about these things now before it’s too late. Give your eyes the care and consideration they deserve, and they will continue to be your precious “window to the world”.
- Wertenbaker, L. The Eye Window to the world. Torstar Books, 1984
- Murray, M. The Healing Power of Herbs. Prima. 1992
- Balch, J & P Balch. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Avery Publishing, 1990.
This Herbal Insights Reflections is from the Fall 1999 edition of Herbal Insights.
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