My perspective changed when I was diagnosed in my teens with a chronic degenerative bone disorder. Since conventional medicine had nothing to offer at the time, I sought out other methods of healing: yoga, vitamins and minerals, herbs, massage, Rolfing, shiatsu, and chiropractic adjustments. I also tried therapeutic diets and experimented with natural healing methods. As I began to rebuild my body, I noticed that my vision improved as well--all with no targeted effort. By restoring my overall health and reducing toxicity, I gave my body more resources to heal eye tissue.
By the time I reached my early 20s, my vision had improved enough for me to function without glasses. Though my sight was not perfect, it was adequate to recognize faces, read, and drive. My eyesight has continued to improve, and I've now been free of glasses for more than 20 years.
Approaching vision problems without technological assistance is not common. Medical treatments are, frankly, effective and easy. When you can just wear glasses, why go through laborious dietary changes and herb regimens? If outpatient surgery can remove your cataracts in a day, why wait longer?
Most people readily seek a doctor's intervention, but others have found that restoring the eyes from within is worth the effort. In addition to being windows of souls, eyes are the mirrors of our bodies' health. The challenge is to stick with the program. The eye is complicated, and eye healing, particularly vision improvement, requires extra patience--compared with, say, how quickly an ulcer responds to cabbage juice, or joint inflammation to turmeric.
You can't just treat eyes; you also must address the skin and liver. These organs not only share nutritional requirements, they also degenerate consistently in order. Eye function is the first to go, then the skin, and finally the liver. When health deteriorates, the body is more willing to 'part with' functions or structures not critical to survival. Eyesight is a luxury compared to the detoxification functions of the skin and liver. To be successful in treating the eyes, we therefore must backtrack, first treating the liver, then the skin.
My clinical experience shows that eyebright (Euphrasia stricta) is a plant whose folkloric reputation outstrips its actual usefulness. Despite its name and history of use for the eyes, it's not effective, and there are certainly substances that produce more significant and consistent results. Eyebright is better as an upper respiratory tea than it is as an eye tonic.
The following herbs are ones that have proven useful as long-term tonics and nutrients for eye health. They boast antioxidant properties; promote better, stronger circulation; and support waste elimination, particularly liver function, to directly or indirectly benefit your eyes.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Extract of bilberry contains powerful antioxidants that can prevent the free-radical damage that weakens cells and capillaries and makes them less flexible. This is particularly important because the retina is one of the most capillary-rich parts of the body. Bilberry is especially noted for improving night vision and increasing function of the color-sensing cones of the eye, improving image brightness and increasing visual acuity.
Robert Abel, M.D., a conventional ophthalmologist turned holistic and author of The Eye Care Revolution (Kensington, 1999), recommends bilberry for just about all things ocular, particularly glaucoma. For general eye benefit, take bilberry extract standardized to contain 25 percent anthocyanosides in doses of 60 to 120 mg daily, or up to 240 to 480 mg per day.
Ginkgo biloba extract (50:1, 24 percent flavone glycosides) is known to improve and prevent cerebrovascular insufficiencies and decreased cognitive function associated with aging. Ginkgo is also excellent for increasing blood flow to the eyes.
Like bilberry, ginkgo contains antioxidant compounds that protect cell membranes and venous integrity, improving their flexibility as well as resistance to free-radical damage. Ginkgo benefits vision (hearing, too) by allowing more blood, oxygen, and nourishment to be delivered to the head. Take ginkgo in doses of 120 mg daily, although some studies have used doses of 240 mg or more, even recently as much as 960 mg daily.
Triphala, the combination of amla (Emblica officinalis), haritaki (Terminalia chebula), and bibitaki (Terminalia belerica), ranks as the premier general tonic of ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Indian tradition of healing. Triphala nourishes the eyeball and strengthens the nerves and other tissues. Take 500 mg to 2 grams per day as a general tonic, possibly for a lifetime.
Amla is a strong rejuvenative and the most frequently used cataract medicine. It is a potent inhibitor of free radicals, which are one cause of cataracts. The fruit is the richest known source of naturally occurring vitamin C (which accounts for its antioxidant effects), containing 20 times more vitamin C than orange juice, at 600 mg per 100 grams. Haritaki, called the 'king of medicines' in Tibetan medicine, nourishes the nervous system and promotes vision. Bibitaki, a myrobalan fruit, regulates lipids in the body. Like amla and haritaki, which are also myrobalans, it improves the vision.
Add one tablespoon of triphala powder to 10 ounces of water. Cover the mixture and let it sit for 12 hours. Filter and apply to eyes with an eye dropper or an eye cup.
Start with these recommendations, and visit a holistic eye doctor or herbalist for more information, especially if you need to target specific problems like cataracts, vitreous floaters, macular degeneration, or glaucoma. Healing the eyes from within takes more effort than relying on external aids, but you'll soon see what you've been missing.
Cry Me a River--of Healthy Tears
Contrary to popular wisdom, the common problem of 'dry eye' is not a lack of tears, but tears that have poor chemistry or are too thin and dry. They lack, for some reason, fats and minerals that make them viscous. To combat this problem, Dr. George Dever, O.D., a Seattle-based herbalist and an optometric physician for 45 years, suggests drinking more water and not avoiding oils too rigorously.
A low-fat diet is fine, but he believes that some people are taking 'nonfat' too literally. Small amounts of fats in the diet are important for health: No less than 10 percent of total calories should come from fat; 20 to 25 percent is adequate for disease prevention. In particular, favor omega-3 oils and monounsaturates (such as olive oil). Supplements of flaxseed oil, black currant oil, and cod liver oils have all produced dramatic results in patients with dry eye.
--Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is a certified nutritionist (C.N.) and is American Herbalist Guild (A.H.G.) certified. From The Herb Quarterly (Spring 2000). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 689, San Anselmo, CA 94979.