Modern medicine has a host of treatments for eye infections, eyestrain, and diseases of the eye. But for many in our high-tech era, gentle, old-fashioned herbs remain the treatment of choice.
Chamomile is a useful botanical for eye discomfort. Cheerful and daisy-like German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) brightens moods and improves digestion. When filtered, cooled, and used as an eyewash or eye rinse, chamomile tea also reduces eyestrain and inflammation. For best results, add a pinch of unrefined sea salt, just enough to make the tea taste slightly salty (like human tears). Soak cotton balls in this tea and apply to the eyes. If using tea bags, simply remove them from chilled or cooled chamomile tea, place them over the eyes, and hold in place for two to three minutes. Repeat as needed. As you’ll see on pages 38 and 39, this is also a traditional cure for undereye circles, swelling, and puffiness.
During allergy season, your eyes’ best friend may be butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a European herb whose leaf has been shown to perform as well as the antihistamine drug fexofenadine (sold as Telfast 180, Allegra, and Aventis). A double-blind, placebo-controlled, three-arm, multicenter clinical trial of 330 patients in Switzerland and Germany investigated butterbur leaf extract using U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for allergic rhinitis clinical trials, comparing this herb to fexofenadine. Both the drug and the herb were significantly superior to a placebo in reducing symptoms—but butterbur extract did not produce drowsiness the way antihistamine medication did.
Because this herb contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PAs, which may be harmful to the liver, European manufacturers breed butterbur plants for low PA content and then remove PAs with a carbon dioxide extraction process. Look for PA-free and low-PA butterbur extracts, which always list this information on the label.
Perhaps the most famous herb for the eyes is bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), believed to improve night vision. According to research reviewing 30 clinical trials examining bilberry and night vision, subjects with normal night vision are unlikely to experience significant sight improvement at night by consuming bilberries. But further research may be warranted in people with impaired night vision. If you have trouble seeing clearly in dim light or at night, try bilberry juices, jams, and extracts.
This herb is often recommended for bloodshot eyes because it strengthens the lining of blood vessels. Experts recommend taking 250 mg bilberry tablets three times daily to help prevent cataracts.
Ginkgo (G. biloba) is helpful for floaters, those flecks and spots that move slowly through the visual field. Caused by the accumulation of debris in the eye’s vitreous humor, floaters often increase with age, and the nearsighted notice them more often. Try ginkgo tablets, 40 mg three times daily or 60 mg twice daily, to increase circulation within the eye, providing oxygen to the retina. It’s normal to see several floaters from time to time. But if you suddenly notice an increase in their number, consult an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to avoid complications like a detached retina.
Sties are bacterial infections at the root of an eyelash, causing swelling, inflammation, tenderness, pus, and discomfort. Blepharitis, a related condition, is an inflammation of the eyelid. Andrew Weil, MD, recommends treating both conditions with hot com-presses for 10 minutes at a time several times per day. Hot water works well, or use raspberry leaf tea. Soak a clean cloth in hot water or tea, wring it out, and hold it in place. Never squeeze a sty; let it drain on its own. After the sty bursts, Dr. Weil recommends keeping the affected eyelid area clean and dry. Or if desired, apply diluted, mild soap with a cotton swab and gently wash the eyelid twice a day.
More Serious Concerns
Glaucoma affects an estimated 3 percent of those over age 65, including an estimated 500,000 who are undiagnosed. In this disease, increased fluid pressure in the eye damages the optic nerve, causing blind spots. Because glaucoma is a serious condition, it requires a physician’s care. But fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C (bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, citrus fruit, Brussels sprouts, guava, kale, papaya, and strawberries) appear protective.
According to Ophthalmology and Survey of Ophthalmology, an estimated 5 percent of glaucoma patients use complementary or alternative medical treatments, including medicinal herbs. Ginkgo biloba, which may improve blood flow to the optic nerve and have a beneficial effect on glaucoma, is a popular choice.
n one study, 27 patients with bilateral visual field damage resulting from normal tension glaucoma, or NTG, received 40 mg of Ginkgo biloba extract three times per day for four weeks, followed by a wash-out period of eight weeks and four weeks of treatment with a placebo (identical capsules filled with fructose) or a reverse schedule that began with the placebo and ended with the herbal extract. The herbal extract resulted in a significant improvement in visual fields, with no significant changes in intraocular pressure, blood pressure, or heart rate. Because ginkgo inhibits blood clotting, it should not be combined with aspirin or other blood-thinning medication, however.
Cataracts afflict half of those over age 50 and three-quarters of those over 75. In this condition, damaged proteins clump together and form an opaque covering that causes cloudy or blurred vision. Low levels of antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, and the mineral selenium have been linked to this condition. The herbs bilberry and ginkgo are often recommended along with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to help prevent cataracts. In addition, some experts suggest drinking a daily cup or two of tea brewed from catnip and other mints, which are rich in flavonoids.