Check out Dr Harald Gaier's favourite cornucopia of natural eye remedies to treat everything from myopia to glaucoma
I am part of a large family living in Liverpool. We seem to be jinxed with eye problems. Three of the four grandparents had cataracts and one has macular degeneration; nearly half the children need glasses or contact lenses because they are short-sighted. All the younger children keep getting conjunctivitis, often with a thick, yellowish gunge that makes their lids stick together in the morning. My husband has poor night vision, two other members of my husband's family have diabetes with glaucoma, and retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic taint on my side of the family.
Does using natural medicine hold out any hope for us?
Mrs A.M., Liverpool
It's a good idea for you to try to find out what can be done to help your family's assortment of eye problems. Although no other sensory organ is as crucially important for the quality of our everyday lives, very few people take any steps towards preserving their precious eyesight in their later years. By following some simple preventative measures, the most common eye problems can be avoided.
Let's start with the children's recurrent conjunctivitis. The principal symptoms are red, itchy and watery eyes with a discharge due to inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin clear membrane of epithelial tissue covering the white parts of the eye and also lining the underside of the eyelid.
This condition is caused by viruses, bacteria (such as thost causing the sexually transmitted dieases gonorrhoea, and Chlamydia), irritants like shampoos, dirt, smoke and chlorine in swimming pools, allergens such as dust and pollen, and a specific kind of protein allergy that affects some contact-lens wearers.
To guard against infection, avoid touching your eyes with your fingers and only ever use fresh clean towels. Note that vasoconstrictive eyedrops ('eye whiteners') can mask red eyes, but they will also bring on dry eyes in the long run.
Cineraria Maritima Euphrasia eye drops (available from www.emporiumonnet.ch) is a homeopathic combination of therapies for conjunctivitis and other inflammatory conditions of the eyes. The combination itself was trialled by French clinical expert Dr Ronald Questel in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study of 60 conjunctivitis sufferers. Using the drops once a day for six days improved all symptoms, including pain, teariness, light phobia and sticky secretions; these positive changes were supported by photographs of the capillaries of the conjunctiva.
Each individual component of these eye drops also has evidence of efficacy.1 In cases of underlying infections like STDs, these should be tested for and treated accordingly.
Herbs for eye problems
Besides homeopathy, herbal medicine has shown considerable success in treating a variety of eye problems like glaucoma, night blindness, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and even diabetic retinopathy.
A 200-mg dose of bilberry (European blueberry), also known as Vaccinium myrtillus extract (VME), offers measurable improvement (via electroretinography) in patients with glaucoma.2
In other trials, VME (either alone or in combination with beta-carotene) led to significant improvements in night vision, quicker adaptation to the dark and more rapid restoration of sight after a bright light flash. But a particularly important effect is that it inhibits angiogenesis and so is effective against retinal diseases involving this kind of abnormal blood vessel growth.3
Yet other studies confirm that, when given together with vitamin E, VME can even improve myopia (short-sightedness).4 And in patients with various types of retinopathy, including those caused by taking anticoagulant drugs and as a complication of diabetes, VME treatment led to reductions in both permeability and haemorrhages.5
Pycnogenol (PCG), made from the leaves of various trees and bushes and the bark of French maritime pine, and grape seed extract (GSE), made from Vitis vinifera grape seeds, both contain complexes of vitamin-C-like flavonoid nutrients proved to significantly improve eyesight in the
dark and after glare with daily doses of 150-300 mg.6
In one small study of GSE, 86 per cent of myopic patients taking the extract showed significant clinical improvement, while a remarkable 40 per cent showed improvement according to retinal measurements.7
Two other medicinal herbs-Coleus forskohlii and Salvia miltiorrhiza-have both demonstrated beneficial effects on the microcirculation of the eye.8 A compromised microcirculation is one of mechanisms behind optic nerve damage in glaucoma. But make sure you take these herbs under the supervision of a qualified Naturopath or Medical Herbalist.
And don't overlook the herb Ginkgo biloba, which can increase circulation in many conditions. In one controlled double-blind study, an extract of G. biloba leaves (GBE) brought about significant positive changes in chronic cerebroretinal ischaemia (inadequate blood supply to the eyes) in elderly patients.9
GBE also brought about significant long-term improvements in patients with senile macular degeneration and severe retinal circulatory disturbances, including glaucoma.10
Supplements for eyes
Two complex supplements containing a variety of herbs and nutrients for eye problems that I recommend include Ocudyne II capsules, made by NutriCology, containing beta-carotene, antioxidant vitamins and minerals, bilberry and Ginkgo biloba, and Bilberry Ginkgo Eyebright Complex vegicaps, from Solgar, which are also rich in antioxidants.
In addition to taking bilberry (VME) regularly, your family would benefit from taking a good multivitamin, as vitamins A, C, E and B-complex as well as carotenoids, alpha-lipoic acid, iron, magnesium, other antioxidants and zinc all have supportive roles in helping to prevent glaucoma.11
Your family should also incorporate the following five items into your everyday diet, as each contains many of the supportive constituents for eye health: Savoy cabbage; red cabbage; Romanesco cabbage; white cabbage; and broccoli. When buying the latter, make sure the florets are dark green and aren't turning yellow, as then you know it's really fresh.
Cataracts are not inevitable just because you're over 60, but seem to be the result of cumulative environmental insults. Researchers have long suspected a link between accumulated lead exposures and a number of chronic disorders of the elderly, including cognitive decline, arterial hypertension and cataracts, which often show the presence of lead in the affected lenses. A team from Harvard Medical School in Boston tested the theory by examining lead levels in the tibia (shinbone) and patella (kneecap) of nearly 800 men (average age 67 years), comparing the findings with the results of their eye examinations, after adjusting the data for numerous other conditions like diabetes and smoking. Those with the highest levels of lead in their bones had nearly three times the risk of developing cataracts as the others, leading the researchers to conclude that almost half of all cases of cataracts may be due to lead.12
Lead likes to settle in our bones. After a decade or so it circulates in the blood at exceedingly low levels that are nearly impossible to measure before taking up residence in other tissues. Lead can cause oxidative stress and free-radical damage to the eye, including the epithelial tissues of the lenses. These are necessary for clear sight, as is glutathione, an important antioxidant essential for a healthy lens.13
Until recently when unleaded petrol was introduced, we all breathed in lead-laden exhaust fumes from petrol-driven vehicles. Other culprits behind chronic low-level lead exposures may be found in our own homes: some 80 per cent of all houses built before 1980 used lead-based paint and/or lead water-supply pipes. So it's highly likely that all of us adults carries a substantial burden of lead in our bones.14
Given your family's history, it makes sense to seek out all possible sources of lead in your home and work places, and make sure to only drink water that has been filtered to remove lead.
See page 80 for some useful pointers on how to detox your body of lead and other heavy metals.
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J Am Geriatr Soc, 2000; 48: 1501-6
Harald Gaier, one of the UK's leading experts on alternative medicine and a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London. Visit his website at www.drgaier.com.
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