For at least 2000 years, various herbs have been utilized throughout the world to promote eye health–consumed regularly to prevent failing eyesight, and prepared as topical infusions to treat everything from common eye strain to glaucoma.
While there is little modern evidence to support many of the documented and anecdotal claims concerning some of these traditional herbal remedies, others have gained considerable supported from the medical community in recent years, scientifically recognized as containing healthful substances that can indeed prevent or treat eye ailments, and support overall eye health.
Here are ten currently enjoying wide-spread popularity among the ever-growing natural curative community as promoting eye health, as well as the subjects of ongoing scientific research.
> Asphalatus (asphalatus linearis):
Although little is currently known in the western world about this medicinal plant, asphalatus is said to have been used for thousands of years by the San Bushmen of South Africa to boost the immune system and maintain their exceptional eye sight. Known asrooibos to the people of the Cedarburg Mountains, asphalatus has been shown to contain especially high concentrations of iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidants essential to eye health and keen vision.
While most people may not think of basil as an herb to be brewed and consumed as a tea, science has shown that it’s actually one of the best ways for the body to absorb the numerous eye-supporting vitamins and minerals this plant possesses. An excellent source of vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and iron, basil also contains high concentrations of carotenoids such as beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A–a scientifically-proven nutrient for maintaining strong eyesight.
Widely used in past centuries to promote general eye health, the active ingredients in bilberry, called anthocyanosides, are antioxidants that help improve the flow of blood through the capillaries of the eyes. When eaten regularly, these smaller cousins of the blueberry help eyes adjust more quickly to changes in light and improve sharpness of vision. Bilberries have also been shown to be effective in stopping the progression of cataracts when combined with sources of vitamin E, as well as in helping treat damage to the retina. (There are also numerous claims that bilberries improve night vision.)
A teaspoon of cayenne powder provides more than 8X the daily recommended dose of vitamin A, one of the vitamins responsible for protecting the surface of the eye (cornea)–and essential for good vision. Taken in combination with other antioxidant vitamins, cayenne may also be beneficial in decreasing the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Additionally, taken with a primary source of lutein (such as spinach), cayenne may prolong vision in people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
Grown primarily today as an ornamental garden plant, cornflower was for several centuries used in the UK and US to treat conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the eye caused by bacteria, viruses, allergy, or other invasive environmental factors. Simple to prepare, a handful of cornflower blossoms placed in a cup of boiling water (after the boiling has ceased), then steeped thirty minutes, can be used liberally as an eye wash. Many herbals attest to its effectiveness in treating the highly contagious condition “pink eye.”
> Eyebright (euphrasia):
From the Greek euphrasia, meaning “to gladden,” eyebright has been used since ancient times to treat various eye ailments, especially eye strain and mild infections. The flowering stems contain flavonoids, the glycoside aucubin, tannins, and essential oils which when prepared as an infusion can be applied as an eyebath or in compresses to treat inflammation of the outer and inner surfaces of eyelids, sties, and soothe tired/over-worked eyes.
> Ginkgo biloba:
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that a study of people suffering from glaucoma found that taking ginkgo biloba orally every day for eight weeks produced marked signs of improved vision. Other studies indicate that this popular herb, best known for promoting general circulation, might also benefit those who have eye damage from diabetes or macular degeneration.
> Grape seed:
One of the primary curatives of antiquity, the ancient Greeks advocated grape seed extract to prevent or slow down the growth of cataracts. Now understood to contain high levels of antioxidant properties called oligomeric proanthocyanidin, studies conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center confirm that while grape seed may not reverse cataracts you already have, it may prevent them or slow down the process. Other studies suggest that grape seed is good for peripheral circulation and strengthening of the capillaries.
Spinach is especially high in lutein, a carotenoid found in the macular region (a small spot in the middle portion of the retina responsible for central vision) of the eye, retina, and lens which protects the macula tissue by absorbing damaging UV radiation. Lutein, however, cannot be manufactured by the body and must be taken in orally. Eating at least two ounces (58 grams) of fresh cooked spinach each day can help nourish the eye while fending off age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible blindness in individuals over the age of 65 in the US and other industrialized countries.
A study of 32 people with uveitis (inflammation of the uvea, the middle layer of the eye which contains many eye-nourishing blood vessels) suggests that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may prove to be as effective as corticosteroids, the type of medication generally prescribed for this eye disorder. While more studies are needed to conclude decisively, researchers say turmeric may be effective in treating this disorder as well other eye inflammation.