Are the words on a printed page becoming increasingly blurry? Do you have trouble staying in your lane when you drive at night? For many of us, good eyesight is the first thing to go as we age. According to a 1995 study conducted by Lighthouse International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research on vision impairment and rehabilitation, one in six adults older than 45 has some type of vision impairment, such as cataracts, glaucoma, or loss of night vision. The numbers grow worse as we get older; about 15 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds report vision impairment, increasing to 17 percent for those aged 65 to 74 and 26 percent of those older than 75.

Despite these gloomy statistics, most people can take charge of their vision care at any age with promising results. Vision impairment has a variety of causes, including diabetes, tobacco use, long-term sun exposure, eye injuries, and the use of certain pharmaceuticals, such as steroids. Plan to get a complete eye exam every one to two years so that you can detect problems early. And consider herbs. Many recent studies suggest that herbal remedies can help prevent the onset of eye disease and vision impairment, improve eyesight, and perhaps reverse any damage already done.

Keep A Clear View
To prevent your healthy eyes from dimming, take a look at these herbs. Remember, always consult with a qualified health practitioner or herbalist for doses specific to your needs.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). People have traditionally used the ripe berries of this king of eye care for almost every vision ailment, from glaucoma and cataracts to macular degeneration and night blindness. Relatives of bilberry, such as blueberry (V. corymbosum), cranberry (V. macrocarpon), and huckleberry (V. parvifolium), are also traditional treatments for eye disorders, and recent scientific research has validated the age-old uses of many species of Vaccinium.

European studies, for example, indicate that bilberry fruit prevents a host of eye problems, such as retinopathy caused by diabetes and hypertension, retinal inflammation, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma, cataracts, nearsightedness, eye fatigue, and night blindness. Legend has it that British Royal Air Force pilots flying midnight missions during World War II ate bilberry jam to improve their night vision, and current research shows that bilberry accelerates the regeneration of retinol purple, a substance necessary for reliable eyesight (Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs, American Botanical Council, 2000). Since 1945, French doctors have prescribed bilberry to treat diabetic retinopathy, a major cause of blindness in people with diabetes.

View Master
Bolstered by scientific evidence, doctors are now recommending herbs for eye health. Best bets: bilberry to prevent glaucoma and grape seed to treat cataracts. Why is the herb so therapeutic? Bilberry fruits contain vitamins A and C and types of polyphenols called flavonoids, which give the fruit its color. Vitamin A helps reduce vision problems, such as night blindness and macular degeneration. Vitamin C and flavonoids have antioxidant and disease-fighting properties. According to Pam Hyde-Nakai, a Tucson, Arizona-based herbalist, antioxidants help protect the cells from free radical damage, which can cause numerous degenerative eye conditions. The flavonoids in bilberry are called anthocyanins, which slow the breakdown of the antioxidant vitamin C, allowing the vitamin to protect the eyes for a longer period of time.

The herb has other benefits as well, such as preventing capillary leakage, decreasing ocular pressure, and relieving painful edema. Bilberry increases circulation in the blood vessels of the eye, thereby improving peripheral vision, and the fruit protects the blood vessels, so they can repair themselves.

Joseph Pizzorno, ND, and Michael Murray, ND, Seattle-based naturopaths and co-authors of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Prima, 1998), recommend eating two cups of fresh bilberries or blueberries (which are easier to get in the United States) each day as a general eye treatment. Or drink a daily 8-ounce glass of bilberry, huckleberry, cranberry, or blueberry juice; all are rich in anthocyanins. Bilberry juice and jam are available at natural foods stores. If you've already developed an eye condition, you can use liquid extracts or capsules. Take 80 to 160 mg three times a day, but be aware that capsules in powdered form are highly unstable and are not always more concentrated than the fresh product or liquid extract.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). The leaves of the ginkgo tree have an antioxidant effect because of their high percentage of flavonoids, proanthocyanins, and vitamin C; the herb increases blood flow to the retina. Ginkgo also helps prevent macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy and can relieve the symptoms of those diseases. Ginkgo is available in capsule or tablet form; read the label for appropriate doses. Or take 30 to 60 drops daily of the liquid extract (which is usually weaker than ginkgo tablets and capsules) to help prevent or treat macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis). The orange flowers of this plant are rich in carotenoids, antioxidants that protect against cell damage. Calendula is also an herbal soother that reduces eye inflammation. The flowers are especially rich in the carotenoid lutein, which prevents or stops the progression of macular degeneration (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1994, vol. 272, no. 1413). As a deterrent, take 15 to 30 drops of the liquid extract daily.

Get Your Sight Back
If your eyesight is already failing or you suffer from a progressive eye disease, don't despair. A few good herbal remedies are especially helpful in correcting the problem or alleviating symptoms.

Grape seed (Vitis spp). Europeans have used grape seed for several decades, but it is a relatively new supplement in the United States. The seed contains a powerful group of antioxidants called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs, or Pycnogenol), which reportedly alleviate cataract symptoms. Because grape seed increases circulation to the eye capillaries, the herb also helps treat macular degeneration. Herbal eye remedies often combine grape seed with ginkgo. For relief, take 200 mg per day in capsule form.

For centuries, South Americans have used the leaves of the jaborandi tree to treat glaucoma patients. Jaborandi (Pilocarpus microphyllus). The Brazilian jaborandi tree is the source of the standard glaucoma medicine called pilocarpine. For centuries, South Americans have used the leaves as a folk medicine to reduce intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients. Herbalist Michael Moore, director of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Arizona, also recommends the herb as a glaucoma treatment. His classes include lessons on how to use jaborandi to treat glaucoma and nerve inflammation of the eye, which is often associated with a degenerative eye disease, such as retinopathy. Although King's American Dispensatory (Eclectic, 1898) suggests using jaborandi liquid extract, the only form currently available in the United States is a homeopathic preparation in liquid, pellet, or tablet form.

Wolfberry (Lycium chinese). This traditional Chinese herbal eye treatment is high in antioxidants and carotenoids that can treat spots in the eyes, tearing, cloudy vision, poor night vision, and other eye ailments, including cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration. Consult a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner for recommendations on balanced and prepared formulas that include this effective herb.

Look Ahead
Because more and more research points to the promise of herbs for eye health, eye-care professionals in the United States are beginning to use herbal treatments in their practices. And the herbal know-how will certainly spread if Robert Ritch, MD, an ophthalmologist from the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, has anything to do with it. On June 28, 2002, he spoke to a group of his peers at the Fourth International Symposium of Ophthalmology in Shantou, China, about herbs to treat glaucoma. Perhaps in the near future your eye doctor will prescribe herbs for your vision. Until then, you can turn to professional herbalists to find a selection of herbs that will help you see your path to better eye health today.

Elizabeth R. Elstien is an herbalist and the owner of Peaceable Kingdom Botanicals in Tucson, Arizona. She has written on herbs for several ophthalmology publications.