Imagine living out your golden years never watching the sunset… never seeing a grandchild score a goal in a football match… and never reading your favourite book one more time?
Believe it or not, that’s what thousands of Britons are facing right now. Because they all have eye diseases that can lead to permanent blindness, like macular degeneration (AMD), diabetic retinopathy (DR), cataracts, and glaucoma.
For years these people have been let down by the mainstream. Most doctors have almost nothing to say about preventing eye diseases, and lots of times will let serious conditions (like cataracts) progress until they’re bad enough to require surgery.
When it comes to something as precious as your eyesight, you deserve better. And the good news is that if your vision is getting worse year after year, there are six safe, natural ‘super herbs’ that may help you stop the problem once and for all.
Body chemistry gone haywire can steal your eyesight
The first thing to realise is that ALL of these vision-related illnesses involve some biochemical process that’s gone awry. And one of the biggest is what we call oxidative stress.
Stresses of all sorts (chemicals, environmental stressors like cigarette smoke and radiation, hormonal stressors including high insulin levels, and even emotional stresses) create supercharged molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) that murder our cells through a process called apoptosis.
Now, a certain amount of cell death is normal – our bodies are constantly regenerating, with old cells being replaced by new ones. But, in this process, it’s a veritable killing spree.
And while these ROS are attacking our cells, they’re also stimulating something called the ‘JNK signalling pathway’. Think of that like a phone line that carries messages calling for your body to kill more of its own cells and to release inflammation.
Six herbs protect your eyes from inflammation and cell death
Notice that, when I’m talking about cell death and inflammation, I haven’t yet mentioned eye diseases specifically. That’s because, while these biological processes can unleash damage on your retina, cornea, and other structures of your eye, they’re equally destructive for your kidneys, peripheral nerves, joints, heart, and other organs.
In fact, ageing is largely a process in which oxidative stress leads to ROS and inflammation and, eventually, to cell death.
And that’s what’s particularly exciting about the six ‘super herbs’ that can help prevent conditions like AMD, cataracts, DR, and glaucoma. Because they work by stopping inflammation and cell death that can harm your eyes; they can also protect other organs and parts of your body as well.
# 1: Curcumin
I’ve talked a bit before about curcumin, the active component of the common kitchen spice turmeric.
One of the reasons that curcumin works so well is that it’s stable in stomach acid. That means it doesn’t break down as it moves through the digestive tract.
Curcumin helps control some of the enzymes that cause inflammation, and it interferes with the production of something called TNF alpha. That’s a messenger in your body that promotes cell death and inflammation.
In rat studies, curcumin has been found to protect against radiation and hydrogen peroxide damage to the retina. Other studies have shown that curcumin can help prevent damage caused by diabetic retinopathy. Still other animal research demonstrated the protective effect of curcumin against cataract formation, both the diabetic and nondiabetic forms.
The authors of one review study concluded that curcumin’s antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties make it ‘a compound of choice’ in the treatment and prevention of multiple eye illnesses, including AMD, DR, and cataracts.
# 2: Saffron
Another kitchen spice that has remarkable effects on the prevention and treatment of eye diseases is saffron. Its active ingredients, crocin and crocetin, protect your cells against ROS – and that means they can help stop (or even reverse) oxidation, cell death, and inflammation.
Saffron actually blocks the action of caspase-3, the enzyme that leads to cell death, and increases your levels of glutathione, one of the most powerful antioxidants around.
Test tube trials have shown that saffron protects retinal cells against oxidative stress, and animal trials have shown the protective effect of saffron on the formation of cataracts, seemingly by shielding the lens cells against oxidative damage.
But here’s the good news, since your eyeballs aren’t in a test tube or the body of a rat: human trials have shown benefits of saffron supplements in improving early macular degeneration (AMD).
# 3: Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Any discussion of plant-based antioxidants for the eye must include the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These pigments are commonly found in many yellow-coloured fruits (peaches, papaya, squash) and green leafy vegetables, and they’ve been shown to lower your risk of AMD.
A recent clinical study demonstrated that supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin slowed down the development of AMD and improved vision.
Researchers think that these pigments absorb blue and UV light, which you’re exposed to through sunlight and computer screens. Too much blue light reaching the retina has been implicated in the development of AMD.
A few months ago, I told you about quercetin’s use in prostate cancer prevention and management, but it has also been studied for its usefulness in vision disorders.
Found in vegetables, berries, and tea, this remarkable flavonoid is another botanical substance that acts as an antioxidant and inhibits the formation of ROS. In fact, quercetin beat other antioxidants in a 2011 study on preventing cataracts.
Quercetin has also been shown to slow down angiogenesis. That’s the overgrowth of small blood vessels in the retina, and it can lead to AMD. Other studies have shown a role for quercetin in the prevention of diabetic complications, including retinopathy.
# 5: Resveratrol
Resveratrol is a micronutrient found in red wine (among other delicious items in your fridge or kitchen cabinet) that’s been shown to improve heart health and slow diabetes. But it also helps prevent the development of ROS. Several studies have demonstrated its ability to reduce diabetic complications, including retinopathy.
In animal studies, resveratrol has been shown to increase glutathione and decrease oxidative stress of the lens of the eye, suggesting its potential use in preventing cataract formation.
And human studies have shown that it can prevent damage to optic nerve cells in patients suffering from glaucoma.
# 6: Danshen
Now, you probably don’t have any of the Chinese herb Danshen in your spice rack because it comes from the root of a flowering plant that’s native to China and Japan. Also called Salvia or Asian red sage, it contains antioxidants as well as anti-inflammatory micronutrients that can significantly improve eye health.
Due to its inhibition of TNF alpha, Danshen has been shown to protect your retinal cells. In fact, Danshen prevented the loss of vision in mice whose retinal tissue had been injected with it, in a study looking at diabetic retinopathy. And its intravenous form has shown benefit in treating glaucoma.
Preclinical studies suggest that Danshen can also help prevent AMD, but human clinical trials are needed before we can say for sure.
Start protecting your eyes before the damage has been done
There are supplements available that have been designed specifically for vision support (sometimes called ‘ocular’ support). They usually include at least a couple of these great herbal ingredients in a custom blend – which is a good thing if you’d rather not eat curry for three meals a day or guzzle down carafe after carafe of red wine. (You shouldn’t do that anyway – it would take more bottles than you could drink to get enough resveratrol to benefit your eyesight in any significant way).
Keep reading because next month, I’ll address even more nutrients that are important to prevent and treat visual problems – including antioxidant eye drops to treat cataracts and other illnesses of the eye.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 4 • April 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.