Our five senses are precious componants of who we are. Too often, we don’t think about them until something happens.
Eyesight is fragile. It can be lost in a moment and professional services via the GP or Accident & Emergency must be accessed if your sight suddenly fails. My mother lost the sight in one eye through a central retinal detachment and didn’t know she should act immediately, waiting until the next day to contact her GP when it was too late. Find out where your nearest specialist eye centre is and have plans in place to go there as fast as you can should the worst happen.
Similarly, if you or your child contract an eye infection which causes the eyelid to swell shut, if it doesn’t respond to treatment after three days seek further medical advice. I once had a client whose daughter had an eye infection but failed to return to the GP for more than a week. The infection was bacterial and the child lost the sight in that eye. The mother blamed the GP for failure to diagnose but there was nothing which could have been done because of the time lapse.
As we grow older, our organs begin to fade. It’s as well to understand what is happening so help can be sought sooner rather than later. The RNIB produce a wealth of information about many eye conditions which tell you what the condition is, how it can be recognised, what tests are used and how it is treated. They also have a helpline for anyone who wants to talk about their eyes and the impact a condition may be having on their life. NHS choices also provides online information about eye conditions which includes self-help advice.
For those of us who have access to herbs, there is much we can do to help ourselves. Most home herbal eye care advice is limited to tired or sore eyes with the author stating that anything further is beyond their scope. In my search amongst those published herbalists I turn to first, only three authors provide a wide-ranging description of eye function, health and herbal support – Anne McIntyre, Matthew Wood and Thomas Bartram. The latter, as befits a Herbal Encyclopaedia, provides so much information it’s difficult to know where to start and when to stop.
Protective nutrition and herbs for eye health
The food you eat will protect your eyes. Antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin protect eyes from oxidative stress and high-energy light. A diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, peas and broccoli along with calendula, squash, sweetcorn and eggs will help. Lutein is present in the macula. A lutein-rich diet can help prevent macular degeneration, both wet and dry and cataracts.
We also need high levels of vitamins A, C and E, fatty acids such as omega-3s found in oily fish, walnuts, soya beans and flax seeds. Copper is another essential trace element found in nuts, sunflower seeds, liver, beans and lentils. Maintaining good vision with a healthy macular also requires zinc from oysters, beans, nuts, red meat and poultry.
To help prevent cataracts by boosting the action of the antioxidant, gluthione in the aqueous humour, add elderberries or blueberries/bilberries to your diet. Herbs with a similar action to anthocyanidins, which protect blood vessels in the eye, preventing poor night vision and retinal disorders include astralagus root, milk thistle, turmeric and garlic.
Herbs which strengthen blood vessels within the eye and inhibit macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy include antioxidant herbs such as elderberry, hawthorn berries, rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, selfheal and ashwagandha.
Herbs which increase circulation to and from the eye include rosemary, gingko, eyebright, vervain and peppermint.
Practical eye care
The key aspect to eye care is to make sure everything you use is clean and, in many cases, sterile. It is better to use a decoction of herbs rather than a herbal tea if you are aiming for a long-term treatment.
A decoction is made by bringing 2-5ozs/50-125g of dried or fresh herb in 1pt/0.56 litres of water to the boil in a lidded saucepan then simmer gently for 10-20 minutes before straining into a container which is kept in the fridge for up to 36 hours or so. Make sure there is no debris in the strained liquid. You may need a pass it through a second filter such as muslin or a coffee filter.
To extend the life of a decoction, you can put half in the fridge and freeze the other half either in ice cube trays or in a suitable container. These can then be brought out when the first half has been used up.
It is wise to invest in a set of eyebaths and learn how to use them properly, making sure the bath for each eye is kept separate by marking them on the base and don’t share the fluid inside them after a first use.
If you find an eyebath stinging your eyes, add a few grains of salt so the liquid is brought up to the same concentration as tears and won’t sting.
If you are dealing with an eye infection, wash your hands with hot water and soap before and after treatment and ensure the patient has a set of towels for their own use. Every parent knows how fast an eye infection can pass around a family!
If you don’t have a set of eye baths, the bottom part of a tea-strainer can be used but it is too wide to be really effective.
The most common way to deliver herbal eye care is through a compress. This can be made from a scrap of material (preferably cotton), a circle of cotton wool (those sold to remove eye makeup can be useful) or a folded piece of kitchen towel. The compress is dipped in the herbal solution, squeezed to remove excess moisture (otherwise it runs down your neck!) then placed over each eye while you either lie in a prone position, or sit with your head back (so the compress doesn’t fall off!) for fifteen minutes of more.
Herbal support for common eye conditions
The herb which everyone turns to for eye infections and inflammations, including conjunctivitis and blepharitis is eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). It can be made into a tea by adding 1tsp of dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water then steep for ten to fifteen minutes before straining through several layers of muslin. When it has reached room temperature, pour it into an eyebath and use as a douche and drink the remainder as a cup of tea. It is not unpleasant.
If you don’t have access to dried eyebright, add 5-10 drops of eyebright tincture to an eyebath containing cooled, boiled water. If this stings your eye, reduce the amount of tincture. If using a drop dose it is always advisable to start with the least number and build up over time rather than going for the maximum dose first.
Do be aware that eyebright is astringent/drying, so if you are using it for any length of time you may need to introduce a mucilagenous herb such as marshmallow to counteract the effects.
Eyebright, chickweed and expressed breast milk applied externally can all be helpful in combatting eye infections. Support these remedies with antimicrobial herbs such as Echinacea, goldenseal, burdock, red clover and liquorice taken internally. These herbs will not only help combat infection but will also boost immunity and detoxify the system.
Bathe in a solution of chickweed tea, steeped for ten minutes and allowed to cool. If you suffer with hay fever or other allergic eye conditions then chamomile, nettle, lemon balm, yarrow, feverfew and Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) all have antihistamine actions can bring relief. Matthew Wood recommends goldenrod for hay fever and also for cat allergies.
Cover a chamomile or fennel teabag with boiled water and allow to cool until just warm then apply to closed eyes as you would a compress.
Sore, inflamed eyes (especially from computer usage)
Make a tea from elderflower, chamomile, calendula, plantain and roses, steep for fifteen minutes, strain and apply as a compress for ten to fifteen minutes, several times a day. These herbs can be used individually as well as in combination. Tea made from small amounts of all the herbs is incredibly soothing.
Dry eyes often come with aging for no apparent reason. The condition can be linked with blockages in the Meibomian glands which secrete oil to prevent tears evaporating. If there is any solidified oil, you can apply a very hot flannel to the eye for two minutes, then soak the warm cloth in a herbal solution and gently rub along the lash line of the upper and lower lids.
The best herbal combination I have found for dry eyes is an equal mixture of eyebright and goldenrod. Goldenrod is indicated where there is a underlying kidney issue and exhaustion.
“itis” means inflammation of a particular tissue, so conjunctivitis describes an irritation of the lining of the eyes caused by infection, allergies, dust or pollution in the atmosphere. The eye becomes red and inflamed and weeps copious tears.
To treat this condition, infusions of astringent and antiseptic herbs are called for such as eyebright, calendula, chamomile, elderflower and rose. These can be used to bathe the eye and be taken internally.
Blepharitis describes the condition when eyelids become red and inflamed. Sufferers are often told it is incurable but herbal remedies can be helpful. The condition often indicates depleted immunity, a toxic system or allergy, so if these conditions are addressed there will often be an improvement.
Chronic conjunctivitis and blepharitis may improve when dairy products, tea and coffee are removed from the diet and supplements of vitamins C and B are taken. It might also be helpful to experiment with Herb Robert to see if a depleted immune system can be reversed.
Styes occur when there is inflammation or infection in glands at the base of the eyelashes. They tend to occur when the sufferer is run-down or tired. Again, astringent and antiseptic herbs can be helpful in alleviating the often painful condition, whilst the individual must take responsibility for resting and improving their diet.
Bartam, T Herbal Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine 1998 Constable and Robinson
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Octopus Books
Ody, P “Herbs for eye complaints” in Herbs Vol 41 No2
Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom 1997 North Atlantic Books