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One of the most common complaints of aging is deteriorating eyesight. Nearly everyone over 40 has experienced some vision loss. Many natural health experts believe that diet, exercise, and herbal remedies may help prolong good eyesight well into our golden years.
Strain on delicate eye muscles as well as improper blood flow to the retina can cause vision to deteriorate, notes Christopher Hobbs, medical botanist and author of numerous books on herbal medicine.
"As we age, the small blood vessels that feed the inner ear and eyes become less efficient at carrying blood and waste products, " he explains. Several herbs may help improve retinal deterioration and also prevent certain types of damage, according to numerous studies.
One such herb is bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). The bluish-black berries of this plant make a tasty jam consumed by British air force pilots in World War II. According to the pilots, the jam improved night vision and gave them a tactical advantage during evening sorties.
Intrigued by these reports, scientists studied bilberry and found it contained bioflavonoids called anthocyanosides. These antioxidant compounds help prevent free-radical damage and capillary fragility, according to Hobbs. They also help the eyes adapt to darkness.
"Bilberry can help protect the retina because of its high bioflavonoid content," Hobbs says, "but it acts preventively rather than curatively. It also helps improve poor night vision if it's due to a deficiency in certain coloring pigments our eyes require."
However, bilberry won't help poor vision due to misshapen eyes, near- and farsightedness, or cataracts, Hobbs notes.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a well-researched herb that may improve retinal deterioration and a host of other ailments such as memory loss, tinnitus and poor circulation, according to research reports.
"Ginkgo is a leading herb for treating retinal deterioration," Hobbs says. "It's a free-radical scavenger and also acts preventively by increasing the flow of blood and nutrients to the retina."
If you endure frequent eyestrain, passionflower my help, Hobbs says. This calming herb, used to treat insomnia and nervousness, also helps relax the eyes' small blood vessels.
Sties and conjunctivitis may respond to traditional remedies such as eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) or goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).
Although eyebright's benefits are not scientifically verified, herbalists successfully use it to treat conjunctivitis, Hobbs notes. Goldenseal's antibacterial effect has been scientifically documented. This potent herb, listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from 1830 to 1955, helps reduce inflammation and was often used by Kickapoo Indians to treat eye irritation from autumn prairie smoke.
American explorer Meriwether Lewis first recorded goldenseal's use by Native Americans in 1804. "A sovereign remedy for sore eyes," wrote Lewis in his diary after watching Cherokee Indians make an eye-wash from goldenseal tea.
Eye exercises also help improve eye health, according to eye-care experts. If you spend long hours reading, squeeze your eyes shut for a few seconds to increase blood flow to the area. Bathing your eyes in ice water also stimulates blood circulation.
If you look at a computer screen or other close objects for a long time, look away at distant objects every so often. To reduce eyestrain, position your computer away from bright light sources such as windows and artificial lights.
And always consult a competent ophthalmologist or optometrist for any vision problem or before starting a preventive eye-care program.
Sue Frederick is author of A Mother's Guide to Raising Healthy Children, and she's the Editor of Holistic.com.