Medical science doesn't really know why or how most poor eyesight develops, yet it wrongly believes that eyesight almost always worsens, and that nothing can be done about it-almost as if the eyes have a mind of their own, and all we can do is stand idly by as they deteriorate.
But we don't have to be passive victims of eye disease. Marc Grossman, O.D., and co-author Glen Swartwout, O.D., routinely improve their patients' eyesight and eye conditions with natural therapies. In their book, Natural Vision Care, to be published this year by Keats Publishing, Grossman and Swartwout outline diet, nutrition, and natural remedies to prevent and cure eye problems such as glaucoma, cataracts, conjunctivitis, dry eyes, and macular degeneration. In a question and answer session with VL, Grossman explained their program for eye health:
VL: Why have people come to think that eye care is not something we personally can do much about?
MG: First of all, eye care in this country is symptom-oriented. In our training as eye doctors, we're taught that, once something goes wrong with your eyes, there's not much that can be done. And we're not taught anything about prevention of problems; we're told to treat the eye as a separate organ from the rest of the body. People are taught that eye problems are just a natural consequence of the normal course of aging, but I routinely help people improve their vision and treat eye diseases. I'm interested in an aggressive prevention program. Eye doctors are the only doctors who don't learn that eye problems are a sign that something is wrong in our body, and that many eye diseases and problems can be prevented and corrected.
VL: What's wrong with routine treatments for eye conditions?
MG: For example, if you need glasses, we will prescribe them, you'll pay us and thank us, and in a couple of years, the prescription may not be good enough and you'll come back and sit behind the machine and thank us and pay us again. If you have glaucoma, same thing: You come to us, we may give you eyedrops, you pay us and thank us, and you'll probably be on these eyedrops for the rest of your life.
We have to look at vision the same way that Chinese medicine looks at disease. The eye is an extension of brain tissue, and it reflects what you're thinking and feeling; the eyes help us adapt to the world, and they give us an indication of how we're adapting to the world. They're the primary way we take in information. We have to stop just looking at the eyeball and see how every body system is working.
For instance, nearsightedness doesn't just happen. Did you know that 95 percent of all accountants are nearsighted, but less than 5 percent of farmers are? That's because accountants usually don't look farther than their desktops, and farmers are usually looking out on the horizon. The brain says, "If you make me do close work all day, I'll have to give up something," and that something is the ability to see at a distance, so, obviously, how we use our eyes affects what happens to them. But that is never addressed by most eye doctors.
VL: Give an example of an eye condition, its routine treatment, why it's unacceptable, and why natural remedies are better.
MG: Let's say you're 36 years old, and you have borderline high intraocular pressure, which is a possible sign of glaucoma. The doctor will test your visual field to make sure your peripheral vision is not affected. If your visual field is fine, your optic nerve is OK, and the pressure is borderline, the doctor will just watch it. There's nothing preventive that is given to help the pressure.
But in Chinese medicine, high pressure means a stagnation of qi (energy) in the liver, so we treat the liver with herbs such as milk thistle, dandelion, bilberry, and ginkgo to get the circulation moving. Sometimes, glaucoma is an indication that the neck area needs chiropractic care or acupuncture. Exercise also has been shown to lower intraocular pressure. Diet is important too; vitamin C has been shown to lower pressure.
Then let's look at glaucoma psychologically: Glaucoma usually means the patient has suppressed anger and frustration, so I have the patient deal with that.
VL: In your forthcoming book, you suggest a program for eye health involving diet, exercise, acupressure, and supplements. Would you please explain it for us?
MG: Holistically, you are more than an interesting set of symptoms that must be eradicated with the proper drug. You are a complex human being functioning on several levels: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We take all of these levels into consideration when we treat a patient, because merely quelling the physical symptoms of disease doesn't address how that disease impacts and emerges from all of those other levels of your being. Treating your eyes is no different.
These treatments-nutrition, Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupressure, herbs, physical exercise, eye exercises, spinal adjustments, and homeopathy-offer natural methods of balancing the multifaceted cause of disease.
We start with nutrition, because more than 25 percent of the nutrients we absorb from our food go to nourish our visual system. The diet plan we prescribe emphasizes a variety of whole foods, because the body does not use each vitamin and mineral in isolation. The absence of one nutrient can affect the body's ability to use another.
The diet we recommend is based on whole grains-brown rice, millet, kamut, quinoa, spelt, and buckwheat. Because they are so high in minerals, we also recommend sea vegetables, such as dulse, arame, hijiki, nori, and wakame; and, also for their high vitamin and mineral content, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, particularly kale, collards, mustard greens, and spinach. Greens are a particularly good source of a certain type of carotenoid that helps protect optic nerve fibers.
But no matter how wholesome and pure our food might be, there are factors that affect its nutrient content: How it is grown, how it is stored, and how it is cooked. Your age, health, activity level, and stress also can affect what your body needs and how well it's using the nutrients from your diet. This is where supplements come in handy. We routinely recommend vitamin and mineral supplements to our patients.
There are a couple of Chinese herbal formulas we use that are specific to eye treatment. And we usually recommend acupressure to our patients because it releases muscular tension and promotes the circulation of blood and qi to aid healing.
Besides relieving pain, acupressure can rebalance qi throughout the body. We've found acupressure to be very beneficial in the treatment of eye disease, and we recommend it in our book because it is easy, it doesn't cost anything, and you can do it yourself.
We also recommend eye exercises, and we have found that patients with vision problems greatly improve when spinal adjustment is added to the therapy; this ensures that the spinal cord is free from muscular contraction, tension, and mechanical nerve pressure, perhaps from a dislocated vertebrae. Any of these problems can interfere with tissue nourishment and adequate nerve flow, which the eyes need to function and especially to heal.
VL: You emphasize daily exercise. How can exercise improve my vision?
MG: Everyone takes for granted that you have to use your muscles to keep them fit. If we know for certain that exercising muscles is important for health and performance, why not regularly exercise our eye muscles to improve our visual fitness?
Exercise is extremely important in the prevention of chronic eye diseases, because it raises oxygen levels in the cells and increases lymph and blood circulation. From a Chinese standpoint, eye problems mean there is stagnant energy, and exercise gets rid of the stagnation. This increased circulation revitalizes the organs and glands and speeds up detoxification of the body. Any exercise that helps your body aerobically without causing injury would be helpful. We recommend that you gently build up to aerobic exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes per day, four days a week.
VL: What are some important tips to keep our eyes healthy?
MG: Don't keep your eyes focused in one place for a sustained period of time. Change your focus a few times a day: Look up, look out the window, just keep your eyes moving. Sustained contraction of the eyes leads to a contraction of the entire upper body (and, as we discussed before, your brain needs to know that you need your eyes for more than just close vision). By the same token, don't stare: It causes tension in the whole visual system.
Get at least 20 minutes of natural sunlight a day. Go for a walk or get full-spectrum lighting. The eyes are light-sensing systems. It's important to get enough sunlight so that they work optimally; it's a nutrient. But wear UV-protective sunglasses to protect your eyes from damaging sun rays. (Sunlight has been implicated in several eye diseases.)
Quit smoking! It's the number one eye irritant. Besides, smokers have a 50 to 100 percent increased risk for every single eye disease because of the damage by the free radicals created by cigarette smoke.
Avoid sugar; it depletes the body of nutrients the eyes need. Avoid alcohol; it causes stress to the liver, which is where vitamin A is processed. (Vitamin A is essential to good vision.)
VL: What are the most important supplements for eye health?
MG: All of the antioxidants-beta carotene and vitamins C, and E-have been shown to reduce damage to the eyes.
Low levels of beta carotene (provitamin A) virtually double your risk for macular degeneration and increase your risk for cataracts. Glaucoma patients tend to be deficient in vitamin A; it permits good drainage and keeps the intraocular pressure down. In parts of the world where vitamin A deficiency is widespread, severe dry eye syndrome is a leading cause of blindness. We recommend around 15,000 IU per day of beta carotene.
Vitamin C can both prevent and heal cataracts. In parts of Europe and Asia, it's considered routine treatment for glaucoma, because it lowers eye pressure in several ways. Vitamin C also acts as a natural UV filter for the eyes and may slow the aging process in the retina. People with low levels of vitamin C stand two to three times the risk for macular degeneration. We recommend 1,500 mg per day.
Vitamin E has been shown to reduce eye pressure, and low levels have been shown to increase cataract risk. Vitamin E deficiency is believed to be a cause of macular degeneration. We recommend 400 IU per day.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) has accumulated 40 years of research confirming its benefits for the eyes. In one study, a combination of bilberry and vitamin E stopped cataract formation in 97 percent of the patients-without side effects. It can improve night vision, relieve visual fatigue, and protect the eyes from glaucoma and macular degeneration. We recommend 300 mg per day.
Ginkgo increases blood circulation to the head, so it has the potential for more rapid healing of all tissues associated with vision. It's a powerful antioxidant, and it has been shown to increase visual acuity in people with macular degeneration. We recommend 100 mg per day.
Lutein and zeaxanthin: These two carotenoids appear to reduce your risk for macular degeneration. Eating collard greens and spinach once a week was enough to lower risk by 46 percent, according to a Harvard study. We recommend 20 mg per day.