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Alternative Treatments for Macular Degeneration

Try these alternative treatments for macular degeneration, includes Q and A with leading natural health experts.
By the Mother Earth Living editors
September/October 2005
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Try these alternative treatments for macular degeneration. People who don’t eat much lycopene have twice the risk of developing macular degeneration.
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These alternative treatments for macular degeneration include herbal, supplement and dietary suggestions to help with this particular eye problem.

Read about alternative treatments that can be used to treat hay fever: Alternative Treatments for Hay Fever.

Alternative Treatments for Macular Degeneration

Are there any herbs, foods or supplements that can help with macular degeneration? Thank you.
H.Z.
Los Angeles

Keville responds: A number of herbs can help delay the progression of macular degeneration. Several formulas incorporating these herbs are available in health-food stores. One of the foremost herbs to consider is bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Its use for macular degeneration and other eye disorders is backed by excellent research. It contains flavonoids called anthocyanosides that strengthen blood vessels and connective tissue and improve circulation in the eye. Bilberry is most available in capsules.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) stimulates blood flow not only to the brain to help you think better, but also to the eyes, making it a good herb to try for macular degeneration.

Chinese medicine practitioners connect good eye health with the liver. They recommend taking liver-en- hancing herbs, such as bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense).

It’s important to eat a low-fat diet and avoid eating fried foods. Fish oil seems to help a number of eye problems and is especially important to the eye’s retina. You can take it as a supplement—many varieties are available.

Although it isn’t known exactly what brings on macular degeneration, the disease is associated with aging. Most holistic practitioners believe that anything you can do to reverse the aging process is beneficial. This means getting plenty of exercise and consuming a healthy diet with as few refined foods, including sugar, as possible. Relaxing your eyes with eye exercises also may be helpful. In fact, so is relaxation in general.

A particularly important nutrient for eye health is beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A in the body. Some good sources are carrots, kale, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, peas and raw tomatoes.

Harvard Medical School researchers found that people who eat foods high in two other carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, were less likely to have eye problems. These nutrients also are found in dark, leafy vegetables, especially collard greens and spinach. They are best absorbed when eaten with fatty foods. Lutein and zeaxanthin also are available as supplements.

The natural red pigment called lycopene—what makes tomatoes red—is related to beta-carotene, but is an even stronger antioxidant. It’s also found in watermelon and pink grapefruit. People who don’t eat much lycopene have twice the risk of developing macular degeneration. It is thought that, even if you have already developed the condition, lycopene will slow its development.

Khalsa responds: The retina, located on the rear surface of the eyeball, is about the size of a dime. The macula, a yellow spot in the visual center, provides the clear, sharp, central vision that you use for focusing on what is in front of you.

In macular degeneration, a disease of the elderly, retinal function declines, destroying central vision. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of severe visual loss in the United States and Europe in people 55 and older. The retina is rich in blood supply and exceptionally fragile. This microvasculature requires adequate nutrients to perform normally.

AMD is either dry (inadequate blood supply) or wet (leakage from “rickety” blood vessels). AMD can be halted, and in some cases, the damage reversed to a certain extent.

Ayurvedic herbs used for this condition include triphala (a popular combination of herbs) and the tonic ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). An Ayurvedic formula containing triphala was assessed in a clinical trial of 48 retinopathic eyes. The formula rapidly cleared retinal hemorrhaging and reduced recurrences.

In a study of 40 patients, published in Phytotherapy Research in 2001, pycnogenol extract (Pinus pinaster) helped slow the progression of retinopathy by sealing the leaky capillaries. The group taking 50 mg of pycnogenol three times daily showed no decline in retinal function, and some improved.

The macula is rich in the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. A 1994 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 6 mg of lutein a day, included in a vegetable-rich diet, significantly lowers the risk of advanced macular degeneration.

Bilberry has become especially associated with vision benefits. It may assist in reducing AMD risk. The extract prevents free radical damage to cells and capillaries that can weaken their membranes. The result is stronger, more flexible capillaries and cell walls. Capillaries that can stretch without breaking or leaking allow blood to flow better to feed the retina, which strengthens retinal connective tissue, making it an all-around ideal remedy for macular degeneration.

Bilberry extract, standardized to contain 25 percent anthocyanosides, is generally taken in doses of up to 240 to 480 mg daily. Because bilberry is a species of European blueberry, it is thought that the entire blueberry family, which includes huckleberry and cranberry, probably would work just as well and be more available and less expensive than high-tech European standardized extracts.

Also, consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially spinach and collard greens, is associated with a lower risk of AMD.

Kathi Keville is the director of the American Herb Association (www.ahaherb.com) and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild. Khalsa’s book Body Balance is available on our Bookshelf, page 58.

Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; fax (785) 274-4305; or e-mail us at letters@herbsforhealth.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential.

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.


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