Manage Macular Degeneration
Are there any herbs, foods or supplements that can help with
macular degeneration? Thank you.
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
Lutein significantly lowers the risk of advanced macular
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
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
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
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
Also, consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially spinach
and collard greens, is associated with a lower risk of AMD.
Hay Fever Fix-ups
I have hay fever and a problem with a lot of phlegm in my
throat. The phlegm is a year-round thing, but is worst in the
winter. I sometimes have trouble breathing and have to use an
inhaler. I have had X-rays and they say I don’t have asthma, but
pills for asthma seem to give me some relief. Can you help?
Pine River, Minnesota
Keville responds: Pills for asthma are designed
to help open the airways and clear away congestion, so it makes
sense that they would help you, as will the inhaler. Although you
may not have asthma, chances are that you are reacting to something
airborne in your environment. You likely have either an allergy,
which sets off an immune reaction, or a sensitivity, which causes
local irritation in your sinuses or throat. The fact that it gets
worse in winter when your house is probably more closed is a clue
that it is something indoors.
I suggest you not only work on eliminating the phlegm with
herbs, but also look around for possible causes. Start with common
allergy-causing substances, such as pet dander, dust mites, mold,
synthetically perfumed products and cleaning solutions, including
fabric detergents. Consider having your house heating ducts
cleaned. Keep in mind that it may be more than one thing.
Experiment with eliminating what you can to see if it makes a
difference. If that doesn’t help, you also can try eliminating for
a couple of weeks, one at a time, the foods you commonly eat to see
if that makes any difference.
No matter what we call your condition, the herbs we choose will
be a similar formula. Phlegm in the throat usually is a result of
postnasal drip. If that’s your case, then use one of my favorite
combinations to treat the sinuses — yarrow (Achillea millefolium),
elderflower (Sambucus nigra) and peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita).
Herbs that help alleviate sensitivities and allergies include
chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and echinacea (Echinacea spp.). If
your throat is irritated, use marshmallow root (Althaea
officinalis) to soothe it. These herbs are tasty enough to make
into a tea. Buy them dried in bulk and blend them in equal parts.
Using 1 teaspoon of herb per cup of water, bring the water to a
boil, add the herbs, cover and let steep for 15 minutes. You’ll
also find similar formulas available as tinctures or pills.
Sometimes sinus congestion stems from an infection. A lavender
(Lavandula angustifolia) steam will address either a fungal or
bacterial infection. Simply add a few drops of lavender essential
oil to a simmering pot of water, lean your face over it and inhale.
Place a towel over your head for a stronger dose. See if gargling
with a strong cup of mint tea with 1/8 teaspoon of salt relieves
the phlegm. This also can be used in a neti pot, which is a
technique used in Ayurvedic medicine to clear the sinuses. You
should start noticing a difference in a couple of weeks.
Herbs that dry your sinuses, such as goldenseal (Hydrastis
canadensis), also may be helpful. (Just be sure to purchase
cultivated rather than wildcrafted goldenseal.) Goldenseal isn’t
tasty, so take it in tincture or capsules.
Schisandra helps relieve coughs and other respiratory
Khalsa responds: You don’t specify the type of
asthma medication you’re using, but presumably it helps because it
is a bronchodilator, which increases airway diameter, reducing
blockage from phlegm, or a decongestant, such as ephedrine, which
dries mucous secretions.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) berry is outstanding for this
condition. Traditional Russian and Chinese medicines have long used
schisandra for a wide variety of conditions, including coughs and
other respiratory ailments, insomnia and kidney problems. Chinese
medicine practitioners consider it specific for asthma.
The seeds contain lignans, which are believed to be active
constituents. Modern Chinese research suggests that these lignans
stimulate the immune system, protect the liver, increase stress
coping and may produce a mild sedative effect.
The astringent qualities of the berry make it ideal for what the
Chinese call “preserving the essence”— keeping leaking fluids
retained where they belong. Used largely for the lungs (to arrest
mucous discharges), this quality also marks schisandra for
postnasal drip. In my experience as a clinical herbalist, this
remedy is especially effective for excess respiratory phlegm of the
type you describe.
By the way, in Asian medicine, this berry is essentially a
general tonic, used to “prolong the years of life without aging” —
a sort of “poor-man’s ginseng.”
Dried schisandra berries actually taste pretty good, so they can
be taken as a tea, or even cooked into food, such as soup broth.
You can find schisandra berries at Chinese herb shops and in bulk
at some health-food stores. This herb is quite mild, so feel free
to use as much as you care to. Use a high dose acutely, then a
small daily dose for maintenance. In Traditional Chinese Medicine,
the dose is 10 grams a day in food or tea.
Kathi Keville is the director of the American Herb Association
(www.Aha Herb.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. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage
therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he
specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing