Herb Feature

The Vision Herb

Aren’t our eyes absolutely amazing? They take the light beams bouncing off the objects that we are looking at, convert it into electrical signals in the retina, pass these messages along our optic nerves, and present them to the visual cortex in our marvelous brains to decode them and create images which accurately reflect our external world. Eyes are beautiful, mysterious and complex, and they are one of the most expressive and communicative features that we humans have. Unfortunately many things can go wrong with them: from the destruction of the retinal cells found in macular degeneration, to the damaging effects of excess fluid pressure found in glaucoma, to the toxic effects of uncontrolled glucose levels in diabetes, our eyes are sensitive and need to be looked after. Apart from a healthy diet, exercise and protecting your eyes from polarized light (wearing sunglasses when exposed to reflected glare), what else can we do to protect our precious eyes?

One of the best herbal medicines for our eyes is Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtyllis). Bilberry is related to the blueberry plant, but contains much more of the beneficial plant molecules, called phytochemicals, that support our vision. The Bilberry plant grows in the wild mountainous regions of Europe and the United States, and reaches around 60cm in height. The ripe fruit of the Bilberry is very dark blue or purple, and the flesh of the fruit is purple; as opposed to the creamy-white colour of the Blueberry fruit. Historically, Bilberry has been used to treat scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency), coughs, bladder stones, disorders of the liver and gall bladder, and even Tuberculosis! In modern times, the juice or extracts’ astringent/ healing properties have been used for relieving inflammation of the mouth and throat, diarrhoea and dysentery.

By far the most promising benefits of Bilberry, however, are the use of this delicious herbal medicine in vascular (blood vessel) disorders, and conditions of the eye, particularly the retina. The blood vessels in your body are made from specialized endothelial cells, cylindrical tubes of smooth muscle and connective tissue (e.g. collagen and elastin). Your retina is the highly vascular tissue layer found at the back of the interior of your eyeball. The blood vessels and photoreceptors (light receptors) project into the cell and help to convert photons (light energy from our Sun) into nerve signals which our brain then interprets as colours, objects, people, animals, potential sources of danger or pleasure or love. But being exposed to this light energy can damage our sensitive retinal cells, and this is where Bilberry can help! This wonderful berry is very rich in anthocyanins, which are super-powerful antioxidants; they neutralize the free radicals produced by the photons, and strengthen the capillaries (tiny blood vessels) in your retina by cross-linking collagen fibres. Other nutrients found in bilberry fruit include vitamins and pectin, which have benefits for other cells and tissues, including your gut cells.

In addition to the antioxidant and connective tissue strengthening properties, Bilberry reduces bruising and bleeding, reduces excessive blood clotting, reduces inflammatory compounds (prostaglandins, leukotrienes, histamine) and to lower elevated blood glucose levels. The combination of these makes Bilberry invaluable for people with diabetes: protecting the eyes, kidneys, blood vessels and reducing elevated blood sugar is the perfect combination to reduce the toxic effects of elevated blood sugar. How sweet is that?!

Bilberry extract was found to improve the vision of British air force pilots during World War 2, improving their night visual sharpness (acuity), induce faster adjustment to darkness, and faster return of visual acuity following exposure to glare. Studies done later were found to duplicate these results. Other studies have shown benefit for people with the genetic eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, where the photoreceptors are damaged due to abnormal protein formation. People taking Bilberry Extracts showed a significant improvement in visual performance, as did people with Hemeralopia (“day-blindness”) where there is a genetic defect in the cones (colour receptors) of the eye. But it’s not only the retina that Bilberry can help: studies show that extracts can reduce the pressure build-up of the fluid in the anterior (front part) chamber of the eyeball in people with glaucoma. Bilberry can improve the meshwork that drains the aqueous humour found in the front of the eye; it’s the inadequate drainage of this fluid that causes the damage to the retina and potentially lead to blindness in glaucoma. Bilberry fruit extract has also been shown to prevent cataracts (clouding of the lenses), remove stagnation of blood in people with poor venous (veins) blood flow, improve microcirculation, reduce pain in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis, and help alleviate menstrual pain in women.

In summary, this is a very effective herbal medicine for a wide range of conditions and unlike many of the bitter medicinal plants we use in clinical practice, it actually tastes good! So, if you want to look after your eyes into the future as well as your kidneys, blood vessels, and heart, take a good look at a high quality Bilberry extract! But beware of low quality products, as this is one of the herbs that is often substituted. Talk to your Herbalist/ Naturopath for the best options. See you later!

David is a practicing Naturopath/ Herbalist. Contact: 07 4032 0038