Natural Eye Care:
A Comprehensive Manual for Practitioners of Oriental Medicine
by Marc Grossman, O.D., L.Ac, and Michael Edson, M.S., L.Ac.
Pub. Visionworksusa, Inc., 2002, 230 pp.
A cataract can be described simply as an opaque spot on the lens of the eye that you cannot see through. At best, you seem to be looking through a cloud or a haze. As this haze can vary in size, density and location, its effect on vision will vary. Many people experience a general reduction in vision at first; they need more light to read by or they have difficulty with street signs when they're driving. A cataract also can affect depth perception. This can be a particular danger to older people whose risk for injury from falls and accidents is greatest.
Cataracts tend to worsen over time. They are the major cause of blindness in the world. Almost 40 million people in the United States suffer from cataracts. Only 15 per cent of people are affected with cataracts by age 55, but the figure jumps to 50 per cent by age 75, and 90 per cent by age 85. Cataract removal is the most common surgical procedure covered by Medicare with almost 600,000 surgeries performed per year.
Of all the eye diseases, cataracts are the most amenable to treatment with conventional medical methods. The standard treatment is to remove the lens using a technique called phacoemulsification. A surgeon uses an ultrasonic beam to break up the hardened lens, and then vacuums up the pieces from the eye with a suction device. An artificial lens, called an intraocular lens or IOL, is inserted to replace the cataract lens.
Though I recommend cataract surgery to my patients with severe vision loss, I believe that a cataract is a symptom of an underlying condition. It signals that the natural processes of your body are breaking down on some level, and that the normal flow of nutrients into the eyes and waste products out of the eyes has been compromised. Treating the underlying condition that causes the cataract is vital. Even people preparing for cataract surgery should seek to improve their overall health before they go through this invasive procedure. Because cataracts progress slowly over many years, there is often time for preventive measures to work quite successfully.
In the early stages of a cataract, surgery may not be necessary. Through nutritional and other complementary medical treatments, it is possible to slow and even reverse the growth of cataracts.
What causes senile cataracts?
Free radicals are responsible for most cataracts. Free radicals are the natural byproducts of metabolism. These highly reactive chemicals cause oxidation, which in turn causes aging. In a healthy eye, the body removes these free radicals by delivering "free radical scavengers" to the eyes in the form of nutrients such as vitamin C and glutathione. In addition, as the lens of the eye ages, it hardens and loses its ability to focus. This process is similar to hardening of the arteries.
Cataract surgery is performed when the cataract is considered "ripe enough."
See chapter 9 for Vision Diet
Whenever possible, a nutritional program should be maintained for at least three to four months before considering cataract surgery. Maintaining a low calorie diet is clearly beneficial. Animal studies show that cutting calories 20 to 40 per cent results in a 30 to 50 per cent reduction in cataracts, as well as a 30 per cent increase in longevity, increased immune function and decreased risk of cancer.
High levels of sugar in the blood contribute to cataract formation, so it is not surprising that people with diabetes are three to four times at risk for getting cataracts. Blood sugar interferes with the lens's ability to pump out excess fluid from the eye and maintain its clarity. With too much dietary intake of sugar, this function can become difficult and sometimes impossible. Cataract prevention is especially important for people with diabetes, because diabetic retinopathy can accelerate for six months following cataract surgery.
- Reduce or eliminate all types of refined sugars (particularly white sugar, but also fructose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, maltose, dextrose, glucose and refined carbohydrates). This includes "natural" drinks that contain a lot of sugar, including all fruit juices. Even milk sugar, lactose, found in all dairy products, can contribute to cataract formation, as it destroys gluthathione and Vitamin C in the lens.
- Drink eight glasses of water per day (preferably filtered or purified). This is optimally taken as a four-ounce glass of water every half-hour-to equal 16 four-ounce glasses. Our bloodstream can only handle being diluted by about four ounces at any one time. When you drink more than four ounces at a time, this means more work for the kidneys to filter water that hasn't had a chance to travel through the lymph system and clean body tissues. Adequate water intake helps to maintain the flow of nutrients to the lens and to release wastes and toxins from tissues.
- Eat foods high in beta-carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin E. These substances are called antioxidants, and most of the nutritional components of cataract prevention and reversal are related to boosting antioxidant levels. Antioxidants are one of the most important combatants against free radicals, a major cause of cataract formation. A good diet supplemented with antioxidant vitamins and minerals can help prevent oxidation.
- Eat foods high in antioxidants, including garlic, onions, beans, vegetables, celery, seaweed, apples, carrots, tomatoes, turnips and oranges.
Some foods, particularly dairy products, can exacerbate eye problems by causing sinus congestion, which can impair lymph and blood drainage from the area around the eyes. When lymph and blood can't flow in and out of the eyes, nutrients don't reach the eyes, and toxins and metabolic wastes aren't eliminated as efficiently. Try avoiding dairy for a month to see whether you become less congested. Then reintroduce dairy products one at a time to identify your specific problem foods.
See Chapter 8, Section 5 for specific eye exercises
See Appendix 19 for recommended dosages and products
An optimal potency multivitamin is an important foundation of any cataract prevention program. The following describes the role of some of the essential nutrients in treating cataracts.
- Vitamin C: We have long known that Vitamin C can both prevent and heal cataracts. The normal, healthy lens contains a higher level of Vitamin C than any other body organ except the adrenal glands. When cataracts are forming, however, the Vitamin C level in the lens is very low. Similarly, the Vitamin C level in the aqueous humor, which supplies nutrition to the lens, is also low when cataracts are forming. This reduction in Vitamin C is due to the eye's impaired ability to secrete Vitamin C into the aqueous humor and the body's overall Vitamin C deficiency.
- bioflavonoid: Bioflavinoids, such as quercetin and rutin, are important antioxidants. They are synergistic with Vitamin C, meaning they need each other to work efficiently. Quercetin seems to be the most effective bioflavonoid in the prevention of cataracts. We recommend 1,000 mg per day.
- Glutathione: Low levels of glutathione are found in almost every person with senile cataracts. Glutathione is considered the most important antioxidant made by the body and is integrally involved in maintaining good vision. Glutathione is composed of three amino acids: cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid. Several nutrients can help increase glutathione levels, including N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B6, selenium and zinc.
- Alpha-lipoic acid: Alpha-lipoic acid has incredible benefits for healthy eye function. Dr. Lester Packer of the University of California at Berkeley has published important research on the ability of this antioxidant to halt complications resulting from blood sugar imbalances and hardening of the lens.
Dr. Packer's research has confirmed that oxidative damage results in cataract formation, and that increasing antioxidants, particularly alpha-lipoic acid, can help prevent or stop cataract formation. Other research has demonstrated alpha-lipoic acid's ability to protect the lens in newborn rats subjected to hardening and opaqueing substances.
- Avoid microwaves. Radiation leakage from microwave ovens are a direct cause of cataracts, so avoid constant peeking into the open door window while you cook. In addition, food proteins exposed to microwaves can become toxic to the lens that is made mostly of protein.
- Wear 100 per cent ultraviolet blocking sunglasses and a hat, since ultraviolet light from the sun can cause damage to the lens of the eye.
- Many synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals can cause cataracts. Steroids, for example, taken internally or applied to the skin, are a typical cause of cataracts because they block the normal metabolism of connective tissue of which the lens is composed.
- Cigarette smoking causes about 20 per cent of all cataracts. Men who smoke more than a pack a day increase their risk for cataracts by 205 per cent. For female smokers, the risk of getting cataracts increases 63 per cent. Quitting without supplementing the diet with additional vitamins and minerals doesn't seem to eliminate the increased risk for almost ten years, probably due to smoking having depleted antioxidant levels in the eye.
Oriental Medicine Approach
In TCM, senile cataracts often are seen as a result of a deficiency in the kidney and liver meridians. This causes a reduction of the energy and blood flow to the eyes, which leads to poor eye nutrition, resulting in opacity of the lens. The spleen meridian also plays a role in the nourishment of the eyes and, if dysfunctional, it can cause cataracts.
Chinese Herbal Formulas
See Appendix 7 for more details on the formulas and sources
- Dendrobium Pill for Night Vision (Shi Hu Ye Guang Wan) - Extinguishes liver wind and enriches the yin.
- Brighten the Eyes (Ming Mu Di Huang Wan) - Nourishes the liver, enriches the kidneys and improves vision.
- Preserve Vistas Pill (Zhu Jing Wan) - Tonifies and nourishes the liver and kidneys, enriches the yin and improves vision.
- Lycium Fruit, Chrysanthemum and Rehmannia Pill (Qi Ju Di Huang Wan) - Tonifies kidney yin, tonifies blood and clears the eyes.
Chinese Acupuncture Points:
Points BL 1, BL 2, GB 1, ST 1, GB 37, LI 4, SP 6, CV 4, ST 36, KI 3, Yu Yao, Qiuhou