Ways of Seeing: Natural Eye Care Offers Alternatives to Glasses and Contact Lenses

More than 60 percent of all Americans wear some sort of prescription eyewear, reports the Virginia-based Vision Council of America, a trade association for the optical industry. Most of these people wear glasses. A growing number wear contact lenses. Some rely on a combination of both, often at the same time.

natural eye care
Illustration by Lisa Blackshear

The idea behind prescription eyewear is, of course, to correct imperfect vision. And for the most part, say medical experts, healthy vision can be restored to those with less than 20/20 eyesight quite easily with the right prescription and regular visits to an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Increasingly, however, those same experts are recommending alternative—or, at least, supplemental—eye care treatments.

The Laser Method

Perhaps most famous among such alternative treatments is laser surgery, a procedure in which doctors reshape the cornea by training a tiny beam of light on the eye. When all goes well, nearsighted and farsighted patients alike, as well as those with astigmatisms, end up with vastly improved, sometimes perfect vision. But things don’t always turn out as planned, and in a small minority of cases, patients end up far worse off than they were before the surgery. “Surgery is a quick fix,” says Jeffrey Anshel, author of Smart Medicine for Your Eyes and a holistic optometrist practicing in Carlsbad, California. “But it’s definitely not for everyone.” Chronically dry eyes, reduced night vision and permanent blindness, although rare, are all potential side effects.

Anshel prefers treating patients through a combination of nutritional counseling, vision therapy, acupressure and other natural means. In his practice, he stresses that good vision is a function of overall personal health. “The eyes are as much a part of the body as anything else,” says Anshel. “What’s good for the body is good for the eyes.”

Andrew Iwach, a San Francisco-based ophthalmologist and a spokes-person for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, agrees. By staying healthy (and monitoring health through annual physicals), sticking to a balanced diet and scheduling regular eye exams, says Iwach, you can greatly reduce your chances of developing debilitating eye diseases like glaucoma and cataracts.

Iwach also recommends being especially careful in the sun. Overexposure to UV light can potentially damage the cornea, and studies have shown that prolonged exposure can cause cataracts and macular degeneration, both of which are leading causes of blindness in the elderly. “The eye is a sensitive organ,” says Iwach. “Wear a hat or a visor for protection.” The American Academy of Ophthalmology also suggests donning sunglasses capable of blocking 99 to 100 percent of UV rays.

Nutrition’s Role

According to the Vision Council of America, foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, such as spinach, kale, amaranth, spirulina and mustard greens, have been shown to provide eyes with a natural means to filter potentially damaging sunlight.

Medical studies, though relatively scarce, support the idea that nutrition plays an integral role in maintaining healthy vision. People with high levels of antioxidants, like beta-carotene and vitamins A, C and E, have been shown to be at a reduced risk of macular degeneration and cataract development. Vitamin A is present in milk fat, egg yolk, fish oil, carrots, peaches, peas and other foods. Vitamin E can be found in wheat germ, vegetable oils, leafy green vegetables, nuts and elsewhere. And vitamin C is most concentrated in foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, melons, leafy greens and raw cabbage.

Other eye essentials, such as vitamin B1, or thiamin (found in pork, legumes, whole-grain cereals and breads, wheat germ and potatoes), can prevent cataracts by reinforcing the optic nerve and guarding the retina from cell damage. Zinc oxide (in shellfish, eggs, legumes and milk) helps with night vision and lowers the incidence of cataracts and glaucoma. Vitamin B2, or riboflavin (in green vegetables, liver, wheat germ, eggs and cheese), alleviates eye fatigue by helping to regulate blood flow to the cornea. Finally, the fruit of the bilberry shrub (Vaccinium mytrillus), especially rich in eye-protective flavonoids and anthocyanidin compounds, has a demonstrated ability to reduce near-sightedness, improve night vision and prevent diabetic retinopathy. Most often consumed through standardized extracts, tinctures or concentrated drops, bilberry may also discourage cataracts and glaucoma.

While the nutritional component of eye care is slowly catching on among traditional optometrists and ophthalmologists, other natural treatments have not been as popular. “Doctors tend to shy away from what they consider to be alternative medicine,” says Florida-based optometrist George Schmidt. “It’s unfortunate.” A specialist in what he calls “integrative eye care,” Schmidt relies on both mainstream medicine and decidedly non-mainstream therapies like hypnotism to help his patients recover vision loss associated with diabetes and macular degeneration. He also recommends taking nutritional supplements to help prevent vision loss in the first place. “The most important thing you can do is take a good multivitamin daily,” says Schmidt. “And eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”

In Malibu, California, ophthalmologist Deborah Banker practices a similar form of “complimentary medicine.” The idea is that the health of the entire body, as well as nutrition, attitude and emotions, all play important parts in determining visual acuity. Conversely, says Banker, the eyes act as extremely sensitive barometers for measuring an individual’s overall physical and mental well being. Banker, the author of Self Help Vision Care, has her patients do yoga, tai chi, ballet and stretching and breathing exercises to reduce stress in their bodies. By decreasing body tension, tensions in the eye muscles also decrease, allowing for better blood circulation to oxygen-sensitive eye tissue and, ultimately, better vision. “The goal,” says Banker, “is to find the true reason for visual deterioration. Genetics may be part of the problem, but they’re definitely not the only problem.” Banker also uses electromagnetic therapy, acupuncture and massage, as well as eye-specific relaxation exercises to get the job done. By combining these treatments with a series of under-prescriptions (designed to force the eye to work beneath the lens and focus on its own), her patients gradually improve their vision.

Exercise that Eye

Eye exercises, though no doubt considered “alternative” by most doctors, have been well known to many in the Western world since the early 1900s, when an ophthalmologist named William Bates pioneered the art of vision therapy. Bates noticed his patients” eyesight deteriorated when he prescribed glasses. He concluded that glasses could temporarily correct the symptoms, but they failed to treat the causes of poor eyesight. He decided to teach his patients how to improve their vision naturally, through exercises, exposure to sunlight and eye-mind coordination techniques. Today, his ideas, taken collectively, are known as the “Bates Method.”

“The premise,” explains Jerriann Taber, a Bates Method instructor and founder of the Vision Training Institute in El Cajon, California, “is that strain in the mind interferes with the focusing muscles of the eyes.” If you can teach your mind to focus, says Taber, and relieve the emotional stresses that are so much a part of modern-day living, visual improvement is virtually guaranteed. Following weeks, months or even years of ritualistic eye exercises and relaxation techniques, many of Taber’s students do away with corrective lenses altogether. “You have to stick with it and have faith in yourself,” says Taber. “It’s a transformation process, not the quickest, easiest route.”