Chamomile tea and your eyes
Recommendations for "natural" eye wash solutions range from chamomile to lavender oil to boric acid (!). As a doctor I find I have an inbuilt suspicion about many "herbal remedies" but on the whole, if the remedy does no harm, I have no objections. However, many patients have recently asked me about whether it is okay for them to used cold chamomile tea on their eyes. So, I thought it best to do some research to make sure that it did no harm and share some of the findings with you. In the 1640's Thomas Culpeper wrote a book entitled "Complete herbal". Under the entry Chamomile he wrote: "It is profitable for all sorts of agues that come either from phlegm, or melancholy, or from an inflammation of the bowels, being applied when the humours causing them shall be concocted". This is only a very brief excerpt from the list of things that chamomile could do according to Thomas. However, looking for more modern references on the website of the English chamomile company I found this list of things that chamomile could be used for:
Acne, analgesic, antibacterial, antidepressant, antiinfectious, antiinflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, black eyes, blisters, boils, bruises, burns, bursitis, chapped lips, chapped skin, chilblains, cold sores, conjunctivitis, coughs, diarrhea, disinfectant, diuretic, diverticulosis, dry skin, earaches, eczema, fainting, febrifuge, fibrositis, gingivitis, hair loss, headaches, heatstrokes, hiccups, influenza, insect bites, insomnia, laryngitis, nausea, neuralgia, nervine, psoriasis, rashes, rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, shock, sprains, sties, stress, sunburns, synovitis, toothaches, upper abdominal pain, urticaria, whitlows, wounds.
Quite a list! This instantly makes me suspicious, especially when it states that "the value of naturally derived ingredients for all manner of products has been scientifically proven" but fail to reference even one article! If it is that good why aren't we taught about it in medical school? The National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health in America have put all peer reviewed articles on a website available to the public at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi
Like me, you can enter key words such as 'chamomile' or 'camomile' and up will come all the scientific articles on the subject. Be warned, lots of articles will come up with any search, not all will be relevant to what you are searching for, so you may have to look through a few before coming up with something really useful.
Here is an extract from one useful abstract published in 2006:
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita L., Chamomilla recutita L., Matricaria chamomilla) is one of the most popular single ingredient herbal teas, or tisanes. Chamomile tea, brewed from dried flower heads, has been used traditionally for medicinal purposes. The main constituents of the flowers include several phenolic compounds, primarily the flavonoids apigenin, quercetin, patuletin, luteolin and their glucosides. The principal components of the essential oil extracted from the flowers are the terpenoids alpha-bisabolol and its oxides and azulenes, including chamazulene. Chamomile has moderate antioxidant and antimicrobial activities. Animal model studies indicate potent antiinflammatory action and anxiolytic effects. However, human studies are limited, and clinical trials examining the purported sedative properties of chamomile tea are absent (1).
There was one study showing that constituents of wild chamomile have been shown to prevent the aggregation of E. Coli (2). E. Coli is a bacteria that commonly causes urinary tract infections and diorrhoea – if you have this bug in your eye, I think you will need more than some cold tea to help! I could not find anything on the effect of chamomile on Staphylococcus – one of the common causes of blephatitis. What did concern me was the number of articles (60 or more) outlining the possible nasty side effects of chamomile tea, in particular on the eyes. Chamomile can cause an allergic conjunctivitis – which could cause worse symptoms of itching and burning than those you were trying to cure (3,4). As we discussed on the section for blepharitis, rosacea is frequently associated with eye irritation. The most frequently used herbal compounds for rosacea include licorice, feverfew, green tea, oatmeal, lavender, chamomile, tea tree oil, and camphor oil. The utility of most of these herbs is based on their purported anti-inflammatory properties. Some of these herbs have proven effects, many have potential benefits, and some may aggravate rosacea (6). After all of this research I cannot tell you that chamomile will work, nor can I definitively say not to use it. There have been some reports of the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects of chamomile, though this has not been tested in humans adequately. In addition, chamomile can cause allergic reaction when place on the skin. Be careful whenever you use these "natural" therapies. Just because a therapy is "natural" it does not mean that you cannot have an allergic reaction to it. If your symptoms worsen, consider that the herbal remedy could be the culprit and seek medical attention.
To end, I will leave you with this quote that I loved from a rather more honest review of the use of chamomile: "A lot of modern herbals recommend chamomile compresses to enliven tired eyes. I've tried this out. The teabags are an easier option than making the compress, both leave your eyes feeling fresh and sparkly, and both leave you with a pale brown circle around your eye – so unless you are a big fan of pancake make-up I wouldn't recommend doing this before a night out."
- A review of the bioacticity and potential health benefits of chamomile tea (Matricaria recutita L.) McKay DL, Blumberg JB. Phytotherapy Research, July 2006; 20(7): 519-30.
- Action of aqueous extracts of bearberry and cowberry leaves and wild chamomile and pineapple-weed flowers on Escherichia coli surface structures. Turi, E; Turi, H; Annuk, H; Arak, E. Pharmaceutical biology, April 1999; 37(2): 127-133.
- Allergic conjunctivitis to chamomile tea. Subiza J, Subiza JL, Alonso M, Hinojosa M, Garcia R, Jerez M, Subiza E. Ann Allergy, 1990; 65(2):127-32.
- Contact allergy to herbal teas derived from Asteraceae plants. Lundh, K; Hindsen, M; Gruvberger, B et al. Contact dermatitis, April 2006; 54(4): 196-201.
- Ocular side effects from herbal medicines and nutritional supplements. Fraunfelder, F. American Journal of Ophthalmology, October 2004; 138(4): 639-647.
- Treatment of rosacea with herbal ingredients. Wu, J. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. Jan 2005; 5(1): 29-32.