Photo of beautiful eyes close up
Start protecting your eyes now to avoid vision loss as you get older

Seeing the benefits – protecting your vision

27 November, 2012

Our eyes are vital and complex organs.

They are very sensitive instruments that are prone to wear and tear and can become damaged if they are exposed toxic substances (e.g. smoke in the environment, chemicals in cosmetic products), to too much light or if they are undernourished.

They are also easily stressed and strained, ad these days there are plenty of sources of eyestrain. We stare at screens big and small sometimes for hours each day, we live in pollute cities and work in stuffy offices, often without attention to adequate light. Most of us also work and  live in dry, centrally heated homes.

All of these things can combine to gradually damage eye health. This can take the form of Cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration – one of the most common causes of poor vision as we age.

Macular degeneration occurs when the cells of the macula – the central portion of the retina – becomes damaged and stop functioning. The retina is a thin layer of light-sensitive tissue that stretches across the back of the eye. It functions like a screen onto which all visual images are projected.

The role of the macula is to view complex images: It allows us to focus on objects directly in front of us; enables us to see fine detail during activities such as reading, writing, sewing and driving; and determines our capacity to distinguish colour.

Most authorities agree that macular degeneration is most common with advancing age and is the result of free radical damage to the eye. While there appears to be no cure for it no cure for it, there are several ways you can help prevent it.

Pay attention to diet and health

The eyes are hungry organs and high levels of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, as well as zinc, selenium, copper and glutathione – an antioxidant composed of the amino acids cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine – are all naturally present in the macula and necessary for the  maintenance and repair of the ocular surface.

There is copious evidence for the role of two particular antioxidants – lutein and zeaxanthin – in maintaining eye health. Carotenoid composition varies between internal organs suggesting selective uptake or metabolism of these nutrients. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only carotenoids found in the eye. Research suggests, for instnace, that the body absorbs and then deposits lutein in two different parts of the eye – the macula (the bright yellow spot at the centre of the retina) and the lens.

  • Deeply coloured foods such as spinach, collard greens, and kale are particularly rich in carotenoids, especially lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in a wide range of foods including mango, papaya, oranges, peaches, kiwi, spinach, squash, peas, lima beans, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, lettuce, prunes, pumpkin, sweet potato and honeydew melon. These nutrients have an affinity for the part of the retina where macular degeneration occurs. In one study people who ate spinach daily suffered only one-tenth as much age-related macular degeneration (AMD) as those who seldom ate it. For patients with the condition, eating spinach prevented worsening. Similarly people who eat red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene, another antioxidant, are also at low risk of developing AMD.
  • Oily fish. People who eat fish more than once per week have half the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration compared with people who eat fish less than once per month.
  • Avoid hidden salicylates. Cut out processed foods, especially anything with a ‘flavouring’ or a ‘colouring’ (even if it is “natural”) as these may contain salicylate.  The artificial flavourings in everything from crisps to toothpaste contain aspirin-like chemicals known as salicylates. The typical Western diet includes enough processed foods to provide the equivalent of more than one children’s aspirin daily. A diet high in salicylates can leech vital antioxidants from your system making them less available to your eyes.
  • Green tea (unprocessed, preferably organic) may contain antioxidants that help slow or even halt progression of AMD
  • Regular exercise can help keep your blood pressure within normal range as effectively as many drugs. Watching your weight and eating a diet low in fat and high fruits and vegetables are also protective.
  • Lose weight. There is evidence that women who are overweight may have trouble metabolising the eye protective carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin or metabolise them more slowly.
  • Other strategies that may work include using a humidifier, especially in the winter, eye exercises and purposefully blinking more often during your day.

Helpful supplements

Nutritional supplements and herbs may help slow the progress of vision loss as we age. If you haven’t considered them before try these:

  • Vitamins can reduce the risk of severe vision loss by 25% in some patients with AMD. The specific daily amounts used in this study were: vitamin C, 500 mg; vitamin E, 400 iu; beta carotene, 15 mg (often labelled as equivalent to 25,000 iu of vitamin A); zinc (as zinc oxide), 80 mg; copper (as cupric oxide), 2 mg.
  • Boost antioxidants. Many antioxidant vitamins including A C and E but also selenium can help prevent AMD. Supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin can help retard the process of AMD In one study the incidence and severity of AMD was reduced by 43% through supplementation.
  • Ginkgo biloba may help improve circulation and is antioxidant. Consider taking 120 mg a day. Oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs) from grape seed-skin or bilberry extract have a powerful antioxidant effect. A useful dose is 200-300 mg a day from grape seed-skin or 150 mg a day from bilberry extract.
  • Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a species of blueberry. It contains active flavonoid compounds, known as anthocyanins, act as antioxidants in the retina of the eye. Over-the-counter bilberry supplements are usually standardized to a concentration of 25% anthocyanins, but you may also benefit from a range of other bilberry preparations. In WWII British folklore RAF pilots used to eat bilberrry jam to improve their vision. Later studies have shown that bilberries do indeed help to protect the eye and prevent a range of diseases that lead to vision loss. Try taking 480–600 mg per day of an extract standardised to contain 25% anthocyanins, taken in capsules or tablets.

Toxins and daily wear and tear

Exposure to a range of toxins can accelerate vision loss. Our eyes are also subject to a lot of stress each day – some of which can be avoided or at least mitigated. Consider the following strategies to protect your eyes:

  • Quit smoking. Smoking has been linked to macular degeneration. Quitting smoking may reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration.
  • Be choosy about alcohol. Total alcohol consumption has not been linked to macular degeneration. But specific types of alcohol may have different effects. Beer, for instance, has been linked to increased risk of AMD, while wine drinkers were found to have a significantly lower risk of macular degeneration compared with those not drinking wine. Red grape juice may produce the same benefits without the risks of alcohol.
  • Clean cosmetics. Facial cosmetics and cleansers can seep through the eyelids and come into contact with the eye’s surface. Many cosmetics contain chemicals and their applicators can house unseen dirt and bacteria. Wash cosmetic applicators frequently and when you do wear eye makeup make sure it is from a quality organic source and as free from chemicals as it can be. When you can, choose to go without eye make-up to give your eyes a break
  • Computer strain. If you spend a significant amount of time using a computer each day, ensure that you take regular breaks, change your field of focus and perform simple eye exercises. Make sure also that your workstation is properly set up with your computer screen at eye level and that your computer screen is free of glare and the images displayed are clear and do not flicker.
  • Wear sunglasses, sometimes. Exposure to bright light is, according to convention, an important risk factor for AMD, and those at risk are advised to reduce their exposure to light wherever possible. And yet for the cells of the macula to remain healthy, periodically they need to divide; and they can’t do this without exposure to full-spectrum light.

Is it something else?

Eye health is linked to health elsewhere in the body. Certain underlying diseases such as diabetes can lead to AMD like symptoms.

The most important cause of AMD, however, is circulatory. AMD is a cousin of coronary heart disease, and shares with it several common ancestors such as atherosclerosis, hypertension and high cholesterol levels.

When these are treated, often the visual impairment improves and degeneration your vision can be avoided.