Blindness is probably the most feared disability, yet we often don’t realise how much we can do to safeguard the health of our eyes, and how many common eye and vision problems can be prevented and treated.
Eye health depends on eating well, exercising, developing good computer habits and taking a few supplements, especially as you age. A wide range of nutritional supplements address specific ailments. Nutritional therapy can delay the progress or even reverse the course of eye disorders, but this requires consultation with a specialist in this area.
NOURISHMENT FOR THE EYES
For general eye health, consider adding the following to your daily intake:
Vitamin C. The aqueous fluid in the eye has one of the highest levels of vitamin C in the body, 30 times more than in the blood, so it makes sense to eat foods high in vitamin C, or take a supplement.
Antioxidants. All diseases are believed to have some relationship with free radicals and oxidation, and research shows that oxidation is involved in the development of virtually all eye disorders, including cataracts, retinal disease and glaucoma. Antioxidants are therefore a basic requirement for eye health. They can include vitamin E, carotene, coenzyme Q10, selenium and bioflavonoids.
Omega-3 fats are essential to the body. Where the eyes are concerned they regulate intra-ocular pressure, the constriction of blood vessels, thinning of blood, and moistening of the eyes. They also relieve spasms of the muscles controlling the eyelids, reduce sun sensitivity and bring down cholesterol levels.
The causes of eye problems often start elsewhere, such as with poor circulation or faulty digestion (resulting in nutrients not being adequately absorbed). If your eyes are troubling you, investigate the root causes and address them.
LIFE STAGES AND THE EYES
Throughout your life you should have periodic eye examinations to assess your vision and make sure you aren’t developing a potentially blinding eye disease.
1. YOUNG EYES – myopia
The prevalence of myopia, or near-sightedness, is increasing in children. This may be because these days they spend less time outdoors and more time in front of television screens, computers and cellphones. Outdoor activity seems to protect the eyes, and a 2008 study in Sydney found that increased time spent outdoors, rather than physical activity such as sport, was associated with less myopia.1 The authors postulated that light intensity outdoors may be a contributing factor, by increasing depth of field and decreasing image blur.
The primary factor causing myopia seems to be prolonged stress on near vision during the growing years, so limit the time your children spend watching television or working on computers. Encourage them to play outside!
2. AGEING EYES – cataracts and presbyopia
Nutritional requirements increase as you get older. With age the body produces fewer of its own antioxidants, and over time the oxidation process can slowly weaken its tissues. A low intake or impaired absorption of vitamin C (e.g. due to lack of hydrochloric acid in the digestive tract) may make the eyes prone to cataracts.
Cataracts, which usually affect people after the age of 60 (earlier in the chronically ill and those taking certain medications), can be prevented. Sun exposure, poor nutrition, smoking, high blood sugar levels and combinations of these put you at risk. Drugs such as cortisone, some acne drugs and any photo-sensitising drug also increase the risk of cataracts.
- All the nutrients listed under ‘Nourishing the eyes’ are important. In addition, glutathione levels in the lens must be optimised. The body is stimulated to make glutathione by the amino acid N-acetylcysteine and riboflavin (vitamin B2).
- Lutein and zeaxanthin are two of the most important antioxidants for eye health, especially for the prevention of cataracts. They are found in spinach and kale.
- Reduce alcohol intake. High intake, considered to be more than seven drinks a week, increases the risk of cataracts.
- Stop smoking – it also increases the risk of cata- racts.
- Too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, especially at midday, can cause cataracts. Wear UV-blocking sunglasses.
The change of vision people experience after the age of 40 is called presbyopia. It is thought to be caused by hardening of the crystalline lens in the eye and loss of ability of the inner eye muscles to bring the eyes into focus. Computers place extra strain on our eyes, and poor nutrition also seems to result in presbyopia at an earlier age, as does UV light exposure.
Preventive measures include protecting the eyes from sun damage and increasing intake of antioxidants, selenium and zinc. Vitamin B12 may also be helpful.
3. ALL AGES: – computer eye strain
Too much time spent focusing on computer screens causes problems such as eye strain, redness, itching, stinging, blurriness, dizziness, headaches and dry eyes. When you work at a computer, you blink your eyes five times less often than normal. Each blink pumps moisture onto the surface of the eye, so fewer blinks means less moisture. That’s just one factor contributing to computer eye strain.
Listen to what your eyes are telling you – they may be unmasking underlying problems. Don’t just attend to the symptoms, but investigate deeper and assess your general health and lifestyle habits.
1. Rose KA. Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children. Ophthalmology 2008; 115(8): 1279-85.