How is your eyesight? When I ask my patients that question, they usually reply that they wish it was better. Here’s some good news: According to the results of a recent study, whole foods and supplements for good health are just as beneficial for eyesight as they are to overall health. That means that better vision – as well as preventing the development or escalation of serious eye maladies – begins on your dinner plate.
Using data from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), researchers at the US Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging concluded that the majority of Americans are getting far too few of the nutrients known to protect vision.
Here are the nutrients cited in the study, along with the dosages found to be effective:
Vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene) 17 mg (28,640 IU) Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) 452 mg Vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol) 400 IU Zinc (zinc oxide) 69.6 mg Copper (cupric oxide) 1.6 mg
Researchers found that appropriate supplements, including the ones above and three more that I will discuss a bit later, reduced the risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) by approximately 25 percent (see below for more details on macular degeneration). The supplementation regimen included those listed above, as well as three others that I will also discuss a bit later. (FYI, copper was included in the formulation to balance zinc intake, but it had no effect on vision.)
The take-home message here is that the dosages of these nutrients are far higher than the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance). So, even if you are taking a good multivitamin containing these substances, you’re probably not getting therapeutic amounts from the multi alone and may need to adjust your diet.
Eat Your Vitamins
To help ramp up your intake of specific nutrients, here are some suggested foods:
Vitamin A-rich foods:
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked or raw carrots
- Kale (cooked)
- Spinach (cooked)
Vitamin C-rich foods:
- Orange juice
- Grapefruit juice (but please be aware of possible drug interactions)
- Brussels sprouts
Vitamin E-rich foods
- Wheat germ oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Smooth peanut butter or peanuts
- Cooked oysters
- Cooked Dungeness crab
- Turkey, dark meat
How Good Eyes Go Bad
As we age, changes occur in our eyes just as they occur throughout the body. One of the most common occurrences is the appearance of “floaters,” the name used to describe what appear to be small objects or bits of something that are floating past your eyes.
Floaters are actually the shadows of miniscule pieces of protein in the eyeball’s fluid, or vitreous. As the vitreous shrinks with age, floaters, and sometimes flashes of light, appear. You should discuss floaters and/or flashes with your eye doctor. Generally, they are harmless, but there is a small chance that they indicate a more serious condition, such as vitreous detachment or a detached retina.
In addition, here is a brief overview of some other common conditions that could affect your vision:
A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye thickens and becomes less resilient and transparent. The thickened, aging lens looks like a cloudy film over the eye.
Cataracts have multiple causes: aging, genetics, damage to the eyes, smoking, alcohol, and medications, as well as medical conditions such as diabetes. The resulting blurry or dimmed vision can be corrected by surgically replacing the cloudy lens with a clear plastic version.
If you are concerned about cataracts, ignore the myth that says it must fully develop, or “ripen,” before being removed. Cataracts are easier and safer to remove when they are in the early stages. So, if you’re thinking about surgery, doing it sooner rather than later is best.
Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS)
A technical term for eyestrain caused by computer use. CVS could result in blurry vision, light sensitivity, dry, itchy, or burning eyes, and difficulty focusing on distant objects. After long hours of computer research, I’ve experienced this myself, so I know how disconcerting it can be to look up from the screen and find that your vision is fuzzy.
Protect your eyes by taking short, five-minute breaks every hour or so. I take a quick walk outside or go to a window and focus on distant objects for a few minutes. In addition, try adjusting your computer screen and/or chair so that your eyes are slightly higher than the screen and you’re looking downward a bit, rather than craning your neck upward.
Here’s yet another reason to practice good blood sugar management. Diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) affects blood vessels in the retina. As the vessels degenerate, they may leak blood into the retina, or new blood vessels may form, causing vision changes. The best way to minimize the risk of diabetic retinopathy is by keeping a tight lid on blood sugar levels. Reducing high blood pressure also helps.
If you spend a great deal of time outside, where your eyes are exposed to wind and sun, you may know what dry eye feels like. This uncomfortable condition also affects individuals who smoke or who are exposed to indoor heating and air conditioning. Even something as innocuous as a hair dryer can contribute to dry eye. Symptoms include burning, stinging, or a feeling of something gritty in the eye.
Lubricating eye drops — look for a product made without preservatives — or ointment can ease these symptoms, as can more frequent blinking.
In this condition, fluid pressure within the eye accumulates to the point of damaging the optic nerve. Since the pressure builds gradually, vision changes may not be noticeable. But untreated glaucoma damages eyesight and may cause blindness, too. Both eyes are typically affected, although one may be worse than the other.
Early intervention with eye drops, surgery, or laser treatment is the best way to avoid complications from glaucoma.
Macular Degeneration (MD)
This is the leading cause of blindness among those age 55 and above. When MD occurs in people older than 60, it’s considered age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. There are two forms of MD — dry, which is more common and progresses slowly, and wet, which develops more rapidly.An early symptom of dry MD is slightly blurred central vision, usually affecting both eyes. An early indication of wet MD is that straight lines appear wavy.
What causes macular degeneration? Age may be the primary culprit here, but genetics also appear to play a role, as does smoking (including secondhand smoke), a high-fat diet, and too few antioxidants.
In addition, you should know that aspirin therapy, which many people use to reduce inflammation and prevent heart disease, could put you at risk for MD. A new study of more than 4,500 people found that frequent aspirin intake is linked to early development of the eye disorder, as well as the wet form later in life – and the likelihood increases with the frequency of aspirin intake. Previous research had similar results. If your physician has recommended taking a daily aspirin, ask about a vision-sparing alternative.
There is also another way to protect your eyes from damage by aspirin. I often suggest patients who are taking a daily aspirin use curcumin or an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, like fish or marine oil, instead. If you choose fish oil, look for one that contains about twice as much DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). While both help with inflammation, DHA more effectively supports healthy eyesight.
More Nutrients Your Eyes Need
Considering all the things that can go wrong with your vision, you may want some extra insurance. In that case, you should know that the study mentioned above also examined three additional nutrients – lutein and zeaxanthin (two compounds primarily found in green, leafy vegetables) and omega-3 fatty acids (the essential fatty acids derived from marine sources and sometimes referred to as “good fats”).
Good food sources of these nutrients include:
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
- Cooked kale
- Cooked spinach
- Raw spinach
- Cooked broccoli
- Cooked sweet corn
Omega-3 fatty acids
- Pacific and Atlantic herring
- Chinook salmon
- Flounder or sole
I realize that’s already a long list of supplements, but there is one more I would add – Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).
Research has shown that CoQ10 can protect cells in the eye from radiation damage, as well as improve symptoms of macular degeneration.
I prescribe CoQ10 supplements to nearly all my patients over the age of 40, since it is such a powerful weapon against heart disease and other damage caused by aging. For individuals with heart disease, I recommend 200 mg daily, but even those who are healthy should take 100 mg every day. In addition, eye drops containing CoQ10 are also available.
Eyes are very complex organs that need to be treated with care to stay functioning and strong. For most people, eyesight is the most important of the five senses. But you could potentially invest plenty in glasses, contact lenses, and even surgery to improve your vision, and still undermine it all with bad habits, like lack of activity or insufficient sleep. That’s why I urge you to follow the advice above, as well as schedule regular daily exercise and plenty of sleep – if you’re serious about protecting your eyesight.