Your vision provides as much as 80 percent of your sensory input. You want to preserve it at any cost, because it has an enormous impact on your quality of life. You have a couple of conditions working to erode your eyesight. Cataracts are the chief cause of vision loss in both developing and developed countries and are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. As if that weren’t enough, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) has become the bane of the "golden years," currently affecting as many as 20 million elderly Americans.
Most physicians still believe that progression to either of these conditions is inevitable, and they’ll wait to intervene until you start exhibiting symptoms. This type of "reactive" medicine could cost you your eyesight. You’re better off focusing on a variety of proven prevention strategies, running the gamut from nutrition to lifestyle choices, that can help keep your eyes healthy.
Here are 10 areas you can focus on to help promote a lifetime of good eye health:
Use vitamins as a first line of defense
Vitamins A, B, C and E play vital roles in eye health. You can get plenty of these vitamins if you are smart about food choices. Numerous studies have shown that a good way to fill up on vitamin C, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3) is with a whole-food diet. It should be a smorgasbord of vividly colored vegetables and whole grains. For vitamin E, I prefer to see patients supplement with food-based multivitamins (available from New Chapter or Mega Food) that include all four tocopherols. Get your preformed vitamin A (retinol) from cod-liver oil, up to 10,000 units a day for most folks. Higher doses may be risky for smokers, people with liver disease stemming from alcohol abuse, or women who are pregnant.
Incorporate sulfur-containing foods into your diet
Glutathione is an eye-supportive antioxidant that works as a major free-radical scavenger in the human lens. It’s found in sulfur-containing foods like onions, garlic, avocados, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips, and cabbage), asparagus, and watermelon-all of which you should eat to your heart’s content. Glutathione boosters include alpha lipoic acid, MSM and N-acetylcysteine (NAC). Astronauts, who are exposed to high levels of oxidative stress-producing UV lights, supplement with as much as 3,000 mg of NAC per day. As for us earthbound folks, we can usually manage this need through nutrition.
Learn to love the yolk
Lutein and zeaxanthin are sibling carotenoid antioxidants found in abundance in leafy green vegetables and egg yolks. Because they’re fat-soluble, you’d be well advised to make sure your diet includes adequate amounts of healthy fats. Lutein and zeaxanthin are present in high amounts in the retina and lens-more so than beta carotene, found in orange-colored fruits and vegetables such as carrots. Folks with early cataracts or AMD should include 6 mg daily of supplemental lutein.
For extra supplemental lutein, Jarrow Formulas Lutein is an excellent, widely available choice. (Go to www.jarrow.com to locate a store near you.) For general prevention, getting 2 mg included in a multivitamin is recommended.
Get your amino acids
Taurine is an interesting amino acid, because it’s the only one that circulates freely on its own through your bloodstream and tissues. Capable of truly multitasking in the body, it helps stabilize biologic membranes in addition to being a useful mood stabilizer and a calmative and cardio-protective agent. It’s the most abundant amino acid in the retina and is known to protect the eye from toxins. For the eye, taurine deficiency is common in people with the retinal degeneration associated with AMD. Consider a supplemental dose of 1,000 mg daily. Taurine can be found naturally in fresh fish and meat.
Mine for minerals in your food choices
It’s not difficult to come up deficient in mineral intake-especially when you consider our food is being grown in increasingly mineral-depleted soil. But minerals are necessary for your eye health.
Zinc, magnesium, and selenium are key multitasking minerals, which means they work as cofactors in your body. The retina has some of the highest concentrations of zinc found in the body. Zinc is found primarily in meat, poultry, and fish and other types of seafood, especially oysters. Magnesium, which supports healthy blood flow to the eye, is found in leafy green vegetables and a variety of nuts. Selenium has been linked to cataract prevention. It’s found in whole grains, shellfish, and especially Brazil nuts-a couple per day can supply your daily requirement.
There’s no need to supplement with more than 200 mcg of selenium per day, as toxicity may kick in with regular ingestion of as little as 750 grams per day.
In one study, high-dose zinc sulfate (100 mg per day) significantly slowed the progression of AMD. While high doses of zinc can suppress the immune system, forAMD sufferers the benefits generally outweigh the risks.
If you don’t have AMD already, 15 to 30 mg per day in a supplement should be sufficient. Also, look for a supplement that includes 2 mg of copper, as supplemental zinc of 30 mg per day or more can reduce copper levels.
Eat more fish
A building block of every cell membrane in the body-and a key player in eye health-is DHA. It’s one of the two key fish-source omega-3 fatty acids that I recommend you look for when choosing an omega-3 supplement. It supports the health of your retinas, improves night vision and hand-eye coordination, and makes up 30 percent to 50 percent of the retinal photoreceptors responsible for light sensitivity. You can obtain it naturally in such fatty cold-water fish as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines. Go one better, and get at least 1,000 mg of DHA from cod-liver oil. In one study, the combination of fish-based omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) in conjunction with acetyl-l-carnitine (1,000 mg) and coenzyme Q10 (100 mg) improved and stabilized vision in the elderly.
Use time-tested herbs
Ginkgo, sage, bilberry and milk thistle all have a role in eye support. Ginkgo (160 mg twice per day) has been shown to increase retinal blood flow by up to 23 percent. Sage also improves circulation. Unlike ginkgo, which can be excitatory for some people, sage is calming. Herbalists recommend 2 grams orally twice per day. Bilberry jam was used by RAF pilots in World War II to help support their night vision. Bilberries (similar to blueberries) and bilberry jam can be tasty additions to your diet. Bilberry is also found in many combination eye-support supplements.
Your liver supplies important substances that aid in molecular repair of the eye, including glutathione (which I mentioned earlier). To help support your liver while it’s supporting your eye health, I recommend you take the time-honored milk thistle (150 mg two or three times per day) to boost liver function.
Be wary of drug-treatment effects
If you’re taking any medication regularly, play it safe and wear sunglasses whenever you’re outside. More than 300 common drugs are known photosensitizers, which means they lead to increased light sensitivity. Cholesterol-lowering "statin" drugs, such as Lipitor, can diminish glutathione production in the liver (and that’s just one thing they do to your liver). Tylenol may also be liver-toxic, even in small amounts (over 4 grams per day, and as little as 2 grams daily if you drink even moderate amounts of alcohol each day). Corticosteroids (e.g. prednisone and hydrocortisone) are known to raise the incidence of both cataracts and glaucoma.
The danger is most pronounced with the topical steroids used to treat eye inflammation and allergies. These medications are best avoided, so ask your eye doctor for an alternative.
Taking medication isn’t the only reason you should don sunglasses. Excessive sun exposure and high altitudes have long been known to raise the frequency of cataracts and AMD. (Astronauts who go into space even once have a higher incidence of cataracts.) One study found that those who reported higher levels of sun exposure than their peers were able to cut their risk in half for developing deposits on their retinas (which signal degeneration)–just by wearing sunglasses. The damage from sun exposure is cumulative over a lifetime, so children especially should be encouraged to wear sunglasses.
Avoid lifestyle risks
There are many lifestyle-related risk accelerators that can lead to eye disease. These include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, not exercising, having diabetes, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and poor stress-handling skills. They all contribute to increasing your chance of developing eye problems.
Postmenopausal women have higher rates of AMD than do men. While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be beneficial, I wouldn’t recommend it simply for this reason.
Remember, you’re in control of your lifestyle. Make sure you eat plenty of fatty cold-water fish, leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, and fruits like blueberries and grapes. Round out your food selections with nuts and extra-virgin olive oil. Finally, make sure you get a regular eye exam from a specialist. Ask your primary-care doctor how often you should get one, since individual need varies.
Finally, I recommend you consider taking a good, comprehensive eye-support formula. Mega Food has a well-designed botanical combination eye formula called Vision Strength. Another good product, though
Dr. Alan Inglis
Dr. Inglis works closely with his patients to help them take charge of their health and well-being without resorting to expensive drugs and dangerous surgeries.
He is currently the director of Integrated Health Solutions, and is on the board of NOAH - a wellness center in Great Barrington, MA.