How would we function without our eyes? We often forget just how important our vision is, and take the two little powerhouses that make visual sense of everything around us for granted. Failing eyesight is perhaps the most common eye problem people face due to aging or significant eye strain. Your eye health goes hand-in-hand with your overall health and a healthy lifestyle can help to minimize the risk of eye related problems. Some nutrients specifically can help to protect your eyes against harmful light, help maintain eye function and reduce the development of age-related degenerative diseases.
Overview of Common Eye Diseases
Your risk of developing an eye disease significantly increases with age. The most common ones are:
- Cataract. In this condition the lenses of the eyes become cloudy, which leads to a decrease in vision. Age-related cataracts are a leading cause of vision impairment and blindness worldwide.
- Diabetic retinopathy. An estimated 20% of people with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy and this condition is a significant cause of visual impairment as well as blindness. Diabetic retinopathy damages the blood vessels in the retina and often develops when blood sugar levels are high.
- Dry eye disease. A condition marked by insufficient tear fluid, which causes your eyes to severely dry up. When there is a lack of quality tears to lubricate and nourish the eye, it can lead to discomfort and potential vision problems.
- Glaucoma. This is characterized by progressive degeneration of the optic nerve, which is responsible for transferring visual information from the eyes to the brain. The condition is linked to a buildup of pressure inside the eye over a period of time. Glaucoma may cause poor eyesight or in some cases even blindness.
- Macular degeneration. This is the leading cause of the loss of vision, which has affected about 10 million Americans. The macula is the central part of your retina. Age-related macular degeneration or AMD is also one of the leading causes of blindness.
Although your risk of developing any of these conditions to some extent, depends on your genes, your diet may also play a major role.
Here are 8 nutrients to be sure to incorporate into your diet that can have a significant benefit to your eyes.
1. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is essential to maintain your eyes’ light-sensing cells, also known as photoreceptors. If vitamin A is not consumed in the right quantity, one might experience dry eyes, night blindness or even more serious conditions. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most common causes of blindness in the world.
Vitamin A is only found in animal food sources, some examples of which are egg yolks, liver, and dairy products. You can also get your vitamin A fix from antioxidant plant compounds called provitamin A carotenoids, which are found in high amounts in specific vegetables and fruits. On average provitamin A carotenoids can provide around 30% of your vitamin A requirement. Beta-carotene (vitamin A) is also found in high amounts in spinach, carrots and kale.
2-3. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin are powerful yellow carotenoid antioxidants known as macular pigments. They protect you against unstable molecules or free radicals. These substances are concentrated in the macula, which is the central part of your retina. The macula is a layer of light-sensitive cells on the back wall of the eyeball. Lutein and zeaxanthin function as a natural sunblock and they play a central role in protecting your eyes against harmful blue light. Researchers discovered that people with a high intake of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 43% lower risk of macular degeneration.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are usually found in foods like spinach, parsley, kale, pistachios, swiss chard and green peas. Sweet corn, egg yolks and red grapes may also be high in lutein and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids are better absorbed by the body when eaten with fat, so it is best to add some avocado or healthy oils to your lutein and zeaxanthin loaded salad.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are also essential for your eye health. Our retina has high amounts of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) that helps to maintain eye function. It’s also important for brain and eye development during infancy, which is why a DHA deficiency can impair vision, especially in growing children. Studies have proved that consuming omega-3 supplements can benefit people with dry eye disease.
Evidence also shows that taking omega-3 supplements may benefit those with dry eye disease. Daily intake of EPA and DHA supplements for three months can reduce dry eye symptoms, and increase the formation of tear fluid. Taking a minimum quantity of 500 mg of long-chain omega-3s daily may also drastically reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy.
5. Gamma-Linolenic Acid
Gamma-linolenic acid or GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid found in a negligible quantity in our daily diet. The body converts GLA omega-6 fatty acid to substances that reduce inflammation and cell growth. Unlike many other omega-6 fatty acids, GLA’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a popular substance used in medicines. The richest sources of GLA are evening primrose oil and starflower oil and some studies have suggested that taking evening primrose oil helps to minimize the symptoms of dry eye disease.
6. Vitamin C
The concentration of vitamin C is higher in the aqueous humor of the eye. The aqueous humor is the liquid that fills the outermost part of your eye. The levels of vitamin C in the aqueous humor are directly proportional to its dietary intake, and therefore taking supplements or eating foods rich in vitamin C is absolutely essential for the well being of your eyes. High amounts of vitamin C are found in many fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, bell peppers, kale, guavas and broccoli.
7. Vitamin E
Vitamin E protects your cells from oxidative stress. It is made up of a group of fat-soluble antioxidants that protect fatty acids from harmful oxidation. Since the concentration of fatty acids is high in the retina, an adequate vitamin E intake is important for optimal eye health. Severe vitamin E deficiency may lead to blindness and retinal degeneration. The best dietary sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, and vegetable oils like flaxseed oil. It is mostly advised to intake this vitamin through food sources rather than in supplement form.
Given that our eyes contain high levels of zinc, it plays an important role in eye function. Zinc is involved in the formation of visual pigments in your retina and is a part of many essential enzymes in the body, which include superoxide dismutase, which functions as an antioxidant. A zinc deficiency may lead to night blindness. Older adults with early macular degeneration are often prescribed to take zinc supplements by their physicians. Natural dietary sources of zinc include meat, oysters, pumpkin seeds and peanuts.
Healthy Habits Are Important
Healthy lifestyle habits like eating a wholesome diet and exercising regularly may help prevent many chronic diseases, including eye conditions and getting enough of the nutrients listed above can significantly help to reduce your risk of developing many critical eye conditions. Don’t forget that a diet that keeps your body healthy will likely keep your eyes healthy too!