Visionary Eye Care
By Melissa Diane Smith
© Copyright 1999 by Melissa Diane Smith
This article was first published in Let's Live magazine, February 1999.
The ability to see clearly is something we all take for granted -- until we develop eye problems. Fortunately, there are plenty of simple ways to improve eye health and protect the gift of sight.
The eyes have been called windows to the soul but they are also windows to our nutritional status. These sensitive instruments have higher nutrient requirements than most other body parts and also are in more direct exposure to the polluted environment in which we live. That means the eyes often are the first to feel the effects of poor diet and lifestyle habits. Many experts, in fact, consider the health of our eyes a barometer of total body health. According to recent statistics, our eye health is faltering. By adulthood, nearly 60 percent of Americans require vision correction. Even worse, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 17 million Americans currently suffer from serious vision loss. Degenerative eye diseases such as macular degeneration are epidemic and increasing in number.
The good news is that virtually all of the factors that contribute to poor vision are within our ability to control. A recent study sponsored by the National Eye Institute found that major contributors to serious eye disorders are dietary deficiencies, genetic predisposition, smoking, and overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, toxic chemicals, and pollution. By changing avoidable factors, we can do a lot to counteract any genetic tendencies toward eye disorders we have.
Optimal nutrition is critical for protecting eye health and preventing eye disorders. The first step is to eat a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods. Few people realize it, but an intake of refined foods such as white flour and white rice is largely responsible for the development of nearsightedness (myopia), astigmatism and farsightedness (presbyopia), says Glen Swartwout, O.D., a nutrition-oriented optometrist from Hilo, Hawaii. The most hazardous food for our eyes is refined sugar: it was found in one study to cause a more than 300-fold increase in the risk of developing eye focus distortion, according to Swartwout.
Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, found in fruits and vegetables, is equally as important for protecting eye health. One study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who consume less than three and a half servings of fruits and vegetables per day have an increased risk for cataracts. Another study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that people who consume the highest amount of carotenoids from dark green leafy vegetables have a 43 percent reduced risk of developing macular degeneration compared to those who eat the lowest amount. The best dietary strategy to protect against eye diseases appears to be to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables which supply many different types of antioxidants.
In addition to an antioxidant-rich diet, an increasing number of eye care professionals recommend the use of antioxidant supplements. The evidence that antioxidants help prevent and delay the development of eye disease is overwhelming, but the amounts and varieties of antioxidants needed are virtually impossible to obtain from foods alone, says Bill Sardi, a medical journalist who has studied eye health for more than a decade. Daily amounts of antioxidants generally suggested to protect eye health include: 20,000 to 40,000 units betacarotene, 500-3000 milligrams vitamin C, 100-400 units vitamin E, 100-200 micrograms selenium and 15-25 milligrams zinc, Sardi reports. For prevention of eye disease, Sardi suggests taking eye-specific vitamin formulas or broad-spectrum antioxidant supplements that contain these eye-protective nutrients.
Treating Eye Diseases
The best treatment for eye diseases, of course, is to prevent them in the first place. Once eye diseases have begun though, individuals can dramatically improve their eye function if they make simple diet and lifestyle changes early on in the disease process, according to optometrist Swartwout. "(If changes are made) early on, I actually see improvement in most individuals," he says. "What prevents (eye disease) also treats it."
As evidence of this statement, Swartwout explains that more than a decade ago he started counseling individuals with cataracts about preventive measures they could take. These measures included: eating a healthy diet; exercising; taking a multiple vitamin/mineral supplement; and avoiding risk factors such as steroid drugs, smoking, and alcohol use. He then conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of this approach. The results of his experiment were impressive: "I found that two out of three people were able to improve the clarity of the lens and the quality of vision measurably within four weeks (of making changes)," he says.
Once degenerative eye diseases reach advanced stages, they are best treated by an opthamologist. But many conventionally trained opthamologists offer little hope that anything can be done to improve these conditions. Fortunately, there are alternatives. August L. Reader, M.D., a holistic-oriented opthamologist who has practices in Los Angeles, Hayward, and San Francisco, California, says that the use of nutrient and herbal supplements holds great promise in the treatment of serious eye diseases.
As a general rule, all eye disorders respond well to supplementation with an antioxidant-rich multivitamin/mineral, Reader says. Supplements are beneficial because most people with eye disorders have nutrient deficiencies, and eye health depends on optimal nutrition.
Supplementation with additional individual nutrients is more effective for some conditions than others. One to three grams of vitamin C taken daily, for example, may slow the development of cataracts, according to Reader.
For both glaucoma and macular degeneration, Reader suggests omega-3 fish oils and ginkgo biloba extract. Fatty acids in fish oils are important for nerve and photoreceptor function in the eye and ginkgo biloba is an herb that improves circulation to the extremities and might delay the progressive type of nerve damage often present in glaucoma.
Macular degeneration is strongly linked to nutrient deficiencies so an aggressive supplement program is indicated for its treatment. In addition to a general multiple, omega-3 fish oils and ginkgo biloba, other supplements Reader uses to treat macular degeneration include: proanthocyanidins from pine bark extract, garlic oil capsules with coenzyme Q-10, and a bioflavonoid/carotenoid supplement that contains lutein. Lutein is extremely important: "Thirty milligrams taken daily has protective value in slowing the progression of macular degeneration and may help reverse it in some cases," Reader explains.
The Bottom Line on Eye Health
No matter whether you have a serious eye condition or simply want to take preventive measures, the same general principles for protecting eye health apply. Here are some tips:
- Avoid refined foods like white flour and white sugar; this includes white pasta, white bread, soft drinks and sweets. Continue to remind yourself that eating nutrient-stripped foods leads to poor eye health.
- Eat an unrefined, antioxidant-rich diet replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, and emphasize organic foods as much as possible. Also try to include in your diet omega-3-rich coldwater fish (from offshore sources) several times a week.
- Consider supplementing your diet with antioxidants or an antioxidant-rich multiple. To determine what supplements might be best for you, discuss your situation with a nutritionally oriented optometrist or opthamologist, or a holistic-minded doctor or nutritionist. To find a nutritionally oriented optometrist in your area, write to the Nutritional Optometry Institute, 16 N. Beverwyck Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ 07034-0131, or call (973) 335-0111
- Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces stress and eye pressure and promotes cardiovascular health. All of these benefits can improve eye health.
- Don't smoke. If you do smoke, utilize all resources available to you to quit. According to Nutrition and the Eyes by Bill Sardi, smoking robs the body of nutrients and is a major risk factor for serious eye diseases: smokers, for example, develop macular degeneration seven years sooner on average than non-smokers.
- Protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet radiation by wearing 100-percent UVA- and UVB-blocking sunglasses. This is especially important when the sun's rays are the strongest, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- Be aware that certain medications can significantly increase your risk of developing eye diseases. According to Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, antidepressants, steroids and antihypertensives can cause glaucoma. Other drugs such as antihistamines and tetracycline antiobiotics increase sensitivity to sunlight, thereby increasing the risk of damage to the eyes. Avoid these drugs whenever possible, and as a preventive strategy, talk with your optometrist about any medications you take.
- Be sure to obtain periodic eye examinations by an optometrist to check on eye function and vision. In between visits to your optometrist, watch for problematic eye symptoms such as: increased sun glare; road glare from headlights at night; and increased dryness, redness, itching, burning, or watering of the eyes. The eye ages just before the rest of the body does, Sardi reports, so eye problems can warn you of impending health problems if you pay attention to them.