Nutrition and the Eye
Nutrition is one of the most important ways we can help protect our eyes and vision. So does that mean we should be eating more carrots everyday to make our eyes healthier? Actually, Yes!!
While eating carrots will not likely get you out of wearing your glasses or contacts they, like most red and yellow/orange colored fruits and vegetables, contain high amounts of carotenoids (a type of vitamin A) which are critical for retinal development.
Let’s take a closer look at which vitamins are the most important for ocular health. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion of “eye vitamins” available at drug and health stores. In fact many multivitamins now state that they have added vitamins for ocular health and most drug stores now have whole sections dedicated to the eye. This is in part to due the expediently large rise in the incidence of a disease called “Macular Degeneration”.
According to the National Eye Institute by 2050, the estimated number of people with AMD is expected to more than double from 2.07 million to 5.44 million in the United States alone. It is currently the leading cause of blindness in patients over 65 years old. Being a low vision optometrist (a doctor who helps patients with ocular disease that has caused permanently decreased vision with glasses and devices that help them function and see better) I am often asked what can be done to protect the eye from further damage or help relatives and future generations from befalling the same fate.
While there is so much to still be learned about macular degeneration what we do know about these patients is that they have a lack of certain antioxidants in the retina. This leads to a “malfunction” in their metabolism which causes tissue damage and loss of sight. Studies have shown that taking a daily vitamin that consists of Vitamins C, D, E and A (in the forms of Lutein and Zeaxanthin) and minerals Zinc and Copper can slow progression. This formulation is known as the “AREDS2” formula, which many different companies make a version of.
I generally tell my patients, whether or not they have eye disease, that taking a multivitamin with Lutein and Zeaxanthin added for eye health is helpful. But it is important to remember that these vitamins are only supplements and can not replace eating healthy whole foods that naturally have these vitamins and minerals.
Dr. Rui Hai Liu, a Professor in the Department of Food Science of Cornell University, has studied the effects of natural fruits, vegetables and grains on our health for many years. In 2003 he wrote in article for the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition. He has found repeatedly that eating whole foods is an important and effective way to get nutrients we need. One example included a study where they measured the antioxidant activity of vitamin C in about ½ a cup of an apple (100 grams) which contained only 5.7 milligrams of vitamin C and found that you need about 1,500 mg of Vitamin C supplement to match the same outcome! In other words, the vitamin C found naturally in the apple has about 263 times the antioxidant power over the isolated synthesized vitamin C found in the supplement pill!! Think of the other benefits you also get from ingesting all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fiber that apple has to offer.
What kinds of foods are best to eat?
Green leafy vegetables contain high amounts of Lutein and Zeaxanthin. Examples include spinach, collards and kale. High amounts of vitamin C can be found in all kinds of berries, watermelon and tropical fruits. Vitamin D can be synthesized by our bodies with UV exposure and can be found in mushrooms. Interestingly you can actually increase the amount of vitamin D content in the mushrooms if you lay them out in the sun before eating them! Vitamin E can be found in nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables.
Minerals like copper and zinc can be found in many food sources. Beans, seeds and healthy oils are good sources.
Omega-3s are also very important for eye health. It is controversial at the moment whether or not this helps macular degeneration patients but we know it is good for dry eye and over all ocular health. Omega-3s, or more specifically, types EPA and DHA are a type of fat found in abundance in fish, nuts and seeds. They help to reduce inflammation and so it would stand to reason that Omega-3s would be helpful in any disease state.
Fruits, veggies, nuts/seeds….. Seeing a pattern here!?! Take a look at your diet and make sure that you get these healthy foods in your body everyday. Your eyes (and the rest of your body) will thank you!