Best Ways to Protect Your Eyes Naturally

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Man Framing EyesIt is certainly no secret that fruits and vegetables are good for you. They have been shown to reduce your risk for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and even cancer. And a diet high in fresh, organic produce paired with natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids also keeps your waistline trim and your skin fresh and radiant.

But what about your vision? Can what you eat affect how well you see? According to one study review, the answer is yes.[1]

Antioxidants and Age-Related Macular Degeneration

To help determine if certain foods and supplements could impact the treatment or prevention of eye disease, researchers focused their attention on the two most common conditions: age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.

Starting with AMD, researchers looked at two key studies: the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS)[2] and AREDS2.[3] In AREDS, researchers studied the impact of five key nutrients on eye health:

  • Vitamin C (500 mg)
  • Vitamin E (400 IU as alpha tocopherol)
  • Beta-carotene (15 mg)
  • Zinc (80 mg)
  • Copper (2 mg)

Vitamin C is highly concentrated in your eye’s lens, while vitamin E protects against oxidation (“rusting” if you will) and free radical damage. Additionally, higher intakes of vitamin E have been found to increase concentrations within the retina.

Beta-carotene also helps prevent oxidation, while zinc has been tied to many enzymatic metabolic functions within the retina. This likely explains its high concentrations within the retina itself. Lastly, the addition of copper is needed to offset the copper depletion that can happen with increased zinc.

AREDS found that these nutrients lowered the risk for AMD in those patients at the greatest risk for developing the disease. Additionally, a study performed in the Netherlands found that people taking above average dietary intake of the AREDS nutrients had a 56 percent reduced risk of AMD, while those with below average intake had a 33 percent increased risk.[4]

With AREDS2, researchers created a five-year, multicenter, randomized trial of nearly 4,000 participants between the ages of 50 and 85. The study began in 2008 and focuses on four key nutrients:

  • Lutein (10 mg)
  • Zeaxanthin (2 mg)
  • DHA (350 mg)
  • EPA (650)

Both lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids found in colorful fruits and vegetables, namely yellow and orange foods, as well as leafy green veggies. DHA and EPA are both omega-3 fatty acids found primarily in cold-water fish.

Lutein and zeaxanthin have long been known to help prevent AMD, especially when those nutrients are consumed in the form of foods such as broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables.[5] Other additional studies have shown that lutein in particular helps to improve macular pigment density,[6] as well as significantly improve visual acuity and retinal function.[7] It also helped to slow the progression of AMD.[8]

When it comes to DHA and EPA, these omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation and regulate the genetic expression of retinal cells. However, of the two omega-3s, DHA seems to play the bigger role in eye health.

There is significant concentration of DHA is both the brain and retina cells’ membranes. If fact, it is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the macula (the center part of the retina), as well as the periphery of the retina.[9]

When it comes to omega-3s overall, studies have shown that these polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce the risk of AMD by up to 38 percent when taken in high amounts, either as supplements or fish.[10] Other studies have shown that eating fish at least once a week was associated with a 40 percent reduction in age-related maculopathy.[11]

What’s really interesting is that a study found that DHA supplementation alone increased the density of central macular pigment, while lutein alone increased macular pigment density around the fovea (the center of the macula).[12] When taken in combination, increases were seen in both areas.

Lastly, researchers have found that B vitamins and vitamin D also help prevent AMD. With B vitamins, long-term, daily use of 2.5 mg of folic acid, 50 mg of vitamin B6, and 1 mg of vitamin B12 reduced the risk of mild AMD by 40 percent.[13] Similarly, 604 IU of vitamin D (from both food and supplements) reduced risk of early AMD.[14]

Antioxidants and Cataracts

It has long been established that a primary factor in the development of cataracts is oxidative damage to the lens. For this reason, much of the research surrounding nutrition and cataracts includes the use of antioxidants.

In the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers found that women who took a vitamin C supplement for 10 years or more had significantly lower incidence of cataracts.[15] This same study found that women who used vitamin E supplements for five years also enjoyed reduced progression of cataracts.[16]Similarly, the Beaver Dam Eye study found that people who used a multivitamin that contained vitamins C or E for more than 10 years had a 60 percent lower likelihood of developing cataracts.[17]

Lutein and zeaxanthin also seem to play a role in protecting against cataracts. One study found that a higher intake of foods containing these two nutrients was associated with a reduced likelihood of developing cataracts.[18] Similarly, the Nurses’ Health Study found that women who had high daily intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin (11.7 mg) had a 22 percent reduction in cataract risk.[19]

Protect Your Eyes Naturally

Given these promising results, there are several simple and delicious things you can do to protect your vision.

On the diet front:

  • Eat the rainbow. Focus on yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, as well as leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
  • Dig into eggs. The yolks are rich in lutein.
  • Think seafood. Aim for at least two to three servings of wild-caught, cold-water fish per week.
  • Enjoy citrus fruits and berries. These are great sources of vitamin C.
  • Go Nuts. Nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E.

On the supplement front:

  • Folate (up to 2.5 mg)
  • Vitamin B6 (up to 2.2 mg)
  • Vitamin B12 (up to 1 mg)
  • Vitamin C (360 to 500 mg)
  • Vitamin E (400 IU)
  • Vitamin D3 (600 IU)
  • Beta-carotene (up to 15 mg)
  • Lutein (10 to 15 mg)
  • Zeaxanthin (2 mg)
  • DHA and EPA (1,000 mg combined)

With the exception of the omeg-3s, many multivitamins as well as specific eye health formulas should contain these nutrients in close to these dosages.

[1] Elliott JG and Williams NS. Nutrients in the battle against age-related eye diseases. Optometry. 2012 Jan;83(1):47-55.

[2] Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. A randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of high-dose supplementation with vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and zinc for age-related macular degeneration and vision loss: AREDS report no. 8. Arch Ophthalmol. 2001;119:1417-36.

[3] National Eye Institute. Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2). Bethesda: National Institute of Health; 2006.

[4] De Jong P et al. Dietary antioxidant intake reduces risk of AMD. The Rotterdam Study. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2004;45: E-abstract 2243.

[5] Seddon JM et al. Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. JAMA. 1994; 272:1413-20.

[6] Richer S et al. Double-masked, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of lutein and antioxidant supplementation in the intervention of atrophic age-related macular degeneration: the Veterans LAST study (Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial). Optometry. 2004;75:216-30.

[7] Neelam K et al. Carotenoids and co-antioxidants in age-related maculopathy: design and methods. Ophthalmic Epidemiol. 2008;15:389-401.

[8] Olmedilla B et al. Lutein in patients with cataracts and age-related macular degeneration: A long-term supplementation study. J Sci Food Agricult. 2001;81:904-9.

[9] Van Kuijk FJ and Buck P. Fatty acid composition of the human macula and peripheral retina. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 1992;33:3493-6.

[10] Chong EW et al. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid and fish intake in the primary prevention of age-related macular degeneration: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Ophthalmol. 2008;126:826-33.

[11] Chau B et al. Dietary fatty acids and the 5-year incidence of age-related maculopathy. Arch Ophthalmol. 2006;124:981-6.

[12] Johnson EJ et al. The influence of supplemental lutein and docosahexaenoic acid on serum, lipoproteins, and macular pigmentation. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87:1521-9.

[13] Christen WG et al. Folic acid, pyridoxine, and cyanocobalamin combination treatment and age-related macular degeneration in women: The Women’s Antioxidant and Folic Acid Cardiovascular Study. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:335-41.

[14] Parekh N et al. Association between vitamin D and age-related macular degeneration in the Third National Health and Nutrition  Examination Survey, 1988 through 1994. Arch Ophthalmol. 2007;125:661-9.

[15] Jacques PF et al. Long-term nutrient intake and early age-related nuclear lens opacities. Arch Ophthalmol. 2001;119:1009-19.

[16] Jacques PF et al. Long-term nutrient intake and 5-year change in nuclear lens opacities. Arch Ophthalmol. 2005;123:517-26.

[17] Mares-Perlman JA et al. Vitamin supplement use and incident cataracts in a population-based study. Arch Ophthalmol. 2000;118:1556-63.

[18] Tavani A et al. Food and nutrient intake and risk of cataract. Ann Epidemiol. 1996;6:41-6.

[19] Vu HT et al. Lutein and zeaxanthin and the risk of cataract: the Melbourne visual impairment project. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2006;47:3783-6.

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