Don’t wait until you start to lose your eyesight before taking steps to care for your eyes. It’s especially important to act fast if you begin to see dark spots or your vision deteriorates.
There are two main threats to our eyesight: cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.
occur when the small, oval-shaped crystalline lens located behind the pupil loses its transparency. The lens becomes increasingly opaque and light rays are less able to reach the retina.
Greyish spots appear in your field of vision. The term ‘cataract’ comes from this impression of looking through a waterfall. Cataracts can be surgically corrected (indeed it is the most common surgical procedure in France with 250,000 such operations carried out each year).
Age related macular degeneration (AMD)
is, on the other hand, a more worrying disease which affects the retina and leads to progressive loss of vision. In 2007, 608,000 people in mainland France were estimated to be suffering from the disease - almost 3% of France’s 21 million over-50s. Surgery has so far failed to produce significant or long-term benefits.
What starts as a mild inconvenience soon affects your daily life, as the increasingly blurred vision caused by AMD prevents you from carrying out such activities as reading a sign or an instruction manual. You are thus at greater risk of causing a motoring accident when you fail to see a road sign, or of falling when you miss a step or a kerb. And being unable to clearly read medication instructions could even lead to fatal consequences.
But it’s also life’s great pleasures
that disappear along with your eyesight: reading, gardening, knitting, marvelling at the wonders of Nature, stopping to take in the landscape, visiting an exhibition - none of these provide the same sense of enjoyment when you can no longer make out any details; when even the faces of your loved ones or a child’s smile are seen only as if through a mist; when you can no longer carry out activities involving handling small objects or make precise movements - that’s when you realise that you are being robbed of the very essence of life itself.
To reduce your risk of such a fate, you need to ‘nourish’ your eyes.
The eyes are under particular attack
Your eyes are among those organs which come under particularly sustained attack, especially nowadays with widespread dependence on screens - be it computers or Smartphones - as well as increasing pollution.
The eyes are, in effect, a light-focusing machine
, that works via an ingenious stacking system comprising the cornea, iris, lens, retina and macula.
This structure enables you to absorb a huge amount of detail, both from your immediate environment and from far away: it is estimated that 80% of our sensory perception comes from vision! But it’s important to realise that this vast amount of light hits a surface of just a few square centimetres
at the back of the eye - the retina, or more specifically, a tiny area called the ‘macula’ which is responsible for central vision. It is the macula which enables you to clearly see shapes, colours and details.
Your retina and macula are lined by cells called cones, which detect colour, and rods, which detect black and white.
When these cells are constantly bombarded by high energy light particles called photons, they can become damaged. Cones and rods can be destroyed resulting in blurred vision.
But you don’t have to sit back and just wait for this to happen.
Macular degeneration can be slowed down
Nature provides plant and animal substances that can help you maintain the health of your eyes. I can’t promise that these substances will ensure you continue to enjoy 20/20 vision into your nineties but:
• if you are not yet experiencing vision problems;
• if you’re over 55, and particularly if you’re female;
• or if you have the beginnings of macular degeneration or cataracts,
then you can take action today to prevent problems in the future:
Six natural strategies for protecting your vision
Whatever your doctor might tell you, there are ways you can protect your eyesight:
- Stop smoking:
any smoke that enters your body, including exhaust emissions, brings with it thousands of free radicals - aggressive molecules that can damage or destroy your cells. The cells in your retina and macula are particularly sensitive to free radicals because of their constant exposure to light. Don’t add to it by exposing yourself to cigarette smoke ;
- Keep an eye on your stress levels:
the eye is lined with microscopic blood vessels called capillaries which irrigate vision cells. If your blood pressure is too high (and remember, there’s no way of knowing unless you have it measured regularly), your capillaries will become damaged;
- Watch your blood sugar:
excess blood sugar seriously damages capillaries. That’s why diabetics are at much greater risk of going blind, or of suffering amputation when blood flow to limbs becomes interrupted due to damaged blood vessels ;
- Eat lots of green vegetables
, especially cabbage, kale, spinach and broccoli : studies show that such a diet improves eyesight as these vegetables are rich in carotenoids, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin ;
- Increase your intake of omega-3
by eating more oily fish or taking omega-3 supplements. A study published in August 2001 in the journal Archives of Ophthalmology showed that a diet containing a good balance of omega-3s improves vision.
- Eat dark-coloured fruits:
blackcurrants, blackberries and blueberries. They are rich in anthocyanins, plant pigments that act like sun cream for the cells, protecting them against damage from blue-green and ultraviolet light.
And for those aged over 50 who want to avoid vision problems in the future, dietary supplements are a must.
A number of innovative products are now available that contain liposoluble and water-soluble antioxidants - and I’ll explain why both are important:
Two antioxidants are central to your regime
Antioxidants are molecules which neutralise the free radicals that damage or destroy our cells.
Those that act in adipose (fatty) tissues must be liposoluble - ie, soluble in lipids or fats, while those that work in aqueous (non-fatty) tissues must be water-soluble.
In order to protect all the vital parts of your eyes, you need both liposoluble and water-soluble antioxidants.
Among the liposoluble antioxidants believed to protect the eyes, the two most important are lutein and zeaxanthin.
Two eye-protective shields
Lutein and zeaxanthin belong to a group of compounds called xanthophylls, yellow pigments which are found in many plants and vegetables. Lutein actually looks reddish-orange in colour when highly concentrated.
In Nature, lutein and zeaxanthin absorb excess light which might otherwise damage plants, particularly the high energy radiation of blue light from the sun.
In humans, dietary lutein and zeaxanthin are concentrated in the macula - though it’s not known precisely how - giving the macula its yellow colour.
They appear to exert a powerful antioxidant effect, defending cells in the eyes against destructive free radicals, and in particular protecting them from macular degeneration:
- Research published in Nutrition & Metabolism concluded that lutein and zeaxanthin increased macular pigment density in the majority of subjects studied. Macular pigment is believed to provide protection against macular degeneration;
- Studies published in scientific journalsAmerican Journal of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology
and Archives of Ophthalmology
have noted that higher dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin is associated with a decreased risk of macular degeneration;
- Two studies published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science
reported that those individuals with the highest macular pigment density were at lower risk of developing macular degeneration;
- In a research article published in the journalArchives of Biochemistry and Biophysics
in August 2010, the study authors conclude that lutein and zeaxanthin filter short-wavelength light and prevent or reduce free radical formation in the retinal pigment epithelium and choroid (the eye’s vascular layer). They also suggest that a mixture of these xanthophylls is more effective than a single such xanthophyll, even at the same total concentration.
They also protect against cataracts
In addition to protecting the retina, lutein and zeaxanthin may also reduce the risk of cataract
Studies published recently in the journal Archives of Ophthalmology concluded that a diet rich in these and other carotenoids was associated with a lower risk of cataract in women.
Boosting the antioxidant effect
But simply taking lutein and zeaxanthin supplements is just the minimum you can do to help protect your vision
You can also boost the antioxidant effect of these substances by combining them with other natural antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium. Glutathione and R-lipoic acid are also beneficial. Anything which helps fight free radicals and protects your blood vessels is good for eye health.
The benefits of blueberries
It’s also worth noting that blueberries have traditionally been used to treat problems of venous circulation and certain eye diseases, in particular, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataract. Many doctors recommend their patients take blueberry extracts to improve their eyesight.
Pilots in Britain’s Royal Air Force are also said to have eaten blueberries during the Second World War to help them deal with glare and in particular to improve their night vision (most missions being conducted in the hours of darkness to avoid anti-aircraft fire). While clinical studies conducted after the War did not confirm these effects, these studies were carried out on individuals who already had normal vision with little scope for improvement. However, the effects of blueberry extracts in relieving eye fatigue are well-supported.
Blueberries’ medicinal properties come from their high content both in pigments from the anthocyanoside family and in flavonols, a type of flavonoid that includes quercetin.
Blackcurrants too, are currently attracting increasing interest in the United States for their potential to prevent eye diseases due to their high content of the potent antioxidants, anthocyanins (190-270mg per 100g).
This is another reason why eating these small blue and black berries every day is a good idea. You can also supplement daily with a formulation combining blueberry and blackcurrant extract with lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as other protective antioxidants.