Healthy Eyes at Every Age

If you have ever held a new baby, you have probably marveled at its tiny, perfectly formed fingernails or its cute little button nose. One thing that never ceases to amaze me about a new baby is their eyes. There are really no words to describe a baby’s eyes other than “shiny and new”.

They are perfect: crystal clear and sparkling.

As we age, our eyes, just like every other part of our body, submit to the gentle wear of time. Certain gradual age-related changes in the eyes are normal, and do little to affect quality of life. Into your forties or fifties, it is not uncommon to require reading glasses, a little extra light for focused visual activities, or another opinion to determine whether that blazer is really black or navy. Reduced close vision, needing more light, and reduced contrast and colour sensitivity are all considered normal visual changes as a person ages.

However, there are a host of other age related eye issues that can occur, that, while common, are not what I would consider normal. Conditions like macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma are extremely common in elderly populations, and while it’s impossible to prevent something with absolute certainty, there is a lot we can do to reduce the likelihood of these visual impairments from occurring.

Protecting your eyes means protecting your body as a whole. People who exercise, have a good diet, manage their blood sugar, and don’t smoke have a much reduced likelihood of experiencing eye problems (as well as all other health problems!). In addition to those positive lifestyle factors, supplements can play a role in preventing degenerative issues and maintaining eye health. Below, I will talk about a few of my favourite supplements for preserving healthy, sparkly eyes.

Fish Oil

Is there anything fish oil can’t do? Adequate supplies of omega 3’s, found most abundantly in fish oil are not only critical in the formation of eyes, but also relate to the proper functioning of the adult eye. Retinal development at the fetal and neonatal stage is highly dependent on an omega 3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This is partly why pregnant and breastfeeding mums are encouraged to take their fish oil. Omega 3’s can also help prevent macular degeneration, possibly by preserving the structure of the eye as well as inhibiting the inflammation that is thought to underlie the condition [1].

Of note, fish oil has also been shown to be effective at treating dry eye syndrome by increasing tear formation [2].

If you are trying to treat an eye condition, I suggest taking a fish oil supplement with 1,000 to 3,000 mg of combined DHA and EPA per day.

Bilberry

Close cousins with blueberries, billberry is a superstar herb for the eyes. A class of antioxidants found in bilberry (and many other dark pigmented berries) called anthocyanins are extremely protective to the body. These antioxidants protect the microvasculature (tiny blood vessels) in the body, including in the eye, improving circulation to the area and reducing inflammation.

Because of its ability to scavenge free radicals, reduce inflammation, and deliver oxygen and nutrients through better circulation, bilberry can protect and even treat conditions like cataracts and glaucoma that are thought to be caused by oxidative stress and poor blood flow [3].

If treating glaucoma, bilberry is most effective when combined with gingko biloba, another pro-circulatory herb [4]. If treating cataracts, another useful supplement to look into is n-acetyl-carnosine eye drops, which helps to clear the glycated proteins that contribute to a clouded lens.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

Not aliens from outer space, lutein and zeaxanthin (zee-ah-ZAN-thin) are actually the names of two types of carotenoids, which fall into the vitamin A family. Found abundantly in orange, red, and dark green plant foods, a deficiency in these nutrients is linked to macular degeneration and there is some evidence to show that supplementing with them can reverse this damage [5, 6].

Diet First!

As a nutritionist, with food being my primary tool for building and maintaining health, you know I’ve got to shout out to some foods that support eye health!

My favourite plant foods to support eye health include spirulina, dark leafy greens, and goji berries, all of which are dense sources of carotenoids.

While plant foods provide an abundance of health protective antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, there is something to be said about the use of animal products for their nutrient content. The eye-protective vitamin A found in animal products is considered to be an “active form” of vitamin A, which means it is ready to be used by the body. Carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene are vitamin A precursors and must be converted by the body before being used. In other words, the vitamin A from animal products like grass fed butter, egg yolks, cod liver oil, and liver might be more absorbable and easier to use.

As always, I highly encourage choosing organic animal products, as they tend to be more nutritious, ethical, and cleaner.

I hope these suggestions help you see clearer!


Alex Picot-Annand, BA (Psych), Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Certified Life Coach

Photo Credit: imelenchon

Resources:

1. http://activhealth.com.sg/research-papers/omega-3-intake-prevents-age-related-macular-degeneration

2. http://www.eyeworld.org/article-omega-3-and-dry-eye

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11302779

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22870951

5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20355006

6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15640510