While many Americans’ eyes are bigger than their stomach at the dining table, what actually goes into their stomach could protect their eye health as they grow older.
Mystique Grobe, a naturopathic physician, says certain nutrients are essential as people age to slow the progression of some eye diseases that can affect vision and even cause blindness.
Grobe, in private practice in Bellingham, says she has had a lot of questions from patients in recent months about eye health as patients have been diagnosed with progressive eye problems, such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. And she has received questions from patients who have a family history of eye disease.
As many as four million people over 40 years old in the United State suffer from vision loss from macular degeneration and glaucoma. Another 20 million have cataracts, the leading cause of low vision among Americans.
“There are a lot of people who want to be proactive about protecting their eye health,” Grobe says.
She says that for many patients, the connections between eye health and overall health have to be considered individually. But there are ways to steer your nutrition to help protect eye health as you age, Grobe says.
Glaucoma is vision loss caused by nerve damage to the optic nerve, often caused by increased fluid pressure in the eye. New studies have shown diabetes and high blood pressure are both risk factors for glaucoma, according to the American Optometric Association.
So regimens like the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), created by the U.S. Institutes of Health, can help reduce blood pressure and lessen the risk. Controlling diabetes through diet and medication, under supervision from your doctor, can also benefit eye health.
Berries, dark leafy greens, yellow and orange fruit, and carrots and winter squash all contain powerful antioxidants, including carotenoids, that can help protect cells throughout the body. The nutrients can help slow the progression of macular degeneration, a common eye disease among those over 50 that can slowly degrade vision, according to a variety of studies.
The disease slowly damages the macula, a small spot on the back of the retina that helps with sharp, clear vision when looking straight ahead.
Just like the rest of the body, eye tissue is constantly being repaired and cells replaced. Nutrients like antioxidants help cells repair more quickly and efficiently, especially as a body ages, Grobe says.
For people already diagnosed with macular degeneration, the National Institutes of Health also recommends high doses of certain vitamins and antioxidants found in a supplement called AREDS2, which can help protect vision.
Adding natural sources of vitamin C from oranges and from green vegetables like kale and spinach, and vitamin E from nuts and sweet potatoes, is also suggested to slow vision problems from macular degeneration.
Cataracts develop when proteins clump together on the lens of the eye, causing it to become opaque, blurring vision. Although correctible by surgery, Grobe says slowing the damage that causes cataracts could delay the need for surgery.
Akin to nutrients beneficial for people macular degeneration, studies have shown such antioxidants as lutein and zeaxanthin, found in leafy greens, eggs and vitamin C can reduce the risk of cataracts and slow their development, according to the American Optometric Association.
Grobe says adding leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, and a variety of berries to smoothies each day can get those important antioxidants into a daily diet.
Dry eye, resulting from the eye not producing tears effectively, can cause uncomfortable, stinging pain in the eye and can reduce vision clarity for many people. The American Optometric Association estimates as many as five million people over age 50 suffer from dry eye.
Dry eye can result from a variety of factors, including allergies, as a by-product of certain medications, hormone replacement therapy, or even as a result of laser eye surgery.
Grobe says recent studies have found that adding omega-3 fatty acid supplements, including fish oil and flax seed oil, can help reduce symptoms of dry eye. Eating a diet rich in such oily fish as salmon, herring and mackerel, or adding flax seeds or flax seed oils to your diet, is a natural way to get those nutrients.
The American Optometric Association says people concerned about eye health should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, which can provide as much as 100 milligrams of vitamin C and up to 6 milligrams of carotenoids. Eating at least two servings of nuts and/or seeds each day will provide at least 8 milligrams of vitamin E.
People diagnosed with age-related eye disease should discuss supplements with their doctor.