In today’s ever-changing environment, there are many different recommendations on how to keep your body healthy—get 10,000 steps a day, have at least 60 minutes of exercise 5 days a week, eat healthy, get 8 hours of sleep, etc. But what about keeping your eyes healthy?
With life expectancy continuously getting longer and longer, what can we do to keep our eyes in tip-top shape and prolong good vision?
As the phrase goes—“you are what you eat”. In order to keep our bodies healthy, we need to eat right—this concept extends into eye health as well. To understand how food can impact the eye, it is best to understand some basic eye anatomy.
Throughout the body there are blood vessels—arteries bring fresh blood into the organs and veins remove used up blood and bring it back to the heart and lungs to be replenished with nutrients.
That’s right—the blood contains much more than just red blood cells! In fact, only roughly 45% of blood is actually red blood cells. The remaining 55% is called plasma—a clear substance containing proteins, vitamins, glucose, and other nutrients.
The cells of the body—regardless of tissue type—require a stable blood flow for proper nutrition in order to survive. Too little blood can lead to ischemia, or death of the tissue.
The eyes are rather complex organs. In order to maintain clear vision they do not have as many blood vessels to provide nourishment to the system.
This does not, however, mean that the eyes do not require blood and nutrients for proper function. Instead, the eyes have an in-depth filtration system in which blood is filtered and specific nutrients are let into the eye, while the rest is kept outside of the eye. Think about this as a big gate being around the eye—in order to enter the eye you must be granted clearance from certain cells to enter and be used up.
The eyes obtain access to nutrients through two major routes in the eye—the aqueous humor and the choroidal vasculature.
The aqueous humor provides the front structures of the eye with the nutrition they need. It is filtered through a structure called the major arterial circle of the iris, commonly referred to as MACI.
MACI is made by two large arteries coming together to form a circular network. This intersection contains tight junctions that only allow certain nutrients to pass through—think about those gates mentioned earlier, these cells are the gatekeepers!
We do not want too many things in the eye as this can lead to opaque build ups accumulating on structures and causing vision problems. However we also do not want too few nutrients to get into the eye because the eye will starve.
Likewise, the back of the eye—the retina—is supplied by a vascular network within the choroid. The choroid is a multi-layered structure filled with normal blood vessels (choriocapillaris), however in order for nutrients to pass into the retina they must pass through a layer called Bruch’s Membrane, and then a second layer of tightly connected cells called the Retinal Pigmented Epithelium (RPE).
The RPE is essential for maintaining retina health. If these cells get damaged the retina will undergo irreversible damage that can result in permanent vision loss. This is where good nutrition comes into play.
With age, we can get an accumulation of unwanted nutrients stuck in Bruch’s membrane, called drusen, that “clog” the route of good nutrients into the RPE. Without the nutrients, the retina starves and dies, leading to permanent vision loss.
Therefore, we can consume healthy fruits, vegetables, and vitamins to help prevent any “clogging” of the vasculature, or simply directly provide the nutrients to the eye.
The best things we can consume for eye health are foods high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are nutrients that are literally “anti” “oxidant” meaning they help to remove unwanted wastes from the body.
In the eye, some of the most important anti-oxidants are zeaxanthin and lutein. These two vitamins are the major players for supplying a part of the retina called the macula. The macula is the part of the eye responsible for your 20/20 vision and is essentially the single-most important part of the eye.
There are several foods that are high in antioxidants. Consuming them at least 2-3 times a week can help to promote eye health. These foods include: Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Kale, Spinach, Red Cabbage, Artichokes, Beans, Fish (or Fish Oil), and believe it or not—Dark Chocolate!
You may have heard of a disease called macular degeneration. Macular degeneration occurs when drusen accumulates in Bruch’s membrane and starves off the retina in the macular region. When we have lumps and bumps underneath the macula, we lose our good, central 20/20 vision.
To help combat macular degeneration, doctors prescribe a vitamin called the AREDS 2 formula. AREDS 2 is a vitamin made specifically for the eye containing all of the key nutrients it needs to survive including zeaxanthin, lutein, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
While the AREDS 2 vitamin cannot reverse damage that already exists, it is thought to slow the progression of the disease.
Other reasons why antioxidant foods are important is to help keep the eye healthy against UV light.
Especially in today’s world where blue UV light is so popular with cellphones, TVs, computers, etc. it is more important than ever to consume proper amounts of antioxidants to keep the eye healthy.
Antioxidants not only help to keep the retina healthy, but they help to keep the lens of the eye clear as well. It is currently hypothesized that excess amounts of UV light (whether it be from the sun or from electronics) with too little antioxidants could lead to early onset of cataracts (clouding of the lens resulting in decreased vision and problems with glare).
To summarize all of this, the best way to keep your eyes healthy is to take good care of them! Having a diet rich in purple fruits, green leafy vegetables, and fish/omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to wearing proper eyewear protection, and yearly eye exams can all help to prolong the life of vision.
When in doubt, call your eye doctor! When it comes to the eyes, it is always best to intervene early. You only get two eyes, so it’s best to take good care of them!