I think most people would agree that eye sight is something you want to look after carefully. Yet every year New Zealanders are losing their sight or becoming visually impaired due to a number of degenerative diseases. Macular degeneration (affecting 1 in 7 over the age of 50), Glaucoma affecting 2% of the population, and Diabetic Retinopathy (a complication of diabetes our fastest growing health issue in New Zealand). These conditions generally occur as we get older due to damage or deterioration in the structures of the eye.
Deterioration is generally cause by oxidative damage, where free radicals produced from everyday body processes attack and destroy our cells. As we age this damage increases and our ability to repair slows down; hence structures in the body become damaged. One of the answers to so many of our health problems is to increase our body’s antioxidant status to help protect our cells from damage. Antioxidants are abundant in so many of our fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. However for eye health some have proven to be more effective than others as we can see below.
The carotenoid family are antioxidants that can found in the orange or red plant pigmented foods that we eat. They are generally helpful for protecting against cellular damage, but particularly for protecting the eyes. There are several different forms, but most of the research is on beta-carotene, astaxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin.
If any of you have mothers that said carrots would help you see in the dark they were not wrong. Beta-carotene, the orange pigment found in carrots, is the reason why eating carrots can be helpful for protecting eye health. It is also found in many of our other red and orange fruits and vegetables and is a precursor to vitamin A; a vitamin known to be essential for eye development and health. Vitamin A also helps protect the surface of the eye (cornea).
With regards to Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) there is a large body of evidence suggesting lutein and zeaxanthin would be the best types of carotenoids to use for prevention. Most of this information has been gathered through large randomized clinical studies (AREDS and AREDS2) which have been going for many years in Europe. These studies have shown that a combination of zeaxanthin, lutein and other vitamins and minerals such as selenium, zinc, copper, vitamins C & E have the ability to significantly reduce or slow down the disease process in those that already have AMD. Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoid pigments naturally present in the macular region of the eye where they help protect against the damaging effects of blue light from the sun and other sources such as computers and other electrical devices.
You may be interested to know that lutein and zeaxanthin are the only carotenoids that readily cross the blood brain barrier where they account for 77% of total carotenoids. In the AREDS2 trial they were combined with the omega-3 fish oil docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to help protect against AMD. In another study this combination was also shown to improve memory scores and rates of learning in healthy older adults. 5
Zeaxanthin and lutein can be found in foods such as egg yolk, corn, cooked spinach and most dark green leafy vegetables, kiwi fruit, grapes, orange juice, zucchini, and different kinds of squash/pumpkins.
These are antioxidants found in our red, blue and purple kinds of food. Many fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins such as berries, asparagus, eggplant, plums, grapes, pomegranates, kidney beans and cherries.
As well as protecting our eyes from oxidative damage they also have anti-inflammatory effects and have a tightening and strengthening effect on the small capillaries of the eye, helping maintain blood flow. This makes them particularly useful for protecting the eyes against diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and glaucoma.
Bilberries are one of the most studied berries when it comes to positive effects on eyesight, specifically vision in low light conditions and night vision. English pilots in World War II paved the way for this discovery after they made the association between eating Bilberry jam and having improved night vision for bombing raids. In general bilberries can help protect against everyday eye strain from using all our numerous electrical devices and anthocyanins like carotenoids help protect again the damaging effects of blue light.
So you can see that by eating this vast array of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables we are protecting our eyes into our old age, as well as our overall health.
By Jane Cronin, Clinicians Naturopath
Clinicians VisionCare with Lutein is a Vitamin, Mineral and Carotenoid combination designed to support eye health. It provides 6mg of Lutein and 309mcg of Zeaxanthin. Buy it now from our secure online shop.
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Blind Foundation http://blindfoundation.org.nz/learn/blindness/eye-conditions
Pub Med PMID 12134711 The Role of Carotenoids in Human Health http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12134711
In-Tele-Health © 2013 (from Hyperhealth Pro CD-ROM)
Johnson EJ. A possible role for lutein and zeaxanthin in cognitive function in the elderly. The American journal of clinical nutrition. Nov 2012;96(5):1161S-1165S.