Eye health: Keeping your eyes healthy
We only get one set of eyes, so it makes sense to look after them as best we can. Discover the best nutrients to help protect your peepers.
As we age, natural changes occur which can affect our vision and eye health.
These include presbyopia, where the lens stiffens and it becomes harder to focus on objects close by – hello reading glasses!
We can also experience dry eye syndrome, where the eyes either don’t make enough tears or our tears evaporate too quickly. This leads to a gritty, sore feeling and red, irritated eyes.
Ageing eye conditions
Some more serious eye conditions are also a result of getting older.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is caused by damage to the retina – the layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye – and can lead to blindness.
Signs of AMD include blind spots and seeing wavy lines.
Cataracts, where the lens clouds over and makes it difficult to see clearly, are another by-product of old age.
No one is really sure what causes cataracts, but a family history of cataracts and some conditions including diabetes can make developing them more likely.
Keep an eye on eye health
It's advisable to have an eye test every two years (more often if you have any eye conditions) so your optician can monitor any changes in your eye health.
Your diet can also make a significant difference to how your eyes age. The following natural ingredients have been scientifically proven to help keep your peepers healthy:
Lutein and zeaxanthin
These free radical-fighting antioxidants are carotenoids, or the yellow pigments, found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.
They naturally collect in the macula – the central part of the retina – and absorb the harmful blue rays from sunlight that can damage retinal cells, acting like a natural pair of sunglasses.
Studies show getting enough lutein and zeaxanthin significantly reduces your risk of AMD.
In a major piece of US research into age-related eye diseases, the AREDS2 study, people who had poor amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin in their diets were 25% less likely to get AMD when they took these nutrients as supplements.
Time to get your daily green juice, or start taking a supplement.
Omega-3 for eye health
Taking fish oils may help to ease dry eyes and improve the quality of the tear film, which stops tears evaporating from our eyes.
A study published in the Journal of the British Contact Lens Association in 2015 reported that those taking omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oils, for three months had a decreased tear evaporation rate.
Up your dose of omega-3 by eating two portions of oily fish a week or taking an omega-3 supplement.
How antioxidant vitamins can help
AREDS studies have also shown that the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help slow down AMD. They may also help improve tear quality.
Researchers in the US and China have linked these vitamins with a reduced risk of cataracts too, although studies concluded that more research is needed.
You can try taking supplements of vitamins A, C and E, or look for a formula containing a targeted blend of nutrients for eye health.
The role of vitamin A in eye health
The term ‘vitamin A’ refers to a group of antioxidant compounds.
In the food we eat, vitamin A is derived from two sources; animal (known as retinol), and from fruits and vegetables (known as provitamin A carotenoids).
Not only does vitamin A promote general health, it also helps protect the eyes and it might help slow the progress of more serious eye conditions.
Vitamin also A protects the surface of the eye (cornea), by lubricating the cells which is why vitamin A is often added to eye drops.
Luckily, Vitamin A is easy to obtain through diet and has many other health benefits such as bone growth, skin health and keeping your immune system healthy.
Researchers at the National Eye Institute in the US discovered that taking high levels of a combination of nutrients (including beta-carotene which your body converts into vitamin A) and zinc can reduce the risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) by around 25% over a six-year period.1
Foods that are rich in vitamin A include brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as oranges, apricots, carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, as well as eggs and other dairy products.
Eat to keep your eyes healthy
Eating certain nutrients can help keep your vision laser-sharp.
Fading eyesight is often the ‘joke’ inside birthday cards for older relatives, but it’s no joke that ageing can affect our vision and eye health.
Cases of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are on the increase.
The condition, which can lead to blurry vision and blindness, currently affects around 513,000 people in the UK over the age of 50 and experts predict this will rise to 700,000 by 2020.2
What is AMD?
The macula is found in the middle of the retina at the back of the eye. It is responsible for our central vision, and helps us pick out fine details, see colours and read.
In AMD, the macula cells start to deteriorate, so you may find it more difficult to focus on a book or newspaper or recognise someone’s face.
AMD can develop quickly, over a few days or weeks, or very gradually. If you start to notice any of the symptoms above, see your GP or an optometrist.
How does zeaxanthin help eye health?
Blue light, also known as high-energy visible or HEV light, causes damage to the macula, increasing the risk of AMD.
The bad news is blue light is emitted by the sun, indoor lighting, gadgets like smartphones and computers, and the TV.
The good news is antioxidants including zeaxanthin can help.
Zeaxanthin naturally protects plants from the damaging effects of sun exposure by absorbing excess light energy, so could it do the same for us?3
What is zeaxanthin?
Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid, found in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, orange peppers, courgettes, as well as egg yolks.4
We store it in the macula along with lutein and meso-zeaxanthin, known as the macular pigment.
Together, these antioxidants are thought to block blue light from penetrating and damaging the retina.
People with AMD, or who have a high risk of developing the condition, tend to have lower levels of macular pigment.
However, one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994 concluded that that those who get more zeaxanthin in their diet are less likely to develop AMD.5
How can I up my zeaxanthin?
Not a big fan of eating greens?
The second Age-Related Eye Disease Study, a major piece of US research, found that supplements containing zeaxanthin and lutein could reduce the risk of AMD progression by 25% in those who don’t get a lot of the antioxidants in their diets.6
Zeaxanthin can even reverse the effects of AMD.
A study of those with early signs of AMD found their eyesight improved by an average of 1.5 lines on an eye test chart when they took zeaxanthin supplements every day for a year.7
5 easy ways to look after your eyes
From upping your fruit and veg intake to taking screen breaks – put that phone down! – find five simple steps to achieving healthy peepers below.
Sun protection doesn’t just apply to the SPF you put on your skin – your eyes need protecting, too.
Make sure your sunglasses have the CE mark, or British Standard BS EN ISO 12312-1.8This means they offer a high level of UV protection.
Your sunglasses might also carry the BS 2724 mark. This means they have a ‘shade number’, which refers to the amount of UV light they let through.
The higher the shade number, the more protection they offer.9
Take screen breaks
There’s no evidence that staring at a computer all day can cause eye problems, but they can get tired after looking at a screen for hours.10
This is why it’s important to take regular screen breaks.
Stick to the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet (6m) away for 20 seconds.
This gives your eyes a rest and increases the ‘blink rate’ – when you focus on a screen, your blinking slows down, leading to dry and uncomfortable eyes.11
Eat lots of fruit and veggies
A healthy diet is important for everyone, but there are some foods that can help protect your eye health.
Experts from Harvard Medical School say the antioxidants vitamins A, C, E and mineral zinc may help delay the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD).12
AMD affects the macula, a part of the retina at the back of the eye.
The macula is very sensitive to oxidative stress, so antioxidant nutrients may help protect the retina and your eyesight.13
Lutein and zeaxanthin – carotenoids found in veg such as orange peppers, spinach, corn and kale – can also protect eye health.
Several major US studies have found that those with low lutein and zeaxanthin levels who up their intake are less likely to develop AMD, and also reduce their risk of AMD progression by 25%.14,15
Smokers double their risk of developing AMD, and are more likely to get it earlier than non-smokers too.16
It’s thought that toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke – there are over 4,500 – accelerate the ageing process in the eye, while smoking also causes blood vessels to narrow, reducing the supply of fresh oxygen and nutrients to the eye.17
So stub out your habit today.
Have regular eye tests
Even if you don’t wear glasses or contact lenses, you should get your eyes tested every two years – especially once you hit 40.
An optometrist can spot various conditions, such as glaucoma, that don’t cause any painful symptoms but could lead to sight loss if they’re not treated in time.18
Don’t wait to see an optometrist if you notice any changes in your vision, such as trouble reading or difficulties seeing long distances.