Bad news – light can hurt you. If you’ve ever been sunburned, you know this for a fact – ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can burn your skin if you don’t protect yourself with sunscreen. Research has shown that overexposure to the high-energy visible blue light can, indeed, damage our skin. But what about the other organ that comes into frequent contact with light? What about the eye?
The eye is a very special organ – did you know that you can diagnose many diseases through an eye exam? That is because the eyes are also the only place in the body where blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue are visible – from the outside. Even AI is jumping on board to make the diagnosis even easier. Unfortunately, this also means that there are a lot of intricate structures in the eye, all easily damaged by light – UV and otherwise. Macular degeneration, also known as progressive blindness, is associated with old age. However, there is a growing epidemic of this kind of eye damage among young people as well.
The American Optometric Association’s (AOA) 2015 American Eye-Q® survey revealed that the average American spends seven or more hours per day looking at screens of digital devices. According to a 2015 report from The Vision Council (an organization that represents the collective knowledge of the vision industry,) nearly 7-in-10 millennials and Gen-Xers (people born 1965-1996) reported showed symptoms of eye strain — a known risk factor and starting point for macular degeneration.
The symptoms of eyestrain seem minor: dry, irritated, tired eyes; blurred vision; and headaches and pain in the neck and back. For most people, their response will be to rub the aches out of their eyes and muscles, reach for another cup of coffee, and soldier on. However, this is the wrong response: each symptom is a sign of your eyes being seriously stressed, even damaged. Your eyes are telling you that something is wrong and, though the damage may be small, over time this can lead to macular degeneration and other long-term vision problems.
The people reporting this condition had something in common – a lot of exposure to blue light, especially damaging light that is found in bright sunlight, but also streams from computer screens. We are being exposed to more blue light than ever because of these omnipresent device screens, as well as from fluorescent and LED lights. In our busy, technology-driven world, we stare at these screens all day and – for some of us – a good chunk of the night. This disrupts healthy sleep-wake cycles and damages the retina – the part of the eye that senses light and allows us to see.
There are many ways to deal with of eyestrain. We can limit our screen time, to a degree, but this might not be feasible for everyone to do. After all, so much of work, everyday activities, studying, and leisure time involves a screen these days. Many devices have a “night mode” that emits less blue light, and special computer glasses can be used much like sunglasses to shield the eyes. If the damage is already done, there are many prescription glasses, surgeries, surgical implants, and even medical therapies – such as stem cell therapy – that can help restore eyesight.
But these are costly; What if you could protect your eyes from damage just by eating properly? A good diet is great for overall health, but if you pay attention to the nutrients that are particularly good for the eyes, it can keep you seeing clearly for a long time to come.
Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, E, and many others are one such nutrient. They are easily found in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. Their job is to protect the body’s muscles and organs, including the retina of the eye, from being damaged by free oxygen radicals. Free oxygen radicals, also known as “free radicals” or “oxidants,” are oxygen molecules that have been supercharged by an energy source – even from the body’s own energy generators. They transfer that energy wherever they go, breaking important structures throughout the body. Free oxygen radicals are associated with many age-related diseases – in the eye, where they are supercharged by blue light, they contribute to macular degeneration.
Antioxidants react with these out-of-control molecules, taking away their charge, removing them from the body’s cells, and preventing them from causing damage. In the eye, antioxidants have been shown to lower the risk of cataracts – white clouding in the lens of the eye, to slow macular degeneration, and to prevent the loss of visual acuity – the ability to see in detail.
Carotenoids, in particular, are powerful antioxidants. Humans and other mammals get this important nutrient by eating plants, especially dark leafy greens and red, orange, or yellow fruits or vegetables. Some kinds of edible flowers, such as marigolds, are a rich source of carotenoids. Carrots and tomatoes are particularly packed with these substances – So, if you heard that carrots can help improve your vision, then you heard right.
Carotenoids are also an important part of how the body defends itself against blue and ultraviolet light. Most carotenes are transformed into vitamin A in the liver, which is then transported using zinc (another important nutrient) to the eyes and skin in order to become melanin. Well known as the pigment that gives hair, eyes, and skin their brown color, melanin protects tissues by blocking (or, more accurately, absorbing) blue and ultraviolet light before they can damage anything. Melanin also pulls double duty as an antioxidant, and triple duty as a part of good night vision.
A healthy diet for your eyes will also include “good” fats. Fish, as well as some plants (such as flaxseed, algae, and moringa) are a great source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. These poly-unsaturated “good” fats help keep the heart and immune system working well and may have a lot of other benefits throughout the body. They are also the building blocks for the protective sheathes around neurons in the eyes and brain, keeping the cells of the brain and retina free of damage. The more you eat, the more protected these neurons are, preventing vision loss. As an added bonus, these “good” fats can also help the body better absorb and use carotenoids, boosting their healthful effects.
The best diet for eye health is a generally good diet all around. If you are on a diet for your heart, kidneys, or for diabetes, your eyes would also benefit. This is because each of these diets involve eating lean meats (especially fish,) lots of fruits and vegetables (especially green, leafy vegetables), and also eggs, nuts, beans, and seeds. Carrots, tomatoes, eggs, and citrus fruits are on all of these diets to take advantage of their high antioxidant content. And, of course, any doctor will recommend that you always drink plenty of water to go with your healthy balanced meal.
You will be cutting back on fatty foods, carbohydrates, sugar, and salt, which can sound like a lot to give up… but between the nutrition you will be getting and the not-so-good things you’ll be avoiding, it will be worth it: You’ll not only reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack and reduce your symptoms of kidney disease and diabetes, but you’ll also be helping your eyes – a lot.
Of course, the best part about a good, healthy diet is that it is also easy on the wallet. Not only are vegetables and fruits available at most grocery stores, but they are much less expensive than many processed foods. Or, when they are, they are only slightly more expensive – a small cost that is then offset by the savings that you get from better health. It’s also easy to do – there is no special cooking method, no special vitamin mixes, just good food.
Cheap, easy, and vital – Protecting your eyes can start as soon as today, with a run to a grocery store and a nice dinner. What’s keeping you?