Our eyes are our windows to everything going on around us and without doubt are classed as the most important of our sensory organs. In fact they are the only organ we have that is actually visible on the outside of our body. Our sense of sight allows us to distinguish colors, movement, text, distance and shapes, to name a few, and without it the world would be a very different place to live in. Every single day our eyes are exposed to a whole range of elements, many of which we don’t even know are there, such as pollution, airborne toxins, pollen, dust and sunlight. Overtime, all of these can take their toll on our eyes and vision, leaving them at potential risk of the development of eye related conditions and a general deterioration in eye health.
As September is the month of ‘Eye Health Week’ (18-24th Sept), what better time to have a closer look at some great ways that specific nutrition and certain foods can help protect our eyes and make sure they remain as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. So read on to find out what foods our eyes love and why.
Popeye may have used spinach for his muscles, but you can use it to maintain your eyes! Spinach contains a carotenoid called Lutein, which is a type of antioxidant and which is commonly referred to as the ‘eye vitamin’. This is because Lutein can help to protect our vision, prevent against eye diseases, reduce incidence of cataracts and protect from age related macular degeneration (AMD), what more could you want from a vegetable? Lutein is present naturally in some tissues of the body including the eyes, but we don’t produce it naturally and it must be consumed as part of our diet. One main benefit of Lutein is that it helps block out visible blue light, which is one of the large causes of light induced damage to the eyes, which can massively impair vision over time. Another carotenoid that also helps protect eye health and guard against harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight is called zeaxanthin and you will be pleased to know this is also found in spinach too! Other food sources high in Lutein and zeaxanthin include eggs (specifically the yolks), broccoli, kale and courgettes, so getting eating those greens (and yellows)!
Some fats are not made by the body and thus must be consumed through our diet. These fats are termed ‘essential fats’ or ‘essential fatty acids’. One type of essential fatty acid is Omega 3 and this essential fat in particular has shown to be very important for the maintenance of eye health. Omega 3 fatty acids are found abundantly in oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. A large European study found that people who ate oily fish at least once per week had half the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration compared with those people who ate oily fish less than once a week. AMD is a painless eye condition that causes loss of central vision, usually in both eyes and something that can be a common complaint in old age.
Omega 3 fatty acids have also shown to be very beneficial for those people who suffer from the common condition of dry eye syndrome. This is where the eyes don’t make enough tears or when the tears evaporate too quickly leaving the eyes feeling continually dry. Research has shown that consuming Omega 3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of dry eyes, especially in older people (age 45-84).
Hyaluronic Acid / Hyaluronan
Hyaluronic acid, also known as Hyaluronan or HA, is a substance found naturally in the human body and, among other places, is found naturally in the vitreous humor (fluid) of the eye and acts as a lubricant and shock absorber. It is also an ingredient you may recognise from certain cosmetic ingredients as it is often added to skin creams due to its positive effects on the skin and anti-aging effects. HA is great for helping maintain overall eye health and reducing the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, especially as we get older when natural levels of HA in the eye, and elsewhere in the body, start to decrease. Although HA can be bought in supplement form, there are also many foods that contain it naturally and which should be on your eye health menu!
The best sources of natural HA are from homemade broths made by cooking down the bones of left over roast dinners, spare ribs or other meat joints. Bone broths have been made and consumed for centuries all over the world and eaten as a nutritious addition to the diet and used often to help heal the unwell. Boiling the bones down to make a broth releases large amounts of hyaluronic acid, collagen and glucosamine as well as other nutrients stored naturally within the bones and joints, which then give us benefit when we consume it. If you don’t mind eating liver, then this is also a great source of HA.
Although root vegetables also contain HA, unfortunately it is to a much smaller extent compared to broth and liver. Potatoes (including sweet potatoes), carrots and parsnips are all good root vegetables to consume to help boost your HA levels. It’s important to note that the mineral magnesium is required for our bodies to produce HA naturally, so consuming magnesium rich foods will also help here. Good food sources of magnesium include goats’ milk, bananas, green leafy vegetables and nuts. The root vegetables mentioned above also contain magnesium so provide a great combination.
Dairy foods including milk, yogurt and cheese can be especially helpful in keeping our eyes healthy. This is particularly due to the high levels of a specific B vitamin called Riboflavin (Vitamin B2). This vitamin is one of the eye’s best friends, as it can help protect against the development of cataracts, which can often develop as we grow older. In fact research has shown that a deficiency in B vitamins, including Riboflavin, increases the risk of the developing cataracts and as our body does not store this vitamin, you need to ensure you are eating it in your diet regularly. Riboflavin also acts as an antioxidant, which are powerful substances that can help protect the body from damage as they help fight the oxidation process, which is a chemical reaction that leads to cell damage. Riboflavin therefore helps protect the cells that make up our eyes, and benefits vision.
In today’s modern world, it is common for people to experience eye fatigue, especially with so many people staring at screens for prolonged periods of time. In some people this can result in twitching / spasms of the upper or lower eye lids, which can certainly become irritating if experienced regularly. Riboflavin can also help with this as this vitamin has been shown to help relieve eye strain and eye fatigue.
All of Delamere Dairy goats’ products are good sources of Riboflavin. Other sources of Riboflavin include beef, lamb, soybeans, broccoli, salmon, avocados, mushrooms and almonds.
These may be small, but good things come in small packages and this is the case with sunflower seeds when it comes to eye health. The main reason for this is that sunflower seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, which similar to Riboflavin, has been shown to help reduce the formation of cataracts. Vitamin E has also been shown to help prevent loss of eyesight during the ageing process. Sunflower oil is also just as good here, so this can also be used in the diet. Nuts, especially almonds, are a high source of Vitamin E, so consuming plenty of seeds and nuts in your diet can be very beneficial when it comes to protecting eyes.
This may not be a herb that is commonly heard of in the UK, as it is native to North America, but it is part of the buttercup family, which is likely to be recognisable to most people. Goldenseal can be wonderful when it comes to treating eye infections, not by consuming it, but by bathing eyes with it. Goldenseal has antibiotic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, mainly attributed to the chemical it contains called Berberine, which helps explain its popularity in helping with a variety of conditions including those that effect the eye such as conjunctivitis (especially if caused by an infection).
Many people also find Goldenseal beneficial for soothing eye irritation caused by pollutants or pollens. You can easily make a goldenseal eyewash by adding 1teaspoon of goldenseal root powder (available at health food stores or online) to approx. 250ml of boiling water. Cover and allow to steep for 20-30 minutes, before then straining the liquid and removing all the herb particles. Once cooled, you can then use this solution to bath and rinse the affected eye up to three times a day until relief is felt.
Just as certain foods can help eye health, there are certain things that can negatively impact on eye health and one of those things is alcohol. When it comes to alcohol and eye health, less is definitely more. Heavy alcohol consumption is believed to increase the risk of early development of age-related macular degeneration and also negatively affects the absorption of vitamins in the liver, which are needed to maintain eye health and healthy vision. B1 deficiency can be common in people who drink high amounts of alcohol and this deficiency can actually cause weakness and/or paralysis of the muscles found in the eye and can lead to permanent damage of the optic nerve (the nerve that transmits messages from the retina in the eye to the brain).
Alcohol also dilates the blood vessels in the eye, which can lead to blood shot and enlarged eyes. If that wasn’t enough, excessive consumption of alcohol, especially over prolonged periods, can also lead to involuntary eye movements and double vision, so if these are symptoms you suffer with make sure to review your alcohol intake.
Sight is often something we can take for granted and it is not until we start to lose it or there becomes a noticeable problem with the eyes that we start to take note. Don’t let your eye health deteriorate before your very eyes, start to add the foods named above into your weekly diet and protect your sight for all those years ahead of you!