“We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the Weather.”
Bill Hicks had a point when he was describing a fictitious positive news story about a young man experiencing an acid trip. In our societal evolution we have given overarching importance to what we perceive with our eyes in deciding our reality, from whether our porridge looks exciting this morning and will taste like more than grey gloop, to the traffic in front of us on the roads and how late we’re going to be for work. But our eyes can be a creative tool also and as we’ll explore a little later, we can really benefit our ocular health by permitting our eyes to perform their creative role on a daily basis.
Our eye structure and function is incredibly complex, with the ability to take in about 10 million colours and perceive depth (stereopsis for all you nerds), and much like our heart muscle it never really gets a rest. Even when we sleep our eyes are constantly active! From the iris to the lens to the macula and more, all the component parts of eye are incredibly sensitive and require surprisingly vast proportions of our glucose metabolism and total calorie intake, especially when coupled with the portion of our brain taken up with supporting vision, the visual cortex. As an organ it is also uniquely predisposed to damage as it is necessarily exposed to so much radiation and other environmental toxins as it goes about its daily job. Just stop for a second and consider how much work your eyes have done in the last two minutes - they’re in a constant state of mild to medium stress and they need our help!
Also when we look after our eyes we really look after so much more than just the structure of the eye itself, as active maintenance of our eye health also supports mental acuity and thusly prevents cognitive decline. Operations such as “crossing the mid-line” supports the network of neurons that facilitate communication between the left and right hemispheres of our brain, allowing us to switch fluidly between logic oriented and creative tasks, and much much more.
The emergence of eye strain as a sort of RSI is a real threat to our long term eye health, as we sit mostly not focusing on anything further than 5 metres in front of us, and usually maintain a myopic focal point on a screen for most of our days. There’s so much information out there already for you guys in terms of reducing eye strain that we won’t labour the point about taking sufficient regular breaks etc, but one key point so often overlooked is our consumption of caffeine versus that of water. We need roughly 2 litres of water per day to keep our cells bathed in this fundamental liquid to support all of our body processes. One of the key functions of water is that it carries into our bodies a host of minerals in salt form, which we refer to as electrolytes. Every nerve impulse and muscle contraction requires a combination of these 7 minerals to function, so your hard working eye needs a steady supply of these electrolytes to keep eye strain at bay and optimise your vision throughout the day.
When we sweat we shed these vital minerals, and diuretics in our diet rob us even further of electrolytes, so considering our ever growing national caffeine addiction and the relative rarity of water addiction (in fact it’s not even listed as a potential vice), it’s not surprising that our cocktail of coffee and computers is putting some pressure on our collective eye health.
That leads us neatly onto the things we can put in our bodies to stave off the fuzzy foreground, and even enhance our ability to peer into the gloom - right let’s get to it.
Well actually anti-vision foods are the first port of call, and it’s super simple for this one. Carbohydrate consumption and the incidence of cataracts and AMD (age related macular degeneration) could not be more inextricably linked. If you want to do your eyes - and let’s face it most of your body -a big favour, try cutting down the sugar intake. One of the results from the metabolism of all carbohydrates is the production of AGE’s (advanced glycation end products). In small amounts our body is built with a resilient anti-oxidant system to quench their potential damage, but the unfortunate impact of their overproduction is (amongst other things) significant damage to your retina as they cause lesions in the tiny capillaries that feed our eyes. This is most obviously borne out in diabetics where diabetic retinopathy is a common long term fallout from the excess circulating blood glucose. Now it’s not that bleak for all of us, but certainly worth keeping in mind if we have any signs of diminishing sight.
It’s so boring talking about cutting carbs, so let’s move on to the foods we can focus on to assist and support our ocular health.
Them greens! Them yellows and reds! Yup it’s that old shtick, green foods are such little powerhouses of nutrition, your grandmother wasn’t wrong. When it comes to eyes, parsley, kale and spinach are WICKED sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, members of the carotenoid group of nutrients, and key macular pigment proteins that have been demonstrated to effectively protect from both AMD and cataracts. With AMD expected to rise between 30 and 50% from 2010 - 2020 (ironically unfortunate date I know), we could all do with sitting up and taking notice of this one. Other sources of these carotenoids include egg yolks, salmon, peppers, sweet potatoes and most other yellow, red and green veggies.
The other group of nutrients that are absolutely vital to our vision are the purple foods - so if you’re feasting on a handful of blueberries each day, or mainlining beetroot juice for breakfast, then you can skip this bit - you guys can read the signposts for the rest of us. For all us mere mortals less in the know, the dark blue and purple foods contain a group of antioxidants known as OPC’s (oligomeric proanthocyanidins for short!). These unpronounceable characters help to stop those pesky AGE’s (yes this is getting confusing…) from damaging the little blood vessels responsible for transporting nutrients and oxygen to the back of the eye. There are some really significant studies demonstrating the effectiveness of this simple dietary intervention, so if you aren’t already reaching for the fruit bowl, get on it!
Lot’s of nutrients support the activity of the eye, but just a couple stand out and are worth a mention here. First up - zinc. Zinc not only serves as an antioxidant to prevent oxidative stress from harming our vision, but it also assists in the transport of vitamin A from our liver to the eye, which is a vital part of maintaining and protecting the retina from damage. And its most significant partner in fighting ocular crime is called selenium. Selenium and zinc together help to balance ocular pressure, reducing the risk of glaucoma, while selenium is known for helping to prevent the build up of old cells on the retina that leads to cataracts.
Essential fats also deserve a mention as they play a crucial role in maintaining hydration of the eyeball, preventing dry eyes. Fish oil supplements are obviously good from time to time as a preventative here, and flax oil is the only supplement that opticians consistently send their clients into us to get to help with dry eye symptoms, which are especially common in perimenopausal women.
So onto the herbs! Well if you’ve been awake to this point it’s pretty clear that supporting circulation to the eye and preventing oxidative stress therein are the key pillars for maintaining vital vision into our senior years. When it comes to herbs, with a couple of exceptions, it’s no different.
Herbs are funny things, we either treat them as weeds or high potency supplements, but really they’re neither. Used correctly they’re just another adjunct to a wholesome diet, and they’re grouped by their properties meaning that we can tailor them to suit our specific needs without feeling like (or actually) we’re surviving on a diet of pill food. A lot of herbs are best taken in infusions or teas, while some will require us taking tinctures, which is one of the oldest forms of supplementation, and gives us greater access to their medicinal properties.
Possibly the best known herb for supporting eye health is Euphrasia, (otherwise known as Eyebright - the hint’s in there somewhere...maybe if we get a magnifying glass…) which has been traditionally used to support all manner of eye health issues including ‘weak eyes’ whatever that meant in medieval times. All we know is that it seems to work as an eye tonic for eye strain and conjunctivitis and based on traditional use may aid in preventing cataracts.
It’s often combined with herbs such as raspberry leaf and goldenseal, and our next focus - cayenne. Cayenne is SUCH a staple in our store cupboard and apothecary, due to its myriad of benefits as a culinary spice and as an unparallelled combination of anti-inflammatory, cardiac tonic and first aid remedy to staunch bleeding (it doesn’t hurt as much as it sounds like it will!). In terms of eye health, we need to regulate inflammatory response to prevent breakdown of the delicate blood vessels, we also need to support that circulation AND we want to reduce the leakage from weakened capillary walls. So once again, cayenne comes up trumps.
Gotu Kola is another great herb that systemically supports the cardiovascular system, and in particular the micro-arterial supply that feeds our brain, our extremities such as our hands and feet and yes, our eyes too. Somewhat comparable to Ginkgo Biloba, gotu kola has a long history of use around brain health - but the good thing is that, with Ginkgo unavailable in Ireland thanks to a fairly backward regulator (take a bow the HPRA), even though it’s the most popular herbal remedy safely sold all around Europe and the rest of the world, it’s nice to know gotu kola has got us covered.
One last one to mention, well it’s sort of two at once. Grapeseed extract and pycnogenol are two incredibly rich sources of OPC’s, and their effect on reducing thread veins, spider veins and varicose veins has been really well documented. It’s amazing how we only consider the vein we can see to be a problem, but it’s often the ones we can’t see that we need to be looking after, so using GSE or pycnogenol is a good idea periodically, like a lot of other preventative health protocols, as an insurance policy against declining health.
There’s lots of decent ways to support your eye health and avoid eye strain, but if you feel your vision suddenly dipping, as it can after pregnancy or an acute stressful period when all your body systems are put under increased pressure, there’s a great simple self care system known as the Bates Method that can really help you to restore sight, and if you don’t have a meditative practice already going on, this can be the start of one, as it encourages you to slow down, work with your breath and tune in to your body’s rhythms. It involves taking a few minutes each day to practice a couple of simple techniques that train your eye to transition between near and far sight, and to draw images with your eyes closed - sounds nutty I know but it’s a really well proven technique, so go give it a try! Here’s a link to a great youtube instructional that’ll have you diving into your new routine in no time.
So I hope this has been some help - it’s one of those long game scenarios, where for most of us it’s a slow and inexorable decline as opposed to a sudden drop off in visual acuity, so it can be hard to put these new herbs, foods and protocols into practice without an immediate goal or result in mind. But pretty much all the recommendations we’ve made here will have a significant trickle down effect on lots of other body systems like your heart and your brain too. It’s what we always aim at with holistic medicine - in order to treat one part we have to treat the whole. Now get away from this screen and go focus on a distant mountain, or telegraph pole, try to see the details, get lost in this rich visual landscape a bit, just not while driving!!