Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We’re right in the bit in between the past and the future, where vision is more precious than ever, where our world’s leaders have less and less to offer in this regard, essentially having been demoted to money managers or otherwise transformed into terrifying despotic visionaries, with less and less of an eye on the needs of the public they are there to serve. In this time, where we feel blinded by the storms of circumstance that rage around us, where we put our attention is what becomes real for us. If our eyes are buried in screens yelling at us about the rules, the deaths, the wars, and famines – then that is what occupies our minds and our hearts. But if we choose to compassionately take our eyes from these things to look to our surroundings, look at the birdlife from our balconies, take in the shining eyes and smiling faces that our neighbours have when we connect with them and share our loads – these are uses for our eyes that will heal our hearts, storing positive images in a time when it is more vital than ever to bank some happy memories.
Your Eyes are Always On
Your 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 the 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!
The Optic Gym – Eye Exercise
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. Exercises such as “crossing the mid-line” (part of an eye health training protocol known as the Bates Method), support 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. This process helps to retrain our vision and exercise the parts of eye muscle that are left out when we’re in constant myopic iPhone mode.
To do this, just hold your right arm straight out in front of you. Now put your thumb up in that traditional “I’m all good” gesture. Keeping your head straight forward follow your thumb with your eyes as you slowly swing your arm from left to right through about 180 degrees. It’s CHALLENGING.
Water Bath for the Eyes – Eye Strain and 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 drink coffee and tea loses even more of them, 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.
So, What's the Vision for Your Diet? First, Drop the Sugar
Diabetic retinopathy is the result of what excess blood sugars do to our eyes in the long run – we literally lose our sight. Metabolism of sugar results in the production of Advanced Glycation End products, which destroy the delicate blood vessels that supply our eyeballs. Drop sugars to save your eyes. It's that simple.
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.
The Colours on Your Plate
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 (an 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.
Purple Foods for the Win
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! If you want to up the dose, get these powerful little molecules in pill form, just pick up Grape Seed Extract or Pycnogenol.
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 lead 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.
Plant Medicine Eye Healers
Herbs are funny things, we either treat them as weeds or high potency supplements, but really they’re neither. In Asia and India, herbs and food are one and the same – so whether we take these guys as teas, tinctures, or tablets, we’re really just augmenting our diet.
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 unparalleled 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 the 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.