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Save Your Sight

Taking preventative measures now may keep you from losing your vision later

March 2011
By Lisa James

One of life�s great disappointments is to reach a cherished milestone without being able to fully enjoy it. That dilemma confronts millions of older Americans who, after working hard for decades, find their worlds growing dimmer because of degenerative eye disease. �People look forward to retirement�to play golf, read books, play with their grandchildren�and then they lose their eyesight. This is an epidemic in our society,� says Marc Grossman, OD, LAc, a nutritional consultant to two ophthalmology practices in the metropolitan New York area.

The incidence of disorders such as cataracts and macular degeneration, for which risk increases with advancing years, is rising. Part of this increase can be explained by the ever-growing number of aging baby boomers. However, �there are studies showing that our lifestyle is contributing to eye disease and chronic disease in general,� says Jeffrey Anshel, DO, of Corporate Vision Consulting in Encinitas, California, and author of Smart Medicine for Your Eyes (Square One).

Although modern surgical techniques have allowed many people to recover their sight, surgery isn�t the only answer. �I work with one of the best cataract surgeons in the country and I recommend her to people all the time,� says Grossman. �But I still want to work with patients on underlying causes. We can use nutrition and other complementary therapies in conjunction with Western medicine.�

What�s more, living a healthy lifestyle and getting adequate amounts of key nutrients may help prevent eye disease�and the blindness it causes�from developing in the first place. As Grossman notes, �Almost every professional journal over the past 10 years has articles on the effect nutrition has on vision. The eye is a reflection of the rest of your body.�


What It Is: A condition in which the lens, which focuses light onto the retina in the back of the eye, becomes cloudy

How It Affects Sight: Early signs include halos around lights, especially at night, and problems with glare; colors may look faded; vision becomes increasingly cloudy, blurry and/or dim

Number of people affected: 20.5 million now, with a projected rise to 30.1 million by 2020 (statistics provided by the National Eye Institute�s Eye Disease Prevalence Study Group)

Risk Reduction: Several factors increase cataract risk including heredity, smoking and drug side effects. But the biggest culprit is over-exposure to the sun�s UV rays, which cause proteins in the lens to clump together. The best way to prevent cataracts? �Sunglasses, in a nutshell,� says Robert Abel MD, of Delaware Ophthalmology Consultants in Wilmington and author of The Eye Care Revolution (Kensington). He points out that airline pilots, who are bombarded by high levels of UV radiation, have a 60% higher risk of cataracts.

Defying Eye Disease

Being diagnosed with a potentially sight-threatening disorder doesn�t automatically put you on the fast track for surgery. The key is to discover the problem early and to do whatever you can to slow the disease�s progression. As Robert Abel, MD, puts it, �A highly motivated patient can change the course of a degenerative issue.�

Two of Abel�s patients illustrate his point. Stanley Budner of Wilmington, Delaware still flies a private plane at age 83�30 years after being told he had early-stage macular degeneration. According to Budner, Abel told him, �I can�t prove it, but I think this is vitamin-related.� So Budner began taking a supplement based on lutein, a key nutrient for maintaining retinal health. �My eyes seem to improve very slowly, not noticeably,� he says. Then about 10 years ago Budner took the eye test required for his pilot�s license. �The person giving me the physical said that I did not need my glasses anymore. Before I always had to fly wearing glasses,� says Budner; the same thing happened when he took the eye test for his driver�s license. �I can read a book without glasses, although if the light�s not good enough I use magnifiers,� he adds.

It�s been nearly 20 years since Mabel Valko told Abel that she saw �colored crowns around the lights at night.� Diagnosed with early cataracts, the 90-year-old retired nurse, who also lives in Wilmington, takes a vision-support supplement.

Told two years ago that she has diabetes, Valko watches what she eats��I believe in �if it�s light, you don�t bite� when it comes to refined carbohydrates��and exercises at the health club three days a week. She says, �When I see Dr. Abel every year I ask, �Are the cataracts ready to be removed yet?� He always says no.�

Poor nutrition also plays a role in cataract development. UV exposure is just one source of cell-damaging free radicals. Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E help neutralize free radicals; one study found lower blood levels of both vitamins in cataract patients (Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 9/08). Citrus bioflavonoids, many of which fight free radicals and inflammation themselves, help make vitamin C more effective. The mineral selenium is another antioxidant found in high levels within the eye. In addition, eating a produce-rich diet has been linked to lower cataract risk.

The body produces its own antioxidant, glutathione, that helps protect the lens. According to Abel, nutritional factors that support glutathione include MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a bioavailable form of sulphur, and the antioxidants alpha lipoic acid and NAC (N-acetylcysteine).


What It Is: Damage to the optic nerve, often linked to increased pressure within the eye; pressure rises when circulation of aqueous humor, the fluid that fills the eye, is blocked; two forms, closed- and open-angle, with open-angle glaucoma being more common

How It Affects Sight: Gradual development of blank areas in the visual field (open-angle); blurry or lost vision and halos, along with severe eye pain and headache (closed-angle)

Number of people affected: 2.2 million now, 3.3 million by 2020 (projected)

Risk Reduction: According to Abel, open-angle glaucoma, also known as chronic simple glaucoma, �is a disease of stress.� This helps explain why the B-complex, often referred to as the stress vitamins, may be helpful in reducing cataract risk; Grossman says that vitamin B1 (thiamin) is �essential for the health of the optic nerve.� Abel warns that sleep apnea, a condition that disrupts nighttime breathing, can lead to a number of eye diseases including glaucoma.

Both Grossman and Abel recommend omega-3 fatty acids. People with glaucoma have been found to have reduced levels of DHA and EPA, the omega-3s in fish oil, in their blood, and DHA and EPA have decreased pressure within the eye in animal studies (Investigative Ophthal�mology & Visual Science 2/07). Another marine-based nutrient, the carotenoid astaxanthin, was found to reduce retinal damage caused by increased eye pressure, while the herb bilberry has been found to protect nerve cells in the retina (RTP 10/10, Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 7/09). In addition, �there have been a couple of studies on Pycnogenol, which has been shown to reduce eye pressure a little bit and increase blood flow to the optic nerve,� says Anshel.

Macular Degeneration (MD)

What It Is: A thinning of the macula, the part of the retina responsible for sharp central vision; in dry MD, this causes yellow spots called drusen; may progress to the wet type, in which abnormal blood vessels leak, causing raised scars that distort vision; also known as age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)

How It Affects Sight: The need for increasingly brighter lights to do close work; difficulty adjusting from bright to low light conditions; blank areas in the center of the visual field

Number of people affected: 1.8 million now (advanced cases), 2.9 million by 2020 (projected)

Risk Reduction: The retina is prone to free radical damage from another type of solar radiation called blue light, especially in people with blue, green or hazel eyes. �Research has shown that two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, act as sunglasses for the back of the eye. They serve as antioxidants and filter blue light,� says Anshel. Together lutein and zeaxanthin make up what is called macular pigment; eyes affected by macular degeneration contain about 30% less macular pigment than healthy eyes. (To learn about other members of the carotenoid family, see page 48.) Low levels of vitamins C and E have also been associated with a greater risk of MD development.

Scientists have found high levels of other nutrients in the retina as well. DHA, one of the fish oil omega-3s, is concentrated in the membranes of retinal cells. �About 50% of your retina consists of DHA,� Abel says. The retina also contains high concentrations of zinc, a mineral required by enzymes within the retina. In addition, Abel recommends another mineral, magnesium, for its ability to promote healthy circulation.

"We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals." ~Immanual Kant~

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