Macular degeneration is the leading cause of irreversible blindness. The macula is the middle region of the retina—the part of the eye that converts light rays into nerve impulses to be interpreted by the brain. The macula is responsible for detailed, coloured vision. Here, the light-sensitive cells are densely packed and coloured with yellow pigment, which protects against ultraviolet (UV) and blue light.
However, as you age, the cells in the macula are prone to deterioration and damage. Dryness and UV rays are also responsible for irritating and damaging our eyes, but we can counteract that with the right foods.
An invaluable way to prevent macular degeneration is supplementing your diet with eye-healthy foods rich in vitamin A. Precursors to vitamin A, called carotenoids, are found in orange and yellow foods. Carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene protect the macula from damage by increasing the yellow pigment. These substances, supplemented by a number of other nutrients, prevent macular degeneration.
See below for six foods for eye health!
1. Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, and grapefruits are rich stores of vitamin C. While vitamin C doesn’t block ultraviolet rays, it controls damage (to an extent), by neutralising free radicals caused by UV damage. It also strengthens and maintains collagen in the cornea for general eye health.
Citrus fruits—whether they’re ripe and yellow or still in their green state – are also chock-full of carotenoids that help prevent macular degeneration, as well as night blindness.
Carrots have a famous reputation for being good for your eyes. That’s because they’re rich in the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, which is essential to eye health and preventing night blindness.
A deficiency in vitamin A is called xerophthalmia. Here, the eyes can no longer produce tears, causing pathologic dryness of the eyes. Without adequate lubrication, ulcers and perforations can form on the cornea. Left untreated, corneal damage can lead to blindness. Adequate levels of beta-carotene prevents xerophthalmia.
Studies show that the likelihood of developing macular degeneration in older people who eat fish twice a week drops by 50%, compared to those who eat fish less than once a week.
This is because fatty, oily fish—such as tuna, herring, salmon, trout, and sardines—are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 reduces inflammation of the retina. These fish also contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid found in the retina and nervous system.
Make sure to grill or bake the fish, or if you must fry it, use olive oil. Avoid eating fish that’s been fried in oil made from saturated fat, as that will raise cholesterol levels. Season your fish with spices and herbs instead of salt as well to keep your meal heart-friendly as well as eye-friendly.
4. Leafy greens
They may not be yellow, but green leafy vegetables are also a superb source of carotenoids, specifically lutein and zeaxanthin.
While beta-carotene from yellow vegetables are important for the production of vitamin A and preventing night blindness, lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids actually found in the visual system. Consuming the right amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin maintains visual acuity, with effects such as sharpening visual contrast and protecting you from glare and light stress. Lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble, so consuming leafy greens with olive oil (again, no oils made from saturated fat!) will enhance their absorption.
Egg yolk gets its sunny yellow colour from carotenoids, and is another terrific source of lutein and zeaxanthin. Egg yolk also gives you zinc, which is essential in ferrying vitamin A from the liver to where it is needed in the eye. Zinc is also abundant in the eye itself, specifically in the layer of tissue under the retina that’s rife with blood vessels.
The best thing about eggs is that the body absorbs the fat-soluble lutein and zeaxanthin in yolks faster than they do from vegetables, as the yolks are already made of fat. This is on top of the other fat-soluble nutrients found in eggs, including vitamins A, D, and E.
Don’t worry about the popular myth that eating more than a couple of eggs a week will be bad for your cholesterol! In fact, studies have proven that an egg a day will not raise cholesterol levels. Although, if you have heart or blood vessel-related medical issues, it’s important to consult your doctor about the number of eggs you’re able to consume each week.
Your eyeball is 98% water. Water is also necessary for tears; which keep your cornea wet, smooth, and clean. When you’re not drinking enough water, the body—and by extension, the eyes—become dehydrated.
Eyes lose lubrication when there isn’t enough water to produce tears, making them strained and itchy. This causes pain and discomfort, headaches, and vision problems. It also puts you at risk for infection, as dry eyes might prompt you to rub and scratch to relieve the itchiness. Touching the eyes heightens the risk of introducing foreign bodies (and even bacteria) into the eyes, and no tears means your eyes can’t wash away debris. Which brings on a cycle of irritation, touching, infection, ad infinitum!
Eye drops can help with the lack of tears, but a much more sustainable long term solution is to stay adequately hydrated. Drink the requisite eight glasses of water a day, avoid sodium-rich foods, and reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake to keep your eyes hydrated and ensure you have nothing to cry about!