Our senses are what connect us to the rest of the world, allowing us to experience and navigate life. We all know the basic five, but scientists actually recognise 21 human senses. The ones we use everyday but tend to forget about include temperature, balance and time, plus our bodies’ internal signals such as hunger, thirst and even itchiness (yes that’s a separate sense!). But of them all, our vision is usually regarded as the one we most rely on. Good eyesight gives us a rich experience of life and contributes to greater freedom and independence.
Eyesight varies between people, and various conditions can interfere with the quality of our vision. Cataracts are the most frequently encountered vision problem worldwide, formed when the lens of our eyes gets clouded over. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is another common condition, and the leading cause of legal blindness in the developed world. It affects the macula, an area in the middle of the retina, causing blurriness in the centre of the visual field. It’s the opposite of retinitis pigmentosa, which causes poor peripheral vision and night vision. Other common eyesight conditions include glaucoma, (damage to the optic nerve), myopia (short sightedness), hypermetropia (long-sightedness), astigmatism (misshapen lens) and asthenopia (eye-strain).
The eyes are the windows to the soul, as the expression goes, but they are also the windows that we see our world with, and keeping them in good health is vital to enjoying a lifetime of clear vision. Many sight problems are associated with ageing and inherited genes, but whilst we can’t get any younger or change our genetics, there are thankfully many lifestyle choices we can make to improve our eye health. And as many of these also contribute to our overall health and wellbeing, there’s even more reason to take care of our eyes.
Regular eye tests can help to identify conditions in the early stages, and an early diagnosis can often result in treatment that can stop or slow their progression. Therefore it’s recommended to take an eye test at least once every two years. Most major high-street opticians offer tests, and they’re free to those under 16 and over 60 so there’s no excuse not to get checked, even if you don’t have obvious symptoms.
As well as wearing sunglasses only to reduce glare, you might consider wearing them more often, especially if you enjoy regular outdoor activities. That’s because UVA-protective sunglasses eliminate the harmful ultraviolet rays that over time can damage your eyesight, increase the risk of cataracts and glaucoma and speed up the natural aging of your eye tissues. Other reasons to get shady include lowering the risk of skin cancer, protection from the elements and wearing them in the afternoon and evenings can even help you sleep better at night.
Your eyes aren’t made to look at computer screens, phones or even books for long periods of time. Doing so can cause strain to the small ciliary muscles in the eye, leading to headaches, dry eyes and vision problems over time. If you’re going to spend extended periods working or reading, the first step you can take is to better prepare your space. Improve the lighting so that you don’t have to strain to see properly. If using a computer try increasing the text size and make sure the top of the screen is level with your eyes so you’re looking very slightly down. Try to reduce screen glare as much as possible by avoiding bright lights or sunlight reflecting off it. Choose a chair that is comfortable and lets your knees sit lower than your hips and your feet on the ground. If you still feel that you need to strain in order to see properly then it’s possible you might need glasses.
The second stage is to keep mindful of your eyes. Observe the 20-20-20 rule – Every 20 minutes, try looking away for 20 seconds, at something 20 feet away or more. Switching between focusing on objects at various distances will help, as will tracking anything moving such as birds, people or traffic going past. Every 2 hours, try having a longer break and stretch your legs. Your body musculature is interconnected and when the rest of you is feeling tight and locked up, your eyes will feel less free and moveable.
Staying generally mindful of what we put our eyes through can help to prevent straining or damaging them. If your eyes feel overly dry, try blinking more often. If you become aware that you are straining whilst concentrating on a specific task, try stopping and let your eyes and facial muscles relax. Then see if it’s possible to continue with whatever task you were doing without tightening your eyes or screwing up your facial muscles. You may be surprised that it’s possible to do the same tasks with less muscular effort than you’re used to. If you rapidly drop back to your old habits don’t worry, instead be pleased that you noticed and give it another go. With enough practice you can drop habitual patterns of eye-strain and find greater freedom and ease.
As well as the better known health reasons to cut back on alcohol and tobacco use, doing so can also help to protect your eyes. Too much alcohol over a long time can prevent nutrients from reaching our optic nerves, and damage our eyesight, so it’s also a good idea to keep your drinking to within the recommended 14 units a week. As for smoking, it’s the single most important factor you can change to lower your risk of developing AMD. In fact quitting can half or even quarter your risk. The longer you’ve smoked the longer it takes to return to normal, so the best advice is to quit while you’re ahead.
Something we can all do to support our vision and overall health is to maintain a healthy diet. Several nutrients have been linked to the proper functioning of the eyes. As a child you were probably told eating carrots would make you see in the dark, and whilst that’s not strictly true for most people, beta-carotene found in carrots and other vegetables does reduce the symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa, one of which is night blindness. It also helps keep your eye surface moist and healthy.
Blue and purple berries contain substances called anthocyanocides which do actually improve your night vision, as well as improving myopia and glaucoma symptoms by relaxing the ciliary muscles. Bilberry jam was famously given to British Air Force pilots before night-time raids during the second war, and their success was partially attributed to their improved sight.
Two compounds particularly important for eye health are lutein and zeaxanthin, found in green leafy veg, peas, broccoli and goji berries. They are highly concentrated in the retina and absorb excess light energy to prevent damage from sunlight. They improve contrast sensitivity and visual performance helping you see clearer, slow the development and progression of cataracts, and help protect against macular degeneration. Other nutrients that also support good sight include vitamin C, which helps form the collagen in your eyes and vitamin E that can half your chance of cataracts. The table below shows the best food sources of these nutrients.
|Nutrients||Best Food Sources||Eye health benefits||General health benefits|
|Lutein & Zeaxanthin||Green leafy veg, peas, squash, pumpkin, brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, pistachios, carrots, goji berries||Improves contrast sensitivity and visual performance, reduces risk and slows progression of cataracts and AMD||Antioxidants, slows ageing, DNA protection, lowers heart disease, cancer and diabetes risk|
|Anthocyanins||Bilberries, blackcurrents, blackberries, raspberries, red cabbage, plums, radish||Improves night vision and symptoms of myopia and glaucoma||Anti-imflammatory and antioxidant properties, improved lung function|
|Vitamin C||Citrus fruits, strawberries, guava, papaya, tomatoes, kale, peas, peppers, broccoli||Builds collagen in eyes, reduces AMD progression, lowers cataracts risk||Protects cells, builds healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage, helps wounds heal|
|Vitamin E||Nuts and seeds, avocado, oily fish, sunflower oil, mango, kiwis||Lowers cataracts risk by up to 50%||Strengthens immune system, builds healthy skin|
|Beta-Carotene||Carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy green veg, squash, melon, peppers, apricot, broccoli, peas||Keeps eye surface moist and healthy (prevents dry eye), reduces retinitis pigmentosa symptoms||Lowers cancer and heart disease risk, slows cognitive decline|
Protea Wellness’ Eye Sense is a careful blend of high quality vegan sources of the above to support optimum eyesight. If you have any concerns about your eyesight or if it deteriorates rapidly, consult your optician or doctor. In the meantime, keep good looking and looking good!
A, B and C all lutein and zeaxanthin