How to Take Care of Your Eyes

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Our eyes are some of the most complex organs in our bodies. And although I’m not an eye specialist, I can tell you that vision problems may be a symptom of other health issues. Or these difficulties could be side effects of common medications, including the daily aspirin that’s so often touted as the one-size-fits-all solution to heart health. The truth is, that daily aspirin could be contributing to an irreversible vision disorder, so please read on and find out how to protect your precious eyesight.

We all have difficulties with our eyes at some point. Spending time outdoors, for example, often leads to irritated, dry, or itchy eyes brought on by wind or allergies. Similarly, sitting in a movie theatre may produce different but equally annoying conditions, like sensitivity to light. Even healthy people experience these temporary concerns.

And then there are vision irregularities, like nearsightedness, caused by the structure of the eye itself. Correction requires an eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or optician.

Even though vision is not my area of expertise, I’d like to discuss two aspects — health issues and medications that affect eyesight. When patients report intermittently blurred vision, for example, or come into my office with bulging eyes, I know something is up with their health. Occasional blurred vision can be due to high blood pressure or diabetes, and protruding eyes may indicate a thyroid disorder.

Meanwhile, medication-related eye problems, including those related to daily aspirin use, are rarely discussed by physicians, despite the link to common conditions like macular degeneration. Taking control of your lifestyle and making better choices can preserve your vision, as my patient Abby learned.

How Good Eyes Go Bad

As we age, changes occur in our eyes just as they occur throughout the body. Here is a look at some of the most common conditions affecting our vision.

Cataracts: When the lens of the eye thickens and becomes less resilient and transparent, the result looks like a cloudy film over the eye. In fact, there is no film; the thickened, aging lens only appears that way. Cataracts have multiple causes: aging, genetics, damage to the eyes, smoking, alcohol, and medications, as well as health matters such as diabetes. The resulting blurry or dimmed vision can be corrected by surgery, which involves inserting a plastic lens replacement. Allowing a cataract to “ripen” before being removed is no longer necessary, thanks to advancements in technology. Cataracts are easier and safer to remove when they are in the early stages, so if you’re thinking about surgery, postponing it may not be helpful.

Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS): A fancy term for eyestrain due to computer use, CVS may cause blurry vision; light sensitivity; dry, itchy, or burning eyes; and difficulty focusing on objects farther away than the computer screen. I’ve experienced this myself, after long hours of writing and researching on the computer, and know how disconcerting it can be to look up from the screen and have trouble seeing.

Protect your eyes by taking breaks of at least five minutes every hour or so. I take a short walk outside or go to a window where I can see out of doors and focus on distant objects for a few minutes.

Eye exercises help, too. One that I particularly like involves focusing on something close (a foot or two away) and then, within the same sight line, focusing on something far away (20 feet or more). Alternate the focal point (close to far, close to far) every couple of seconds in a rhythm-like exercise. For best results, repeat several times a day.

Also, you might try adjusting your computer screen and/or seat so that your eyes are slightly higher than the screen and you’re looking downward a bit, rather than craning your neck upward. In one recent study, eye pain from CVS was reduced in participants who tilted their computer screens downward by 14 percent or more.

Diabetic Retinopathy: Diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) affects blood vessels in the retina. As the vessels degenerate, they may leak blood into the retina, or new blood vessels may form, causing vision changes. The best way to minimize the risk of diabetic retinopathy is by keeping a tight lid on blood sugar levels. Reducing high blood pressure also helps.

Dry Eyes: People who spend a great deal of time outside, with exposure to wind and sun, frequently experience dry eye, as do those who smoke or are exposed to indoor heating and air conditioning. Even something as innocuous as a hair dryer can contribute to dry eye. Symptoms may include burning, stinging, or a feeling of something gritty in the eye. Lubricating eye drops (preferably without preservatives) or ointment can ease these symptoms, as can more frequent blinking.

Taking omega-3 essential fatty acids (e.g., fish oil) can improve dry eye, too. Look for a supplement with about twice as much DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as EPA (eicosapaentoic acid) because DHA provides better vision support.

Hormonal imbalance can also cause dry eyes. A simple blood test can determine an imbalance.

Glaucoma: In this condition, fluid pressure within the eye accumulates to the point of damaging the optic nerve. Since the pressure builds gradually, vision changes may not be noticeable. But untreated glaucoma damages eyesight and may cause blindness, too. Both eyes are typically affected, although one may be worse than the other. Early intervention with eye drops, surgery, or laser treatment is the best way to avoid complications from glaucoma.

Macular Degeneration (MD): This is the leading cause of blindness among those age 55 and above. When MD occurs in people older than 60, it’s considered age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. There are two forms of MD — dry, which is the most common and progresses slowly, and wet, which develops more rapidly. An early symptom of dry MD is slightly blurred central vision, usually affecting both eyes. An early indication of wet MD is that straight lines appear wavy.

What causes macular degeneration? Age may be the primary culprit here, but genetics also appears to play a role, as does smoking (including secondhand smoke), a high-fat diet, and too few antioxidants.

But here’s something you need to know: Research is showing that aspirin therapy, which many people use to reduce inflammation and prevent heart disease, may be putting them at risk for MD. A new study of more than 4,500 people found that frequent aspirin intake is linked to early development of the eye disorder, as well as the wet form later in life; and the likelihood increases with the frequency of aspirin intake. Previous research had similar results. If your physician has recommended taking a daily aspirin, ask about a vision-sparing alternative.

Sight-Sparing Supplements

Our bodies need nourishment, and eyes are no exceptions. The B vitamin family is very important for healthy vision; look for a product containing the entire B vitamin family, with at least 50 mg of the “major” Bs.

The ACES antioxidants (ACES is shorthand for vitamins A, C, and E, plus the mineral selenium) are also essential for healthy eyesight. For dosages, here are my recommendations:

  • Vitamin A: 25,000 IU daily, unless you are pregnant, in which case 10,000 IU is the upper limit
  • Vitamin C: 1,000 mg four times daily
  • Vitamin E: 400 to 800 IU of natural (d-alpha, not the dl-alpha form) mixed tocopherols
  • Selenium: 200 mcg daily, or reduce to 40 mcg daily if you are pregnant

In addition, the following compounds have all proven to enhance eye health:

  • Astaxanthin (2 to 4 mg daily)
  • Lutein (6 to 12 mg once daily)
  • Zeaxanthin (6 to 25 mg daily)
  • Rutin (500 mg twice daily)
  • Bilberry (160 mg three times daily)

I realize that’s a long list of supplements, but a number of combination products targeting vision contain a blend of these and other helpful substances, so you don’t need to purchase each one individually. If you choose this type of combination product, simply follow the dosage instructions.

More Hints for Healthy Eyes

Remember, when you’re spending time outside getting a healthy dose of the sunshine nutrient vitamin D, don’t forget eye protection! I recommend at least thirty minutes of sun a day with some bare, sunscreen-free skin (arms or legs, for example) exposed. Chronic overexposure to the sun, however, can escalate the aging process and harm the eyes; so to be on the safe side, wear either wraparound sunglasses or a pair with side shields. For more details on sun-protective eyewear, talk with your eye doctor.

Encourage children to play outdoors. In addition to providing vitamin D, sunshine may actually enhance eyesight in young children. Recent studies suggest that children who play or read outside are less likely to develop myopia (nearsightedness) because natural sunlight promotes healthier eye development than the dimmer artificial light indoors. Consult an eye doctor for advice on appropriate sunglasses for children.

Consider replacing a daily aspirin with anti-inflammatory nutrients, such as ginger, curcumin, or a purified Calamarine oil or fish oil, to further protect your vision. If you choose fish oil, look for one that contains about twice as much DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). While both help with inflammation, DHA more effectively supports healthy eyesight.

Eat more good, fat-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies to supply your eyes with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that eating fish at least once a week cuts the risk of developing AMD in half.

Stock your refrigerator with eye-friendly produce, including plenty of leafy greens (e.g., kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and romaine); yellow veggies (e.g., carrots, squash, and corn); and all kinds of berries, which are rich in flavonoids.

Give tired eyes a treat by covering them with a couple slices of cold cucumber or a damp, cold compress as many times a day as necessary.

There’s so much more to say about healthy eyesight that I’m certain we’ll revisit this topic in the near future. Exercise, for example, boosts circulation, an important element for healthy vision. And sleep is equally essential. But for now, I urge you to start with the suggestions in this newsletter. They’re an excellent foundation for vision protection and just may save your eyesight.

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