Keeping an Eye on Healthy Vision
The day we learned how to perform an eye exam in medical school was unforgettable. I walked into class expecting to see eye charts, to watch pupils dilate and retract, and to hear the phrase “follow my finger.” Instead, I was handed an instrument called an ophthalmoscope, plopped in front of a student volunteer, and, as the lights dimmed, introduced to the beautiful and fascinating behind-the-scenes world of the eye.
The Story in Your Eyes
What we learned that day extended way beyond retina, macula, and optic disc. We learned about how the eye reflects blood pressure (both high and low), general cardiovascular health, blood sugar and diabetes, and so much more. I left the class with a new appreciation not only of the importance of a physical eye exam, but of the enormous amount of health information available right behind the pupil. I also realized that this wonderful demonstration also meant that the eye mechanism was on the front line of body organs affected by many of the most common diseases we see today: hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Given that, any support plan for the eye needs to focus on both the health of the body as a whole combined with targeted support for the prevention and treatment of diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and night blindness.
Cataracts are a Symptom
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than half of U.S. adults who are age 65 or older have cataracts. As a result, there are more cataract surgeries performed than any other type of surgery. A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye (the all-important clear disc right under the pupil) becomes cloudy, making objects appear dull and less defined. Nighttime driving can become difficult and color perception can shift.
While many think that cataracts are just a normal part of aging and can be fixed with a short surgery, this misses the point. Cataracts are actually a symptom of something larger going on in the body and if they are caught early enough, measures can be taken to halt or even reverse them. If your eyes are currently healthy, there are certainly steps to take to support preventing them altogether.
Sunglasses, Cigarettes and Supplements
One of the biggest culprits in eye disease is oxidation and free radicals, which scavenge and destroy cells in the eye (as well as the rest of the body—but the cells in the eye appear to be especially susceptible to the damage they cause). Avoiding cigarette smoke (yours or any one else’s), avoiding direct sunlight (pop on those UV-protective sunglasses), and supporting your gut health so it can properly absorb the nutrients that are so important to the eye all contribute to your body’s fight against free radical damage. Supportive supplements include a good multi-vitamin with some trace minerals, vitamins C and E, and the herbs bilberry and ginkgo biloba (although this herb is contraindicated if you have high blood pressure).
Diet plays a role as well, so fill up on fruits and vegetables, especially sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, spinach, and kale, as they are high in carotenoids (like lutein and zeaxanthin) and citrus, with high doses of vitamin C. Avoid fried foods, hydrogenated fats and reduce alcohol and processed foods, since all of these increase the likelihood of free-radical damage in your eye.
Glaucoma, while certainly less prevalent than cataracts, shares a similar characteristic; there are supportive things you can do, once diagnosed, that may lessen symptoms. While there is more than one type of glaucoma, the underlying theme is an increase in eye pressure, which stresses the eye, causing possible vision disturbances or loss, eye pain, or headaches. If you are diabetic, African American, or have a family history of glaucoma, it is important to get a glaucoma test annually as part of your eye exam, starting at age 40 (at the latest). If you are none of those, then 65 is the recommended age to start. It also is critical to be under the care of a doctor if you are diagnosed with (or think you might have) glaucoma. When you are diagnosed with chronic or open-angle glaucoma, natural therapies that may help include magnesium, fish oil, vitamin C and alpha lipoic acid, bilberry, and chromium. As with cataracts, a healthy diet with few processed foods, and plenty of water, fruits, and veggies, will support improved eye health.
Night Blindness and Underlying Disease
There are many causes of night blindness: toxicity, hypothyroidism, and liver disease being just a few, so if you suffer from it to any degree, are sure to mention this symptom to your doctor as it may be a sign of underlying disease. If you get your thyroid and liver checked out and they appear normal, consider addressing the problem with some detox strategies such as a three-day juice fast monthly (if your health permits), drinking detox teas regularly, alkalizing your body daily with green juices or chlorophyll, and increasing your water intake. Carotenoids can play a particularly key role in reversing night blindness, so be sure to include some source in your diet daily.
How to Save Your Healthy Eyes
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, there is a lot you can do to keep your eyes healthy. If you spend more than three hours a day on the computer, or focusing on any one thing, you sometimes forget to blink and your eyes can get fatigued. Try the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes look away about 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds. This can help reduce eye strain. In my practice, I have seen marked improvement in patients’ vision when they start some form of gentle daily eye exercises (see below). Interestingly, they notice that their eye issue often returns when they stop doing them. So keep in mind that an ongoing healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction all play a role in keeping eyes healthy. Monitor cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure, as all of these directly affect your eye function as you age, and consider some eye maintenance exercises.
With your right hand stretched out in front of you and without moving your head:
Focus on your thumb and follow it as you raise your hand up and then all the way down as far as you can see 3 times.
With both hands outstretched in front of you, focus on your:
right thumb and move it as far right as you can see 3 times.
left thumb and move it as far right as you can see 3 times
right thumb as you move it diagonally up and to the right 3 times
left thumb as you move it diagonally down to the left 3 times
left thumb as you move it diagonally up to the left 3 times
right thumb as you move it diagonally down to the right 3 times
Follow a large imaginary figure eight with your eyes 3 times
Gently cover your eyes and do another 3 imaginary figure eights
in the opposite direction.
Dr. McDonnell is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and Cranial Sacral Therapist practicing with NaturapathicPartners in Ridgefield, CT and New York City. She specializes in supporting patients with autoimmune disorders, cancer, thyroid disorders, menopause symptoms, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, and Lyme disease. She can be reached at (203) 470-1909 for an appointment. A full bio can be found at www.naturopathicpartners.com