The eyes may be the window to the soul, but taking care of your eyes is also crucial for maintaining independence and a high-quality of life as you age. The problem is, everyday vision saboteurs are abundant, which can prime you for problems with focus, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and more.
The good news: Steadily declining eyesight is not inevitable. While cellular aging throughout the body (including the eyes) happens to everyone over time, you have the power to slow it down significantly. When you engage in the right habits, it’s perfectly possible to have great eyesight—and vibrant health—well into your later years.
Below, we’ll elaborate on the most common eye-related issues that crop up with age, what often contributes to them, and the key habits, foods, and herbs that can help keep your vision sharp.
Top Age-Related Visions Concerns to Protect Against
First, let’s review some basic eye anatomy so we know how a healthy eye is supposed to work: Light initially enters the eye through the cornea, which is a clear protective outer layer. Then, the light passes through the pupil and hits the lens, which is a curved disc that adjusts its shape and focuses light on the retina in the back of the eye.
The retina is a layer of nerve tissue where the light signal is converted into a neural signal by photoreceptor cells. The retina includes the macula, which has a very high concentration of photoreceptor cells and is responsible for our central vision, most of our color vision and the fine detail of what we see. The optic nerve then carries these neural signals from the retina to the brain where they’re interpreted as an image.
Often, issues with vision and eye health are a result of problems with one of these main structures of the eye: the cornea, lens, retina (and macula), and the optic nerve.
Here are some issues that may occur, according to Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan.
- Dry eyes result from a disruption in the normal tear film on the surface of the eye, and they become increasingly common with age. “With aging, you lose functional cells throughout your body, including tear glands,” says Dr. Rawls. Loss of lubrication can increase scratches or abrasions to the surface of the cornea and increase your risk for eye infections.
- Cataracts are clouding of the normally clear lens due to proteins and fibers in the lens that begin to break down from damage by UV light. This blocks light from coming into the eye, resulting in blurry or cloudy vision.
- Age-related macular degeneration occurs when the macula becomes damaged over time. This leads to blurred vision and loss of central vision — your field of view when you look straight ahead.
- Glaucoma refers to a group of eye conditions that cause irreversible vision loss. It’s a result of damage to the optic nerve that’s often caused by a buildup of fluid, leading to high levels of pressure in the eye.
- Focus problems can be caused by eye strain and deterioration or tension of the muscles that influence the shape of the lens—“basically, you wear those cells out over time, which makes it harder to focus,” says Dr. Rawls.
5 Factors That Contribute to Eye Problems
Many of the same variables that accelerate aging in general also negatively impact the eyes, according to Dr. Rawls. These include factors related to diet, UV exposure, stress, microbes, and—to a certain extent—genetics. Typically, it’s not just one of these factors that contribute to a person’s poor eye health, but a combination.
1. Poor Diet
Eating a nutrient-poor diet, particularly one containing an excessive amount of carbohydrates from foods such as breads, cereals, pastas, crackers, desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to chronically elevated glucose levels in the body—and this is particularly bad for eyes. “Glucose is packed with energy, and as such, it’s highly reactive and leads to glycation, where it sticks to other molecules, including the structural proteins elastin and collagen,” says Dr. Rawls. “This breaks down these molecules and inhibits their function—and because collagen makes up a lot of the structure of the eye, this can accelerate eye aging.”
2. UV Radiation Exposure
Like excessive glucose, ultraviolet radiation from sunlight exposure also acts as a “collagen cruncher,” and it does so by generating reactive oxygen species (or free radicals) that break down the structural proteins in the eye. “Direct exposure to too much UV radiation can break down molecules that make up the lens, causing it to shrink and become clouded,” says Dr. Rawls. “UV can also impact the retina and lead to degeneration, particularly the area near the optic nerve called the macula, causing the highly-sensitive photoreceptor cells to basically burn out.”
3. Chronic Stress
Psychological or emotional stress may not directly contribute to eye problems in the way UV radiation does, but it can be a major contributor to overall poor health. For one, stress can greatly accelerate inflammation, which can damage healthy tissues throughout the body, including in the eyes. “Stress sends a signal to white blood cells that they need to create more free radicals, and when you’ve got more free radicals, more breakdown occurs than is normal or necessary, and healthy tissue gets the collateral damage,” according to Dr. Rawls.
A variety of mildly pathogenic microbes—bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa—can cause low-grade infections in the body that essentially fly under the radar until the immune system is compromised due to age or another health issue. Interestingly, “lots of microbes gravitate toward the eyes because it’s a place where they can become partially shielded from the immune system thanks to a phenomenon known as ocular immune privilege that limits the immune response in order to preserve vision,” says Dr. Rawls.
Common microbes that many of us are exposed to, such as bartonella (responsible for cat scratch fever) and toxoplasma, have been known to contribute to potentially serious vision problems and other health complications. New understanding about the complexity and range of the human microbiome suggests that there are likely many other microbes that we pick up from everyday living that can also affect our eye health.
Toxoplasma, for example, is a protozoa that some people acquire from consuming undercooked meat, or contact with infected cats or contaminated cat litter. About 60% of the global population harbors this microbe, which can lead to ocular toxoplasmosis—the most common cause of eye inflammation in the world. Toxoplasmosis infections typically attack the retina and may initially resolve without symptoms, but the inactive form of this microbe may later reactivate and lead to eye pain, blurred vision, and permanent damage, including blindness.
People that are of Northern European descent that have blue eyes have less protection from UV light than someone who has more pigmentation, such as someone with dark brown eyes. But according to Dr. Rawls, you shouldn’t stress too much about this. “Genetics defines how well a person tolerates certain stress factors, not whether they will necessarily develop an illness,” he says. “So if you protect your eyes from UV exposure, this shouldn’t be an issue.”
6 Diet + Lifestyle Strategies to Protect Your Eyes
By understanding the various contributors to poor eye health, it’s easier to identify the solutions. Here, Dr. Rawls shares the simple, everyday ways you can prioritize your eye health—which happen to be great for your overall health, too.
1. Eat Fewer Refined Carbs + Sugars
Because high levels of glucose, which come from eating carb-rich foods, can lead to glycation and damage eye tissue, you definitely want to moderate your carbohydrate intake. Of course, it depends on your particular health situation and activity level, but a good general aim would be limiting your carb intake to 100 – 200 grams per day. Specifically, try to scale back on or eliminate things like refined grains (cereals, breads, crackers, baked goods), fruit juices, and sodas, which are potent sources of carbohydrates while lacking any real meaningful nutrition.
Instead, focus on eating whole foods as often as possible. This includes things like cooked or raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, fish, small portions of whole grains, and high-quality meats. These whole foods offer a range of beneficial macro- and micronutrients that your body needs to thrive on a cellular level and generally will not have the same negative glycation impacts of high-carb, processed food diets.
2. Wear UV-Protective Sunglasses
Our eyes are exposed to the sun’s UV rays whenever we step outside to garden, walk the dog, or go for a drive, and a hat and good sunglasses are the most simple, effective ways to protect yourself. While some sunlight is important to our health, such as helping regulate a healthy circadian rhythm, it’s important to avoid excessive, direct UV exposure. Sunglasses are particularly important on sunny days or doing outdoor activities on the ocean, in snow, or other very reflective or bright environments.
When buying sunglasses, choose a pair that says they provide 100% protection from UVA and UVB light. Alternatively, some manufacturers’ labels say “UV absorption up to 400nm,” which means the same thing, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Also, consider selecting amber or brown lenses if you suffer from macular degeneration, as these colors will help enhance contrast so you can see better.
3. Load Up on These Key Nutrients and Antioxidants.
You can also counteract UV-induced damage to your eyes from the inside out—by eating antioxidant-rich foods. Our ocular tissue has antioxidant defense systems that help combat reactive oxygen species, or free radicals, and protect the eye from oxidative damage to an extent. But in order to support these internal defense systems, it’s important to eat a nutrient-dense diet that contains a variety of antioxidant compounds.
In general, a diet rich in colorful produce (think: dark leafy greens, purple cabbage, red raspberries, orange bell peppers, yellow squash, blueberries, carrots) will contain a diverse collection of nutrients and phytochemicals, many of which have antioxidant properties that can help quell oxidative stress within the eyes and throughout the body. Additionally, other nutrients may help aid in lubrication to prevent dry eyes and support various structures within the eye.
Here are a few key nutrients that are particularly beneficial for eye health:
Lutein + zeaxanthin: Lutein and zeaxanthin are both carotenoid antioxidant compounds that are found in many of the same colorful vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, pistachios, red bell pepper, yellow squash, carrots, peas). These two antioxidant pigments have been found to build up in the retina and protect the macula from UV light damage and free radicals, and higher intakes have been associated with lower risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Just another reason to eat more vegetables than anything else—every day!
Dietary intake of lutein in the range of 6-20 mg is associated with reduced risk of eye conditions. According to a scientific article published in Opthalmology in 2012, Americans only consume an estimated 1-3 mg of lutein daily. Taking supplements containing lutein/zeaxanthin is a way to get extra protection. Typical dosing recommendations for zeaxanthin to support eye health are about 2 mg daily.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E, or alpha-tocopherol, is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be found in foods such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanuts, and avocado. It functions as an antioxidant and has been shown to combat free radicals and prevent lipid oxidation. This is important for eye health, since lipids/fats are an important part of cell membranes which are especially concentrated in the photoreceptors found in the retina.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is another antioxidant vitamin that can help protect various components of the eye from free radical damage. It’s also essential for the synthesis of collagen, a structural protein that’s abundant in eye tissue. Vitamin C also has a synergistic effect with vitamin E, helping regenerate its antioxidant capabilities. Vitamin C is abundant in vegetables and fruits, including berries, broccoli, bell peppers, and citrus. Average daily intake should be 200-500 mg.
- Zinc: The mineral zinc is an essential component of enzymes needed for optimal eye metabolism. Zinc also plays a role in maintaining the proper structure of proteins and cell membranes and protecting them from oxidative damage. Additionally, zinc has immune-supporting properties and aids in nerve-impulse transmission. This mineral can be found in nuts, legumes, meats, seafood, and dairy. Average daily intake should be 15-20 mg.
- Omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, as well as fish oil and krill oil supplements, may help reduce inflammation and improve the tear-lipid profile on the eye surface that keeps eyes feeling smooth and lubricated. Research suggests diets rich in omega-3s offer long-term benefits for dry eye disease and age-related macular degeneration. Krill oil supplements may offer additional benefits, as they also contain astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant that a growing body of evidence suggests may help prevent and treat a range of ocular diseases.
4. Get Plenty of Physical Activity
Not only does regular exercise help alleviate stress, research shows that it may help prevent glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration— by protecting against the overgrowth of blood vessels, which occurs in all of these conditions. In one particular study, people who took part in moderate physical activity (like brisk walking) were 25% less likely to develop glaucoma; and in people who already had glaucoma, regular exercise was found to lower pressure within the eye and improve blood flow to the retina and optic nerve.
Additionally, one of the most important benefits of exercise is moving blood, which increases delivery of the nutrients and oxygen to cells throughout the body (including to the eyes, where they can help nourish cells and counteract free radical damage), and enhances removal of metabolic waste and toxic substances, according to Dr. Rawls.
It’s recommended to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. This could be three 10-minute brisk walks spread out throughout the day or a similar activity done all at once. If you can do more than that and reduce the amount of time that you are sedentary, your eyes (and whole body!) will thank you.
5. Avoid Too Much Screen Time
While the blue light from digital screens doesn’t appear to increase risk of issues like macular degeneration or blindness, excessive use of tech can put unnecessary strain on your eyes. “It does tire out your eyes to be staring at one spot on a screen for hours at a time,” says Dr. Rawls. “We’re not designed to do that. We’re designed to be moving around and constantly shifting our focus and looking at natural things.”
While digital eye strain hasn’t been shown to cause any permanent symptoms in adults, it often leads to headaches, dry eyes, and temporarily blurry vision, which can be quite disruptive. So a couple of daily walks, or even just setting a timer for every half hour as a reminder to shift your focus to something further away (at least 20 feet) may help ease symptoms. This advice is even more important for young children, for whom spending time outdoors actually appears to reduce risk of myopia (nearsightedness).
6. Take Herbs with Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Properties
Consuming herbs and taking key herbal supplements is often an overlooked tool for supporting eye health, but it can really help control the microbe variable. “Herbs not only suppress microbes, they also protect our cells, thanks to the hundreds of beneficial phytochemicals they contain,” says Dr. Rawls. “When we consume phytochemical-rich herbs, we’re basically absorbing the plant’s defense systems, which in turn supports our own defense systems—which in turn protects our eyes.”
While most herbs offer some protection from microbes, certain herbs are better than others. Dr. Rawls is particularly fond of pine bark extract (100 to 300 mg daily) , hawthorn (100 to 1000 mg daily), resveratrol (50 to 200 mg daily) from Japanese knotweed which has higher resveratrol concentrations than grapes), and various adaptogens, which offer both antioxidant and antimicrobial benefits as well as promoting healthy circulation throughout the body including the eyes.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Poor vision and eye health don’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. Now that you know many of the main culprits that lead to eye damage, you can take simple but effective steps to counteract them with colorful antioxidant-rich plant foods, healthy omega-3 fats, key vitamins and minerals, antimicrobial herbs, and daily lifestyle practices such as exercising and spending time in nature. And don’t forget sunglasses! Together, these strategies can help keep your vision sharp well into your golden years.
Discover more in Dr. Bill Rawls' new #1 Bestselling book: The Cellular Wellness Solution: Tap Into Your Full Health Potential with the Science-Backed Power of Herbs.