Where there's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (such as from the sun), there's potential for cell damage. The eye is certainly no exception. In fact, the more UV exposure, the more cataracts -- up to three times the risk.
The eye is constantly exposed to light and air -- typically polluted air as well -- and that's just the recipe for oxidative damage. When cells are oxidized, they set off chain reactions that can destroy whatever is in their path -- including healthy cells in the lens or the macula of the eye.
Suddenly, a dietary connection to eye disease no longer seems so farfetched. Research into the possible connections between nutrition and vision has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. It is now evident that antioxidants may work to slow the progression of cataracts and may even help prevent them. The antioxidant nutrients linked to decreased cataract incidence include beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
In one study, women who ate lots of fruits and vegetables had a whopping 39 percent lower risk of developing severe cataracts (the kind that require surgery) than those who didn't eat much produce. Among the strongest protectors were spinach, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, all high in beta-carotene. Another study found daily intake of 180 milligrams of vitamin C from foods (nearly three times the recommended daily amount) reduced the odds of developing cataracts by nearly 50 percent.
With macular degeneration, National Eye Institute researchers were thrilled with the remarkable results from a six-year study. At least 25 percent of the people at risk for developing advanced macular degeneration experienced a protective effect from supplements containing vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc. The nutrients certainly don't cure the disease, nor will they restore vision already lost. However, they may help to slow progression of macular degeneration, a wonderful prospect for people suffering from this vision-robbing disease.
Another interesting finding from recent research is that people with higher macular concentrations of two beta-carotene cousins, called lutein and zeaxanthin, seem to experience greater protection from damage caused by sunlight and other environmental factors. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in yellow-colored vegetables. Research also suggests higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in higher-fat fish, soybeans, wheat germ, and canola oil, may help protect the eyes from AMD.
Admittedly, we are still in the infancy of learning about the connection between nutrition and eye disease. And not all the results from the research have been promising. But the possibilities are indeed worth looking into.
Taking precautions and augmenting them with foods and supplements can provide benefits to the eyes, if not an all-out cure.
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