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Eat, Exercise, See

What you put in your mouth could have more of an effect on your vision than what you put in your eyes

by Ann Morrow on January 19, 2012

“Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes.” Turns out Grandma was right—in some cases, even medically right. Carrots, and other brightly colored vegetables, contain beta-carotene, which among other healthy things, travels from the liver to the eyes, protecting the retina by filtering out harmful UV rays and preventing oxidative damage that can lead to macular degeneration. Yet considering today’s stresses—such as air pollution and greater-than-ever demands on close-focus eyesight—even a whole bunch of carrots might not provide enough carotenoids to maintain optimal eye health.

But you probably won’t hear about supplemental nutrition from your ophthalmologist, since prescription drugs and surgery are still the preferred methods of counteracting vision problems. You’re even less likely to hear about yogic eye exercises or herbal remedies, or to be advised to wear eyeglasses less, instead of getting ever stronger prescriptions. Though the eyes are the only sense organ made from brain tissue, they seem to be one of the organs left behind in more integrative medical therapies, perhaps because eye-care specialists are among the most concentrated–as in treating eyes and only eyes, apart from the rest of the body. Which eyes certainly are not: Twenty-five percent of the nutrients we consume go to the eyes, while the entire blood volume passes through them every 40 minutes.

Still, most people are more caring of their skin tone, their muscle mass, and their heart health than they are of their eyes, putting off any special effort until after an ailment develops, and accepting failing vision as an inevitable result of aging. That many eye specialists view eye deterioration as incurable, except through surgery, comes from a lack of time and training, says Marc Grossman, a New Paltz-based behavioral optometrist and acupuncturist who specializes in holistic vision care. The coauthor of several books on the subject, including Natural Eye Care: An Encyclopedia, Grossman says diagnosing and treating eye disease requires treating the whole person, which is too time-consuming for most optometry and ophthalmology offices, where a hundred patients can be scheduled in a day.

It’s a field that’s been slow to take into account that vision problems are often lifestyle related: smoking and excessive alcohol, sugar, and saturated-fat consumption are detrimental to eye health, and so is stress, including emotional distress, inadequate nutrition, prolonged LED screen use, even the dominance of artificial light over natural light (remember, eyes are light-sensing organs).

The idea that eye deterioration can be reduced, and even reversed, with natural therapies seems to be fairly new, and Americans continue to spend billions on eyeglasses, eye drops, contact lenses, and sometimes ineffectual laser surgeries. What Grossman and other holistic practitioners recommend is a practical approach that emphasizes prevention over cure, and whole-body health strategies over prescription drugs whenever possible. Exercise, for example, can increase strength and enhance performance in the eyes just as it does for other parts of the body. In addition to specific eye exercises should be a regular routine of aerobic exercise to raise oxygen levels throughout the body—because eyes need oxygen. Some eye diseases are brought on by lack of oxygen, which is why smokers are so prone to macular degeneration.

Gee, just what everyone wants to hear: less fatty, sugary foods, and more exercise. But considering the options—expensive, invasive surgeries riddled with side effects, greater eyeglass dependency, loss of the big picture in more ways than one when vision is diminished–maybe eating vegetables and developing good habits such as gazing into sunlight everyday (with UV-blocking sunglasses, of course) may not be so arduous.

And it’s not so mysterious (well, OK, maybe the part about healing Chinese herbs is a bit esoteric). Vitamin C, for example, as been proven to boost collagen metabolism. Many eye impairments, such as presbyopia (the over-40 syndrome) have to do with the stiffening of the lens–one of the results of lessening collagen production. Dry eyes and arthritis often go together because both are related to lack of collagen and chronic inflammation. Omega fatty fish oils can prevent, and alleviate chronic inflammation, which is also associated with glaucoma.

Another example: Dry eyes sometimes indicate a deficiency in circulation in the eyes, instead of medication, this condition can be relieved by eye exercises that stimulate the mechanism for lubrication. (Suppressed grief can be another cause). Macular degeneration, a degenerative eye disease that can lead to blindness, does not have even a surgical cure, yet there’s evidence that it can be managed with antioxidants and carotenoids lutien, taurine, and zeaxanthan. The anti-oxidants in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale lower the risk of cataracts and other degenerative eye diseases, giving new meaning to fiber optics, while some cholesterol-lowering drugs have been found to stimulate cataracts. It may be helpful to have a holistic eye-health practitioner devise a regimen. If you can find one.

Grossman says the goal of integrative medicine is not to replace traditional therapies, but to augment them, or better yet, prevent them from being needed. “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t have surgery,’” adds the doctor. “What I’m saying is rely on it as a last resort, not the first.”