There’s a kind of parlour game that some people like to play – a variation of ‘Would You Rather?’
I’ve heard it many times before, and I’ve thought about it myself.
If you had to lose one of your senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch – which one would you choose?
I love the sound of laughter… the smell of a nice juicy steak cooking on the grill (and how it tastes when it’s done)… and the feeling of my wife’s hand in mine.
I can’t imagine giving up any of those.
But my eyes? There are so many wonderful things in this world to gaze upon, some that I haven’t seen yet and some that I can’t wait to see again.
So, I would argue that this question is a trick – because you should never have to sacrifice ANY of your senses. And losing your sight is not just a matter of getting older, no matter how many older people experience it.
In the March 2016 issue of Nutrition and Healing, I shared some of my favourite herbal approaches to various eye disorders.
Today, I would like to concentrate on one particularly disabling age-related disorder of the eye – age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
It’s the leading cause of blindness in the United States for those over 55 years of age, and it affects almost 40 per cent of those over the age of 75.
By the year 2020, there will be an estimated 3 million cases of AMD in the US alone, and in the UK things aren’t looking any better with an estimated 1 in 10 people suffering with the condition.
That means that it’s something we can’t ignore as we get older.
Fortunately, you can delay or even prevent the occurrence of AMD.
Here are the various nutrients you need to know about (and start incorporating into your routine) while your eyeballs are still working.
The eye-opening truth
But first: a primer about AMD if you’re lucky enough to not have experienced it for yourself yet. (Hopefully, you never will!)
AMD is classified as wet or dry, the wet form being less common but more dangerous. Both affect the tiny portion of the retina called the macula, which is the most critical part of the ‘machinery’ that helps you see.
Early signs of AMD include loss of a portion of vision, loss of night vision, and inability to recover from glare. Other symptoms include blurriness, changes in the ability to read, and inability to distinguish between colours and even faces.
AMD has many risk factors – and while some are related to genetics, in other cases, AMD is an entirely treatable condition!
For instance, smoking, blood pressure elevation, lack of exercise, and obesity are all associated with increased AMD – and those are all so-called ‘lifestyle’ factors that you have complete control over.
AMD is even related to body shape, as the increased waist-to-hips ratio (associated with the condition known as ‘metabolic syndrome’) is a separate risk factor for AMD.
What’s more, other potentially treatable AMD risk factors include elevated levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, an inflammatory marker known as hs-CRP (a type of C-reactive protein), the inflammatory cytokine called IL-6, and homocysteine.
For instance, elevated homocysteine can usually be modified by a combination of B vitamins – usually B6, B12, and folic acid.
In a large long-term double-blind study of risk factors, women who took this combination of B vitamins had a 34 per cent lower incidence of developing AMD.1
You see, as we age, nutrients don’t circulate into this area as much as they used to – or as much as they need to – and the resulting build-up of debris can contribute to atrophy in the macula and adjacent structures.
In other words, if you don’t nourish your eyes, they can waste away. Just like any other part of your body.
Time to fatten up your eyes
As I’ve shared with you in the past, several antioxidant flavonoids can protect our eyes. But there are also a number of well-researched nutritional interventions that you should know about.
And if you love seafood, feast your eyes on this: It seems that people who eat fish at least two times per week have a lower risk of AMD.
There are a couple of reasons for that – including possibly the taurine content of the fish – but more on that in a moment. Right now, I want to talk about fat.
Research has focused specifically on one of the omega-3 fatty acids, a component of fish oil called docosahexaenoic acid, better known as DHA. DHA is the main essential fatty acid in neurologic tissue – including in your eyes. And laboratory and animal studies have both shown that decreasing concentrations of DHA in the diet have led to visual problems (among other things).
Therefore, it stands to reason that if you want to protect your vision, you should eat lots of fatty fish and/or take a fish oil supplement with plenty of DHA in it.
But on its own, that may not be enough. Because you need the right balance of your omega-3s versus the other fats you’re getting in your diet… otherwise you may be sabotaging yourself.
For example, omega-6 fatty acids such as corn and soy oils are associated with diminishing vision and risk increase of AMD. This may be because they compete with the omega-3 oil, making it less usable.
Likewise, the so-called trans fatty acids that are common components of processed and packaged foods limit the positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids like DHA – and pretty dramatically so.
A man cannot see by carrots alone
Now, considering the fact that your eyesight depends on not just the retina but a number of other visual organs – ones that work together in intricate and involved ways – it’s no surprise that there are several nutrients that are essential for protecting them.
Some of the main antioxidants that are important for your eyes to function properly – and to protect them against diseases – are vitamins A, C, and E. I list these together because they work in harmony in your body to perform the various antioxidant and protective functions.
People in conventional medicine usually talk about one ingredient in isolation, without acknowledging one key bit of info: It’s the harmony of ingredients together that make our bodies run well.
And vitamin A/beta-carotene requires other antioxidants in order to function effectively.
This was clearly demonstrated when the National Eye Institute funded a large study, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which looked at patients age 55 to 80 with various degrees of AMD. Those patients with the worst cases of AMD got the most benefit out of taking an antioxidant combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.2
I suspect that this was just a step in the right direction… but that it’s not the entire story.
In fact, we already know that in addition to protecting macular and other retinal tissue, alpha lipoic acid – a different kind of antioxidant that also has potent vision-protecting properties – also protects other antioxidants from becoming damaged.
In addition, most of the antioxidant enzymes in the body not only USE zinc… but depend on it to help them protect the fatty acid membranes of our neurologic system and provide general antioxidant support to our tissues.
And I bet there’s lots more to be discovered about what the wonderful world of antioxidant combinations can do to protect our vision.
Currently under way is a new study, appropriately called AREDS 2, whose researchers are looking at plant-based antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.3
Of course, as always, I will ‘keep an eye’ on these developments and report back with the latest.
Don’t forget this
In addition to the antioxidants I just mentioned, there are also some amino acids that can protect your visual tissue – and, therefore, your vision.
One is L-cysteine, which is known as a ‘conditional essential amino acid’. That means that under ideal conditions, your body can make it… but when under stress, you may need to take it in dietary form.
Cysteine is necessary for the formation of glutathione, the most potent antioxidant in the neurological system (which is why we call it the ‘master antioxidant’).
It’s also necessary to form the amino acid L-taurine.
Together, glutathione and taurine are critical in protecting your retina, as animal studies have shown.
L-cysteine itself, in the form of N-acetylcysteine (NAC), can be a potent antioxidant and a scavenger of toxic heavy metals.
In fact, as I shared with you in the September 2017 issue of Nutrition & Healing, NAC is a big part of my treatment plan for anyone who’s become ill after being exposed to some of the toxic contrasting agents used in certain types of MRIs.
Its toxin-scavenging mechanisms have also been shown to help alleviate Parkinson’s disease – something that, as you’re well aware, I know a little something about myself.
Hit the market!
Now that you know which nutrients you need to deliver to your eyeballs to keep the world around you from dimming (or worse yet, going completely dark), we’ve got to talk about how you can get them. Because it’s not always a matter of just taking a single supplement or even one of those ‘vision support’ formulas.
Take zinc, for instance. As I mentioned earlier, it’s gotten to be a little tricky.
You see, throughout most of civilised history, zinc has been plentiful in both our food sources and our bodies. However, in the past few decades, this has all changed.
According to one study, the amount of zinc in broccoli grown in the United States is only about 15 per cent of what was present in broccoli grown 50 years ago!4
You can still get plenty of zinc in shellfish like oysters, Alaskan king crab, and lobster… but if that’s a little too highfalutin for you, other good sources include beans, nuts, and animal proteins.5
Here’s the kicker: You could be getting plenty of zinc in your diet and yet your eyes STILL aren’t getting enough of it.
And that could be because your body needs an acidic environment in order to absorb zinc well, but thanks to the recent explosion of acid-blocking drugs (including so-called proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs), the zinc isn’t getting to where it needs to go.
However, the answer isn’t necessarily to supplement with zinc (unless, of course, you’re beaten down by a cold) – because you can definitely get too much of a good thing when it comes to zinc.
Work with an integrative doctor to try to maintain the right balance of stomach acid – especially since there IS such a thing as stomach acid levels that are too LOW – and get the right amount of zinc.
Alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA), thankfully, is a little less complicated. It’s found throughout the food supply… and it’s particularly abundant in broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, which have been shown to protect retinal tissue and prevent the damage to the macula that can occur from overexposure to light.
One unique thing about ALA is that it has the ability to dissolve in both water and fat… in the neurologic system or in the circulation… which means that your body can absorb it easily under nearly any circumstance, unlike other nutrients that require either water or fat in order to be soluble in your body.
But why not drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over your broccoli or Brussels sprouts? They’ll taste better… and it’ll give you a little extra boost of healthy fat.