Using diet to protect yourself from macular degeneration

I was never very interested in food as a child, but I do remember being encouraged to eat plenty of carrots to help me see in the dark. Not all nutritional folklore is supported by sound science, but this one is: carrots are loaded with the nutrient beta-carotene, and the vitamin A this may convert to in the body is indeed important for night vision. In recent years, however, science has begun to examine more closely the link between diet and eyesight. In particular, researchers have been busy identifying the true causes of deteriorating eyesight, in an attempt to discover ways of protecting against eye disease. It turns out that the humble carrot, in addition to helping with night sight, has other ocular benefits up its sleeve. The latest research suggests that consuming carrots and other deeply coloured vegetables may do much to preserve our visual powers as we age.

Much of the scientific community’s recent research into the links between diet and eye health has focused on a condition known as macular degeneration. The macula is part of the retina; the structure at the back of the eye that essentially fulfils the same function as film in a camera. The macula ‘sees’ whatever our eye is focusing on, and is responsible for our most detailed and intricate vision. However, just like all the other parts of our body, the macula can be subject to the vagaries of time. Damage to the macular as we age can give rise to a condition known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD tends to be one of those conditions you don’t hear about until you have it. Yet, despite its relative obscurity, it is actually the most common cause of visual deterioration and blindness in the developed world.

For a long time, AMD has been viewed as a natural part of the ageing process, and a condition about which we could do very little. However, a better understanding of what actually causes AMD has thrown up some very promising possibilities for its treatment and prevention. In recent years, scientists have discovered that AMD is related to molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals are natural by-products of the biochemical and physiological processes that keep us alive. Essentially waste products, free radicals are believed to be the major players in the damage characteristic of AMD. However, these rogue molecules don’t get it all their own way in the body. The effects of free radicals are tempered by substances known as antioxidants, many of which are nutrients. The good news is that upping our intake of antioxidants appears to help protect against AMD.

The antioxidants that appear to offer most potential in this respect are a class of compounds known as the carotenoids. The most famous of the carotenoids is beta-carotene. However, its relatives lutein (pronounced loo-teen) and zeaxanthin (pronounced zee-a-zanthin) also seem protect the eyes from free radical attack. Carotenoids are found in dark green and orange-yellow vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, squash, and of course, carrots. Not surprisingly, more than one study has found that high levels of carotenoids in the system appear to protect against AMD. It appears that eating plenty of carrots and other carotenoid-rich veggies is a worthwhile insurance policy against visual problems later in life.

Our diet offers more potential for the preservation of our eyesight in the form of wine. One study published found that as little as 2 – 12 glasses of red or white wine per year might reduce the risk of AMD by up to a half. While it is not known for sure what the protective factor is, wine is known to contain substances called flavonoids that do have antioxidant action in the body. Although very moderate wine consumption appears to be beneficial, it is not known whether more is better. Nevertheless, it does seem likely that the occasional glass of wine has benefits for our eyes.

While the right diet might offer real potential for protecting against AMD, I generally recommend a more aggressive approach for individuals who already have signs of this condition. Supplements of eye supporting nutrients may provide benefits in addition to those provided by dietary change. In fact, a study published last year found that the taking of a supplement containing beta-carotene and other antioxidants (vitamins C and E) significantly reduce the risk of severe AMD in those at high risk of this condition. For those interested in affording themselves the best protection, I usually recommend a supplement called OcuPlus. This has been specifically formulated with macular degeneration in mind, and contains a complex of all the nutrients associated with a reduced risk of AMD. OcuPlus is available by mail order on 020 8785 3730.

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