Vision is arguably our most important sense. While eye health and risk of eye-related conditions that come with aging have a significant genetic component, we can still influence our eye health with diet to help slow or prevent the deterioration of our eyesight over time.
Often called European blueberry, bilberry is closely related to American blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries. It is the most commonly mentioned natural treatment for impaired night vision. This use dates back to World War II, when pilots in Britain's Royal Air Force reported that a good dose of bilberry jam just before a mission improved their night vision, often dramatically.
Bilberry extracts also have the ability to improve diabetic retinopathy, collagen integrity, and capillary permeability. Bilberry helps to protect the tiny blood vessels that supply the eye from damage. Studies on bilberry extracts helping to improve night vision found that healthy subjects experienced improvements in night-time visual acuity, quicker adjustment to darkness, and faster restoration of visual acuity after exposure to glare.
Lutein is one of the major carotenoid pigments in the human macula and retina. It functions as a fat-soluble antioxidant and blue light filter, protecting underlying ocular tissues from free radical damage. This includes damage from sunlight as well as blue light from LED screens (desktop monitors, laptops, smartphones, and tablets). Lutein helps to reduce the risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. It also helps to improve macular pigment optical density (MPOD). MPOD is a yellow-pigmented layer in the center of the retina (the macula) that protects the eye from light damage. Better contrast sensitivity, better acuity, and reduced glare are just some of the benefits to a high MPOD.
Foods containing high concentrations of lutein, like broccoli, spinach, kale, corn, and egg yolks, are associated with the greatest eye health benefits. Some evidence has associated high dietary lutein intake with reduced risk of developing AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration) and cataracts.
Lutein has also been used in several clinical trials examining neural/visual processing speed in young, healthy adults. Significant increases in MPOD (macular pigment optical density) from lutein supplementation led to improvements in spatial memory, reasoning ability, and complex attention. Visual processing speed is all about the time it takes to see something and then make an accurate assessment or decision. This includes time to read and comprehend information and making decisions based on complex visual stimuli and events – for example, reacting quickly while driving or playing a sport.
Astaxanthin is a special type of carotenoid that's both fat and water-soluble. It can cross the blood-brain and blood-retina barrier and has been shown to help reduce eye strain and fatigue and improve visual acuity and contrast sensitivity. It also helps to increase retinal blood flow. The eye naturally incorporates carotenoids like lutein and astaxanthin into its structure to protect the eye from free radical damage, whether from sunlight, blue light, or the effects of aging.
The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is the main structural fatty acid in the retina and helps to preserve eye health, relieve dry eye, and reduce chronic inflammation of the eyelid. Because it is incorporated in the cell membrane of retinal cells, it plays a key role in keeping these membranes adaptable and flexible during all the dynamic molecular activity that defines the healthy functioning of our eyes.
Robert Dadd is a Master Herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) with a BA in Communications from Simon Fraser University. His areas of research include adaptogens, probiotics, and essential fatty acids. He is currently the Product Information Supervisor for Flora Manufacturing and Distributing.