Question: As a professional needlepoint embroiderer, good eyesight is of supreme importance to me. But at 56, I'm finding it harder and harder to thread a needle, colors seem to have lost their brilliance, and bright lights and glare bother me. My optometrist says these are all just age-related vision problems that I must learn to accept. But I can't; my income depends on me having sharp eyesight. Can you help? A.P., Essex
Answer: You may be able to maintain or even improve your eyesight by making sure you get enough carotenoids. These plant pigments, mainly found in green leafy vegetables and brightly colored fruit, can help neutralize the vision-damaging 'free radicals' that are inevitably generated when light passes through the eye's retina.
According to Harvard researchers, blue light—found in sunlight, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and fluorescent light—is the most dangerous light for the retina not only because it causes free radicals to form, but also because it pierces even deeper into the eyes than ultraviolet (UV) light, which means it damages those important specialized cells in the retina called 'rods' and 'cones.' Blue light is also emitted by computer monitors, tablets and smart phones.
Carotenoids—especially lutein, meso-zeaxanthin and zeaxanthin—are known to protect the eyes from free-radical damage as well as the harm caused by blue light. Adequate amounts of all three carotenoids are needed to maintain the structure of the macula in the retina and preserve eyesight, but levels of these naturally decline with age.1
Numerous studies suggest that this trio of carotenoids can protect eyesight. In the well-known Nurses' Health Study, which followed over 77,000 female nurses over the age of 45 for 12 years, those with the highest intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 22 percent lower risk of developing cataracts severe enough to require surgery.2
Other research suggests that lutein and zeaxanthin may be able to help prevent age-related macular degeneration—the gradual destruction of the macula (the central pigmented area of the retina)—that leads to loss of the fine-detail, 'straight-ahead' and color vision needed for activities like reading and driving—and, of course, needlework.
These carotenoids seem to boost the density of the macular pigment, meaning that details may be sharper, glare and brightness become easier to deal with, and colors appear bright again.3
But don't forget meso-zeaxanthin. One study found significant increases in macular pigment only in those who took lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin together.4 And researchers also discovered that the concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin are more increased in the macula when meso-zeaxanthin is taken along with them.5
The three carotenoids appear to filter out short-wavelength light (like violet and blue) to prevent or reduce the usual free-radical generation in the retina, and the combination of all three seems to be more effective than any of the nutrients on their own.6
It may be difficult to get enough of these carotenoids from diet alone. In particular, meso-zeaxanthin isn't found in food, but must be made in the retina from lutein. Supplements are a good solution, but you need to make sure your product of choice provides adequate amounts of each nutrient. Many popular eye supplements contain only small amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, and tend to omit meso-zeaxanthin completely.
Generally, daily dosages of 15 mg of lutein, 10 mg of meso-zeaxanthin and 2 mg of zeaxanthin are recommended for clinically optimal eye health. You can buy the nutrients as separate supplements, or go for an all-in-one formula like MacuShield (see www.macushield.com, also available on Amazon.com), although since it supplies only 10 mg of lutein, you may want to take an extra dose of this nutrient alone.
Other supplements for sight
Bilberry. An extract of bilberry (European blueberry), also known as Vaccinium myrtillus extract (VME), has been shown to inhibit abnormal blood-vessel growth (known as 'angiogenesis') in the retina, which is implicated in many eye diseases, including glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetes-related eye disorders.1 When given together with vitamin E, VME may even stabilize progressive myopia (short-sightedness).2
Suggested dosage: 200 mg/day
Pycnogenol (PCG) and grape seed extract (GSE). PCG is a natural extract derived from the bark of French maritime pine, and GSE is made from Vitis vinifera grape seeds. Both contain vitamin-C-like antioxidants, such as bioflavonoids, phenolic acids and proanthocyanidins, proved to significantly improve eyesight in poor light and after glare.3
Suggested dosage: 150-300 mg/day
Ginkgo biloba. This herb can increase the blood supply to the eyes in elderly patients who lack enough bloodflow to the head in general, bring about significant long-term improvements in people with visual field disturbances and improve retinal sensitivity.4
Suggested dosage: 160 mg/day
Combo supplements. Look for antioxidant-rich formulas to support eye health. I recommend Solgar's Bilberry Ginkgo Eyebright Complex Plus Lutein (available from health stores and online, see www.solgar.com).
Don't forget diet
Growing research suggests that many of the eye conditions that arise with getting old may be due to a highly processed diet. Eating fresh, whole foods rich in antioxidants and carotenoids, on the other hand, may be able to stave off eye problems and even improve your sight.