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Want healthy eyes? Try these eye-friendly exercises and lifestyle changes


Have healthy eyes for life with these lifestyle and food choices

Credit: Eric Ward

Your eyes are your lenses to the world. They provide instant snapshots that allow you to savour life’s pleasures, such as reading a page-turner and exchanging a loving look or watching the seasons turn and the sun set. Yet often we lose sight of the fact that our eyes need some TLC. Though your eyes will be affected by age, those impacts such as loss of night vision, the need for glasses and the risk of disease can be reduced if you make informed decisions to look out for your eyes the way they look out for you.

A light-detecting camera

Two small globes about the size of a ping-pong ball, your eyes work like cameras to provide ongoing footage of what’s going on in your world. By detecting light, they also discern and pass on this intel to your brain. The operation of your eye is complex, so it’s made of many different parts that each play a role in helping you to achieve and maintain your sight.

The visible eye

When you look in the mirror, you can see many of the important parts of your eye, including:

  • The iris. This is the coloured part of your eye and it houses the pupil.
  • The cornea. Sitting over the coloured part of your eye, this transparent dome is a little like a clear window through which you look at the world. It contains no blood vessels and its job is to bend or refract light so that most of the light that goes into your eye gets focused to the back.
  • The pupil. This circular opening in the middle of the iris allows light to enter your eye. It uses muscles to help it become smaller in response to bright light (so the light doesn’t temporarily blind you) or get bigger and dilate in dark light (so you can still see).
  • The sclera. Though this outer coating is often called the white of your eye, if you look closely you can see it contains tiny pink/red threads that are the blood vessels, which bring blood to the sclera.
  • The conjunctiva. This clear tissue covers the white of your eyes and the inside of your eyelids.
  • The eyelid. This helps keep your eye clean and shuts to protect your eye if it detects something coming too close. Each time you blink, the eyelid shuts, which helps to keep your eyes clean and moist.
  • The eyelashes and eyebrows. Eyebrows work a little like grates to prevent irritants like dust and dirt from entering your eye. Your eyebrows have a similar role, catching potential irritants from falling on to your eye.

The hidden eye

Just as a camera has an internal mirror and film/computer chip that you can’t see, the parts of your eye that are not visible are also crucial to your eyesight. They include:

  • The anterior chamber. This space between the cornea and iris is filled with special clear fluid that’s important for nourishing the eye to keep it healthy.
  • The lens. This is clear and without colour and sits behind your iris. After light goes through your pupil it reaches the lens, which focuses the light onto the retina at the back of the eyeball. The lens works a little like a zoom lens on a camera: it changes shape depending on whether you are looking, becoming thicker if you are looking at something up-close or nearby and thinner to help you see something that is distant or further away.
  • The retina. This is a layer of nerve tissue that sits at the back of your eye where it senses light. When light passes through the lens of your eye, the images are “recorded” by your retina, which works a little like the film in a camera. The retina houses “cones” that allow you to see colours and “rods” that enable you to see black and white.
  • The optic nerve. This important nerve sends the visual information from your retina to your neural networks. It’s the main connection between your eye and your brain.

Eye errors

In popular culture, eyeglasses are often associated with people who are intelligent, serious, bookish or channelling their inner nerd. The implication? That these people need glasses because they do so much reading. In reality, though, eye conditions that create a need for glasses are caused by “refractive errors”. The term simply means that an issue with the shape or function of your eyes prevents them from focusing the way they should.

Prescription glasses or contact lenses are usually prescribed to treat these conditions, which may be present at birth or may develop due to eye injury, surgery or other eye changes. In some cases, medication or surgery may also be used as treatment. The four most common refractive errors are:

  • This leads to near-sightedness, where your vision is fine up close when reading a book or writing a form, but gets blurry when you look into the distance.
  • Causes far-sightedness, where things appear blurry up close but your vision is clear when you look at things in the distance.
  • Results in trouble focusing on things up close because the lens of the eye hardens with age and your eye becomes less flexible and can’t easily change shape to focus on things up close. Presbyopia is the reason many people start to need eye glasses once they reach their mid 40s or 50s.
  • This problem occurs because the cornea or lens of the eye is curved more steeply in one direction. This causes difficulty focusing, which leads to strain during activities like reading, writing or typing. This condition can also occur in combination with near-sightedness and far-sightedness.

Don’t wait & see

Fast diagnosis can help ensure that eye problems are caught early so they can be more effectively treated. If you notice signs of the following conditions (which are usually more common after the age of 50), you should seek advice from a GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist (eye specialist) and ask your naturopath or herbalist what supplements or tinctures they may also recommend.

Cataracts

This causes a clouding of the eye lens so you feel you’re seeing through a bit of a fog. It can occur due to issues like injury or eye damage, diseases like diabetes or long-term use of steroids.

Possible signs: Clouded or blurry vision, trouble seeing at night, sensitivity to light and glare, fading or yellowing of colours, double vision in one eye and seeing halos around lights.

Medical treatment: Usually involves surgery to remove the clouded lens over the eye and replace it with a clear, artificial lens.

Self-help: Protect your eyes from the sun (and if you wear sunglasses, make sure they meet the Australian Standard: AS/NZA 1067). Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables — research shows this can help reduce the risk of developing cataracts.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma causes a build-up of pressure in your eyes that damages the optic nerve. Both pupil-dilating drops and the puff of air test during an eye exam can help to diagnose the condition.

Possible signs: Often there are no symptoms; however, in some cases, glaucoma signs may include tunnel vision, severe headache, gradual loss of peripheral vision, eye pain (sometimes with nausea), blurred vision, reddening of the eyeball and halos around lights.

Medical treatment: Usually involves medicated eye drops to reduce elevated eye pressure. If this doesn’t work, medications may also be used and surgery carried out to help improve drainage of fluid from the eye.

Self-help: Wear eye protection when playing sport or doing domestic chores like mowing the lawn: eye injuries can increase the risk of developing glaucoma later in life.

Macular degeneration

This occurs when there is damage to the cells of the macula, located in the central part of the retina at the back of the eye. The main risk factors are ageing, smoking, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and a family history.

Possible signs: Include blurred or reduced central vision, a blind spot in your field of vision or lessened intensity when seeing bright colours.

Medical treatment: Usually involves “low vision rehabilitation” techniques that help you adapt the way you see to your macular problems. In more advanced cases, surgery may be used to implant a telescopic lens in the eye to improve vision when looking at things close up and at a distance.

Self-help: Eat a diet high in eye-friendly foods. A growing body of evidence suggests that antioxidants — particularly lutein and zeaxanthin, found in green vegetables like broccoli and kale — can be protective.

Double vision

This can occur in one or both eyes and make you feel dizzy or anxious.

Possible signs: Blurry vision and seeing two images (often overlapping) of something that is only a single image.

Medical treatment: Depends on the cause. Make sure you see your GP to rule out other underlying causes, which could include conditions like diabetes and a mild stroke.

Self-help: Identify any health issues such as thyroid problems, high blood pressure or elevated blood sugars, as these can all increase the risk of developing double vision.

Floaters

Though annoying, eye floaters are quite often due to age-related changes or, less often, detachment of the vitreous: a gel-like substance that helps the eye keep its shape. Sometimes this can separate from the retina, causing floaters.

Possible signs: Dark moving spots drifting across your field of vision, often appearing when you look at something bright like a computer screen or the sky on a sunny day. If the floaters suddenly appear, increase or occur with flashes or light or loss of side vision also occurs, seek medical attention as this could indicate retinal detachment or a tear in the retina.

Medical treatment: Often none is required and the floaters lessen with time. But, if the cause is vitreous detachment, it may cause retinal tears, which need to be repaired.

Self-help: Meditation techniques can help you to ignore floaters when they appear, by changing your focus. Be patient, as often they settle down and lessen with time.

Retinopathy

This is the most common eye problem caused by diabetes. It’s a direct consequence of high blood sugars, which can clog the blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue of the retina in the back of the eye. Better blood sugar control can help to substantially slow the progression of the disease and allows the opportunity to get the condition under control before the more fragile blood vessels have started growing.

Possible signs: Retinopathy often presents no symptoms at first. Over time it may cause the following issues:

  • These weaken the capillary wall and may cause leakages. You may have no symptoms or start to notice blurred vision or trouble seeing things at a distance.
  • Yellow spots/flecks in the retina. These indicate the leakage of proteins and fats from the blood vessels in the retina.
  • The capillaries may then weaken and rupture, showing up as blood in the back of the eye in the form of small dots of blood, larger areas of redness or “flame” haemorrhage.

Varied symptoms: These may range from blurry or fluctuating vision to holes (dark, empty areas in your vision, trouble distinguishing colours, floaters, loss of vision). These signs usually occur in both eyes.

Medical treatment: Stabilising blood sugars is a priority via a healthy diet, regular exercise and lowering stress levels. Laser beams may be used to cauterise blood vessels or shrink them to slow leakage of blood. Surgery is sometimes performed to remove blood from the vitreous jelly in the middle of the eye, along with any scar tissue there. A newer approach called Anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) therapy may also be tried, which involves an injection of medication into the eye to help slow down the growth of abnormal blood vessels.

Self-help: Involves a healthy lifestyle to ensure that blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugars are all at healthy levels.

Vision protection

Lifestyle is the key to healthier eyes. That means you need to do a few things.

Kick unhealthy habits

Quit smoking, reduce your alcohol intake and minimise use of medications and drugs like marijuana. Cut back on salt, which increases fluid retention and blood pressure, as these both affect eye health and function. Reduce your sugar intake, as this can raise blood sugars and insulin, which can both compromise your eye health.

Exercise regularly

Staying fit can slash your chances of developing age-related macular degeneration by an impressive 70 per cent, shows research published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. Recent research involving 41,000 people by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also found that vigorous exercise like running can help prevent vision loss and reduce cataracts and macular degeneration. Higher exercise levels also appear to reduce the intraocular eye pressure that causes glaucoma, reducing glaucoma risk.

Eat for your eyes

Natural therapists and traditional Western doctors agree that a healthy diet is key to keeping eyes healthier for life. Plant foods offer gold-standard eye protection because they contain such high levels of antioxidants. These have protective affects against eye conditions, shows research. Combine them with other healthy choices and your eyes will reap the benefits. Aim to keep these foods on high rotation:

  • Leafy greens. Kale, silverbeet, spinach, broccoli and other leafy greens are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin. These two potent carotenoids are found in high levels in your macula and are also stored in the retina and the lens of your eye. Studies suggest they may help lower the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts and boost overall eye health. They both absorb blue light, which can also be very harmful to the retina.
  • If these are your go-to choice for breakfast, your eyes will reap the benefits. Research has shown that even eating just one egg a day can increase lutein levels by 26 per cent and zeaxanthin levels by almost 40 per cent.
  • Yes, these can help you see better! If your diet skimps on vitamin A, you may be at higher risk of eye problems and night blindness. So, as well as carrots, enjoy other orange foods containing beta-carotene, such as sweet potato, pumpkin, apricots, mangoes and rockmelon.
  • These are packed with lycopene, a potent antioxidant that does not become depleted when it’s heated in sauces and soups. Studies show that lycopene, which can be found in ocular tissues in the eye, helps to prevent areas like the retina from light-related damage.
  • Citrus fruits. Nerve cells in the eye need vitamin C to function optimally, according to new research from the Oregon Health and Science University in the US. In particular, the retina needs to be “bathed” in high doses of vitamin C to stay healthy and perform well. That’s good reason to eat your oranges and lemons and other foods high in vitamin C, including capsicums (bell peppers), strawberries, kiwi fruit, pineapples and vegetables like potatoes and cauliflower.
  • Purple grapes. These contain potent flavonoids, particularly anthocyanins, which help reduce inflammation, protecting the eye against disease and ageing. They are also high in resveratrol, which may help combat irregular blood vessel growth in the eyes.
  • Flaxseeds and linseeds. These are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown by research to have protective effects, reducing risk of eye conditions such as macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome (where lack or lubrication leads to irritation and inflammation of the eye). Omega-3s may also encourage better drainage of the intraocular fluid from the eye, lowering the risk of glaucoma. Fish is another good source of omega-3s.
  • Research shows that a diet high in zinc can help reduce the risk of developing conditions like macular degeneration. Shellfish are particularly good options because their zinc levels are high. Prawns also contain carotenoids called astaxanthin, which give them their pink colour.
  • Organic beef. Red meat is high in vitamin B12. In the large-scale Blue Mountains Eye Study conducted in NSW, people with higher levels of B12 were found to have lower risk of eye conditions like macular degeneration and cataracts.
  • The Blue Mountains Eye Study also showed better eye health in people who consumed higher levels of folate in their diets, a vitamin that lentils are rich in.
  • These are packed with vitamin E, which has been shown to have many protective benefits against eye disease like cataracts and macular degeneration.
  • Green tea. The catechins help protect against inflammation and oxidative stress that occur with age, according to research from Hong Kong Eye Hospital.

Remedying eyesight problems

Most people start to notice their vision becoming less sharp when they reach their early to mid 40s. At that point it may be slightly harder to focus on the print in a book or on a website. As eyes continue to age, those focusing issues, caused by presbyopia, become more pronounced. Some natural eye therapists recommend approaches that include the following.

The Bates Method

Have you ever noticed that your eyesight feels better in the morning and worse in the afternoon, or that your vision gets blurry after a super-stressful day? William Bates, a distinguished New York ophthalmologist who pioneered the technique of visual training, also noted this. Bates’ philosophy? That some vision problems are caused more by eyestrain than other issues, particularly in the case of presbyopia as we age.

Bates believed the issue was not muscle weakness but, in fact, over-use and strain of eye muscles. For this reason, relaxation was the foundation of his approach. If he was alive today, he would no doubt agree that any technique that makes you feel calmer, clearer and less stressed is beneficial, including mindfulness, daily meditation, slower breathing and thinking styles that promote a calmer attitude to life.

The retina needs to be “bathed” in high doses of vitamin C to stay healthy and perform well.

It’s important to note that the Bates technique has been widely discredited by ophthalmologists and optometrists; however, thousands of people throughout the world still attest to its benefits and have anecdotally reported that it has improved their eyesight. As well as relaxation, Bates’ technique also encouraged people to:

  • Avoid squinting. This is a common mistake when you feel you are having problems focusing. Squinting can actually cause your muscles to contract and become tight and strained, which does not promote good eyesight. Instead, aim to consciously relax your eyes, particularly if they are feeling tired or strained or if what you are looking at is a little blurry.
  • Scan the face. Notice all the areas you are tensing, including your jaw, lips and your forehead and brow, as all of these can increase tightness in the muscles around your eyes. Blink slowly and repeatedly for a few seconds to help them relax. Then close your eyes for a few minutes and consciously relax them.
  • Seek sunlight. Though too much sun can damage eyes and increase risks of issues like cancer and cataracts, too little can also cause problems. A little sunlight is needed to nourish the retina in the eyes. That does not mean you should race outdoors and look directly at the sun. In fact, this could harm your eyes. But you should aim to spend a little time outdoors each day where you are directly in sunlight and are not wearing sunglasses. In summer it’s best to have that exposure in the morning or afternoon when the sun is not too hot. In winter you may have to wait until later in the day to ensure the sun is bright enough to get the full benefits for your eyes.
  • Use the seeing muscles. Try to take small windows of time when you relax your eye muscles and do some up-close work while looking at your computer. You may only be able to tolerate a few minutes to start with because your eyes feel strained. Slowly build that time up to five minutes, then 10 minutes and longer. Meanwhile, take a similar approach to the font you use on your computer. If you have been enlarging it as you age, try reducing the font just a little. If your eyesight continues to improve over time, challenge it by making the font a little smaller for small windows of time until you can do longer blocks working with smaller fonts without eyestrain.

Eye exercises

Some experts believe that, just as you need to exercise to keep your body toned, you need eye exercises to keep your eye muscles in shape. Some of their suggested exercises are also prescribed by optometrists for people who are sitting at computers for hours. However, natural eyecare therapists believe the following exercises can also help:

  • Also known as “palming”, this simple, soothing exercise involves placing the bottom of your hand on your cheek and covering your eyes with the palm, to encourage relaxation.
  • Make sure you remember to do this regularly throughout the day when using screens to prevent eyes from drying out.
  • Make a thumbs-up hand shape, then stretch your arm out to the side and then back in front of your face, following your thumb all the way with your eyes.
  • Directional exercises. Do these without moving your head: look up and down, side to side and then up and down, following an imaginary zig-zag pattern.
  • Making a figure 8. Imagine there is a giant figure 8 about an arm’s length away and follow the shape with your eyes. Trace the imaginary shape upright and then on its side.
  • Looking near and far. Every hour, look at something about six to ten feet away from the computer screen and then look back to your screen. Repeat slowly and gently at least 10 times or more. Finish off by rolling your eyes to the right and the left.
  • Effective breathing. Take some slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm; better oxygenation to your entire body also helps improve the function of your eyes.
  • This is a quick and easy way to relax some of the tension in the muscles around your eyes.
  • Wash your hands with warm water to ensure they are clean and not cold. Then engage in a gentle eye massage to encourage blood flow to your eye.

Hard on the eyes

A hundred years ago, people did not use computers for work, text friends and family to stay in touch or read books on Kindles. Nor were many weekends spent renovating houses or playing team sports. These major differences in the way we live put a great deal more pressure on our eyes. So it’s important to take precautions to minimise the impacts of the following aspects of day-to-day modern living on your vision.

Computers

Headaches, blurred vision and sore eyes are common complaints of desk workers because they are sitting at computers for most of the day. Computer glare, brightness and the constant imperceptible flickering of pixelated text can leave your eyes feeling chronically strained. To alleviate this, try to:

  • Take regular breaks. Get up and move right away from your computer. Look into the distance, out the window and then back at your hands. Do a scan of the room, letting your eyes lightly pass over the objects. This is the opposite of staring, which can cause eye muscles to feel tense, frozen and strained.
  • Clean your screen regularly to remove dust so this doesn’t make it harder for your eyes to focus.
  • Invest in anti-glare glasses or anti-glare coating on prescription glasses.
  • Reduce screen brightness.
  • Position your computer monitor away from glare caused by lights or windows.
  • Switch to a larger font.

Central heating & air-conditioning

  • Drink up to two litres of water a day to combat dehydration caused by air-conditioning.
  • Avoid sitting directly under or in a stream of hot or cold air.
  • Keep temperatures stable: don’t turn heating or cooling up too high as both can dry out eyes, causing irritation.

Renovating & gardening

  • Slip on special specs. Invest in industrial impact-resistant safety glasses and wear them when mowing the lawn, cutting back trees, handling chemicals, woodworking, chopping firewood, using power tools or renovating. Otherwise you risk a stone, branch or shard of material flicking into your eye, causing a degree of vision loss. If you do a lot of DIY work, buy a range of safety glasses such as eye shields and face shields, goggles and cuffed glasses. Sunglasses are not protection enough; they can still allow debris or chemicals to splash or fly into your eyes.
  • Wash your hands. This should be done after handling chemicals such as paint solvents or working with wood where you may have small fragments under your nails. Accidentally rubbing your eye with a caustic chemical or small splinter of wood could cause a burn, tear or severe irritation.

Driving

  • Wear sunglasses in the car — UVA light still penetrates through glass.
  • Avoid night trips where possible. Driving at night and having to track car lights and darkness can cause greater eyestrain. It’s also clearly more dangerous if your night vision is not good.

Weekend/team sport

Invest in sports goggles. Look for a pair that are scratch and impact resistant, as well as helmets with visors if appropriate. This will help to prevent impact injuries such as tears to the retina, eye socket fracture and bleeding inside the eye (thought to contribute to glaucoma). Make sure your goggles also offer UV protection — running around on a sports field for a few hours, particularly if your game is scheduled in the middle of the day, can cause harm from the sun’s UV rays.

Sun exposure

As climate change continues, issues like the growing hole in the ozone will impact on eye health. UV exposure has been linked to eye damage such as cataracts and cancer, so it’s important to take these sun-savvy steps to protect your eyes:

  • Limit time outdoors when the sun is hottest: 10am–2pm (11am–3pm during daylight saving).
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses with a bridge setting close to eyes. Look for the AS/NZA 1067 Australian Standard on the tag.
  • Choose sunglasses with UV400 or EPF (Eye Protection Factor) 9 or 10. This indicates that the sunglasses filter out more UV rays.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, which can reduce UV rays reaching your eyes by up to 40 per cent.

Allergy action

If your eyes are often itchy, sore, dry or bloodshot, you may be suffering allergy. Don’t ignore it. Take action:

  • Keep a symptom diary to help identify triggers such as pollens, food or cat fur, then minimise your exposure. This may involve cutting out foods you think you may be sensitive to, such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn and eggs.
  • Use a warm cloth and wear glasses when dusting to reduce dust mite getting into your eyes.
  • Wear sunglasses when outdoors on windy days to reduce airborne allergens entering your eye.
  • Avoid being outdoors in the late afternoon to evening when pollens can often increase.
  • Get someone else to mow the lawn if you’re sensitive to grass. Avoid being outdoors during that time, or until at least the next day, to allow airborne particles of grass (and the strong scent) to settle.

Eye injury

Handling eye trauma the right way can help prevent infection, damage and further complications. So follow these first-aid tips for three common complaints:

  • A black eye. Apply an ice pack in a clean towel for no longer than 20 minutes to avoid risk of frostbite. All eye injuries should be fully checked out by an eye health professional, just in case there’s any damage to the back of the eyes that you may not be aware of.
  • Grit in the eye. Gently rinse the eye with warm water to remove grit and small debris. See a doctor to remove particles that did not dislodge.
  • Foreign body in the eye. Don’t attempt removal of any impaled object. Keep the head elevated slightly and head to your GP or hospital casualty section or call an ambulance if the injury is serious and you feel moving the person might worsen the eye injury.

Eye checks

If changes in your eyes are detected before they affect your sight, early treatment can be very effective and help prevent vision loss. Where vision loss has already occurred, treatment can stop it from getting worse. To ensure eye problems are caught early:

  1. Have regular eye checks. These should be every two years if you have no diagnosed problems and every year (or more often, according to your specialist’s advice) if you have been diagnosed with an eye condition.
  2. Book in for a dilated eye exam. Do this even if your vision is fine. Using special eye drops the optometrist can then see right through to the back of the eye, which makes diagnosing problems like glaucoma at an early stage much easier.
  3. See a specialist for your eye condition. Though an optometrist can conduct a thorough screening, for more serious conditions it’s best to consult with an ophthalmologist. They are medical doctors who have undertaken five years of specialist training in the diagnosis and management of eye disorders.

Eyesores

Minimising the use of the following may help protect your eyes.

Acne medication. Acne patients who take oral medications like Accutane double their risk of developing an eye infection.

Tip: Try taking zinc supplements and applying topical zinc to the skin problems. Make diet changes such as reducing sugar intake, cutting our dairy and minimising grains.

  • Regular use has recently been linked to macular degeneration.

Tip: If you suffer from migraines, seek alternative painkiller methods such as meditation, massage and supplements with magnesium, and avoid migraine triggers such as particular foods.

  • Canola oil. Some experts believe this oil, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, increases the risk of macular degeneration. Others say there is no evidence.

Tip: If you want to play it safe, use olive oil, which has many health benefits, or coconut oil, which also has a higher smoking point.

  • People who drink three or more cups of coffee a day are at increased risk of developing a type of glaucoma called exfoliation glaucoma.

Tip: Switch to tea or herbal tea or use caffeine substitutes like dandelion tea.



 

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.