More than 4.2 million Americans over 40 have impaired vision or are legally blind, and according to NIH-funded studies, that number is expected to double to over 8 million by 2050.
As we age, vision problems become more prevalent and are linked to reduced life expectancy and lower quality of life.
Protecting our vision and preventing these age-related eye conditions is a top priority for many of us. This article will cover the top three age-related eye health concerns in Integrative Medicine, their causes, and natural therapies to support eye health.
What are The Top Eye Health Concerns in Integrative Medicine?
The top eye health concerns in Integrative Medicine are age-related conditions such as glaucoma, cataract, and macular degeneration, which together are the leading causes of impaired vision and blindness in the USA.
Glaucoma most often occurs when the fluid pressure in the eyes rises, increasing intraocular pressure and causing damage to the optic nerve. Eventually, this leads to impaired vision and blindness. While glaucoma can occur with normal pressure in the eye, the two most commonly seen types of glaucoma are open-angle and closed-angle.
Open-angle glaucoma is more common. This type of glaucoma is a painless, chronic, slow-progressing condition that develops over a long period of time. Vision changes don't happen at first, and often the person only notices the vision loss once the condition is advanced.
Closed-angle glaucoma is painful and appears suddenly. It occurs when the iris is too close to the drainage angle and blocks the fluid from draining out of the eye. This condition can cause rapid vision loss. This type of glaucoma is commonly characterized by severe pain, sudden blurry vision, and other symptoms that cause a person to seek medical attention before irreversible nerve damage occurs.
A cataract occurs when there's a clouding of the lens of the eye. It's the leading cause of blindness globally. Initially, cataracts may not cause noticeable vision changes. Over time, however, they can cause blurred or hazy vision, colors appear faded, sensitivity to light, double vision, or difficulty seeing at night. They can lead to vision loss and impact everyday activities like reading and driving.
Macular degeneration, also called age-related macular degeneration, impacts the macula, the central piece of the retina. The macula provides the ability to see fine details for activities such as driving and reading—macular degeneration results in damage to the central vision. Wet and dry are the two categories of macular degeneration.
Dry macular degeneration is more common, accounting for 70-90% of cases. This type progresses slowly due to thinning of the macula that occurs with aging and typically affects both eyes. Central vision gradually becomes blurred. A common early sign of dry macular degeneration is drusen, a small white or yellow lipid deposit under the retina.
Wet macular degeneration occurs from abnormal blood vessel formation under the macula, which results in fluid and blood leakage and scarring of these vessels. This damages the macula and can lead to rapid loss of central vision. A typical early symptom of wet macular degeneration is straight lines appearing wavy.
What Causes Eye Disease?
In addition to age, many factors can cause the development of eye diseases, genetics being among them. You are at an increased risk for age-related eye diseases if there is a family history. Caucasians have a higher risk for macular degeneration, whereas those of African, Hispanic, or Asian heritage have a higher risk for glaucoma.
Smoking is detrimental to overall health and causes many diseases, including eye disease. Evidence indicates smoking is especially associated with cataracts and macular degeneration.
Long-term use of steroid medications is damaging to eye health. Steroid medications can increase intraocular pressure, which increases the risk of glaucoma. While the mechanism isn't well understood for cataracts, these medications are thought to cause gene transcription changes in the epithelial cells of the lens, increasing risk. All methods of corticosteroid delivery, oral, inhalation, and topical, increase the risk for ocular adverse effects.
Health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, poor circulation, migraines, infections, injuries, and hypothyroidism increase the risk for age-related eye diseases.
Micronutrient deficiencies that may be associated with eye diseases include Vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium. Several micronutrients are known to be helpful for eye health, such as lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids; however, research has yet to conclusively confirm whether deficiencies of these nutrients cause eye diseases.
A Western dietary pattern, which includes poor-quality fats, red meat, highly processed foods, sweets and desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages, is linked to an increased risk for age-related eye diseases.
Exposure to UV radiation is linked to an increased risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. Wearing sunglasses can reduce your exposure to UV radiation.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test That Can Help Individualize Treatment for Proper Eye Health
In addition to the evaluation by your ophthalmologist, your Functional Medicine practitioner will perform a detailed history and physical examination to identify whether factors such as genetics, smoking, steroid medication use, or other health conditions contribute to the root cause of your eye disease.
Basic laboratory evaluation will uncover blood sugar and insulin imbalances common in diabetes and whether infection may be contributing to eye disease. Functional Medicine labs can help individualize your care for optimal eye health.
A micronutrient panel will measure vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids to identify any nutrient deficiencies that may be contributing to eye disease. This information is valuable in creating an individualized, targeted treatment plan to improve and optimize eye health.
Thyroid Hormone Testing
A thyroid panel will measure thyroid hormones and antibodies to assess thyroid function and determine whether hormone imbalances may be contributing to eye disease.
Functional Medicine Nutrition Support Eye Health Protocol
An anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidants and nutrient-dense foods will provide the whole body with the necessary nutrition to support eye health. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, and seafood provide various nutrients that improve and protect eye health. You can reduce your risk for glaucoma by 79% by eating three servings of vegetables and fruits daily.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are especially abundant in dark green leafy veggies, broccoli, peas, persimmons, and tangerines and are known to lower the risk for chronic eye diseases. Vitamin C, found in strawberries, green peppers, tomatoes, oranges, and grapefruit, reduces the risk of developing cataracts and slows the progression of macular degeneration. Vitamin E is found in nuts, wheat germ, and sweet potatoes and reduces free radical damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are the most abundant in fish and seafood. They reduce inflammation and support overall eye health. Zinc is found in red meat, shellfish, nuts, and seeds and reduces the risk of cataracts.
The Mediterranean diet contains many of these foods. It includes fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats, specifically olive oil. Dairy, eggs, poultry, and red wine are also consumed in moderation. The Mediterranean diet protects against macular degeneration, and this healthy eating pattern decreases the risk of cataracts.
Reducing caffeine reduces the risk of glaucoma, and avoiding foods associated with a Western diet, such as processed foods, high glycemic foods, and trans fats, is associated with better eye health.
Top Supplements That Can Support Eye Health
It's important to factor in your unique lifestyle, environmental factors, and laboratory testing results when considering what supplements are best for supporting your eye health and overall well-being. Below are the top supplements used to support eye health; however, following your health practitioner's guidance is essential to ensure you're taking supplements that are right for you.
OcuForce™ is a supplement containing a variety of nutrients that are proven to support eye health. In addition to lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, vitamin E, and vitamin C, it contains other antioxidants such as vitamin A, quercetin, bilberry extract, and ginkgo extract.
Bilberry extract is high in anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant helpful for blood vessel and collagen integrity, reducing free radicals, and often used for treating glaucoma. Ginkgo extract has antioxidant properties and improves blood flow to the eyes.
Dose: 2 capsules per day with meals
N-Acetyl Cysteine, or NAC, is an amino acid with antioxidant properties. It's a precursor to glutathione, one of the body's most potent antioxidants. NAC has many benefits to the body and overall health, and studies show it can improve the function of the cells in the eye's macula.
Dose: 600 to 1200 mg daily
Magnesium is an important mineral known to be involved in over 300 various biochemical reactions in the human body. It regulates many aspects of health, such as blood pressure, nerve and muscle function, and blood glucose levels. Magnesium supplementation helps reduce blood pressure and improves visual field changes in people with glaucoma.
The oxide and sulfate forms of magnesium are not well absorbed, making them less bioavailable to the body than other types of magnesium, like citrate and glycinate.
Dose: 300 mg per day
Duration: minimum of one month
Omega-3 fatty acids have a large amount of benefits for overall health. They reduce inflammation, improve cardiovascular health, support brain function, and are also needed for optimal visual development and retinal function.
Dose: 2,000 mg per day
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin vital for many aspects of overall health. It reduces inflammation, supports bone growth, and modulates glucose metabolism and immune function. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with eye diseases.
Vitamin D Recommendation
A "loading dose" is usually required to increase Vitamin D to normal levels.
Loading Dose: 50,000 IU 3 times per week
Duration: 1 month
After optimal blood vitamin D levels are achieved, a maintenance dose is needed to maintain these levels.
Maintenance Dose: 800 to 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3 per day
When to Retest Labs
After starting a vitamin D supplement, waiting 3 to 6 months before retesting your vitamin D levels is advised. Retesting a micronutrient panel in 3 to 6 months is also ideal for providing time for the treatment protocol to impact nutrient status and eye health.
Improvements in eye health, such as intraocular pressure, can be measured as early as four weeks after beginning a treatment protocol for glaucoma. However, the age-related eye conditions covered in this article will require ongoing adherence to a treatment regimen to improve and maintain eye health.
Impaired vision is a growing problem. The prevalence of vision problems increases with age and is linked to decreased life expectancy and quality of life. Taking steps now to protect your eye health and vision is essential.
Common age-related eye diseases, which include age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataract. These eye conditions can be caused by lifestyle factors such as smoking, UV radiation exposure, long-term steroid medication use, and a high glycemic, Western diet.
An antioxidant-rich Mediterranean diet and a targeted supplement regimen can provide the body with the nutrients needed to support, protect, and maintain optimal eye health.