Look Out for Your Eyes

Whether you currently have 20/20 sight or can't see the big E on an eye chart, here's how to leep your eyes as strong and sharp as possible.
By Matthew Solan

Whether you currently have 20/20 sight or can’t see the big E on an eye chart, here’s how to keep your eyes as strong and sharp as possible.

My father officially became old the day he came home with glasses. He was in his early 40s, but to a 10-year-old, failing eyesight was the hallmark of the ancient, a daily reminder that my dad was no longer young. Of course, my perception changed 180 degrees when, in my late 20s, my own eyes began to falter, transforming me into a daily wearer of contact lenses and specs (albeit cool ones).

The truth is that everyone eventually bows to presbyopia, commonly known as “old sight.” Around age 40, your retina (the thin layer of sensory tissue that lines the back of the eye and works like film in a camera) begins to lose its sensitivity to light, meaning you need higher wattage to work and read. Also, your lenses (located right behind your colorful irises) lose their elasticity and ability to adjust their focus close up and far away, which sends you into the nearest optical shop.

As you get older, other ailments can beset your vision as well, especially age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the top cause of vision loss for those 65 and older. Experts predict, in fact, that the number of Americans over 40 with AMD will increase by 50 percent to 2.95 million by 2020. Two types of AMD exist: dry and wet. Dry AMD is the most common and affects about 90 percent of patients. It’s caused by a gradual deterioration of the macula, the part of your retina responsible for central vision. You use central vision to see everything straight ahead, say, for instance, when reading, driving, or walking stairs. Wet AMD involves the growth of abnormal blood vessels beneath the macula, which can leak blood and fluid and disrupt vision. Besides AMD’s link with aging, scientists know little about what triggers either type, although they’ve linked smoking and high blood pressure to wet AMD.

While you can’t necessarily stop your eyesight from failing with time, you can slow the process by keeping your eyes as strong and healthy as possible. The following nutritional strategies, herbs, and eye exercises, culled from three healing traditions around the world, may help you see clearly well into your sunset years.

Western wisdom
You are what you eat, and that goes for your eyes too. For optimal eye health, go green and yellow. A 2007 study in the Archives of Ophthalmology found that people 60 and older reduced their risk of wet AMD by 35 percent by eating at least two daily servings of yellow and green vegetables. These veggies provide antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, which absorb harmful UV rays that hit the eye. You find lutein in leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and collards, and in broccoli. Zeaxanthin occurs abundantly in yellow corn, persimmons, pumpkin, squash, and orange bell peppers. Other eye-healthy foods include:

* Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, as well as in flaxseed, hempseed, and canola oils, omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in the health of the retina and reduce inflammation. A Harvard study on eye disease, for example, determined that people who eat at least two servings of fish a week have a 50 percent lower risk of AMD than those who eat none.

* Tomatoes, red peppers, and citrus fruits. Diets high in vitamin C lower your risk for cataracts, according to an analysis from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

* Onions and garlic. The body converts the sulfur in these foods to glutathione, which protects your lenses and helps prevent cataracts.

* Carrots. Who could forget this one? The beta-carotene in carrots and other orange or yellow vegetables becomes vitamin A in your body, a nutrient vital for the functioning of the retina.

On the flip side, loading up on sugary and starchy foods can make your eyes more vulnerable to AMD. In a recent study of more than 4,000 adults age 55 to 80, Tufts University scientists noted that those with high-glycemic diets—heavy on sweets and refined grains like white flour—were the most likely to have advanced AMD in at least one eye. While other factors besides diet may have contributed to the disease, the researchers speculated that high blood sugar advances AMD by contributing to the breakdown of the retina and inflammation of the blood vessels supplying the eyes. They estimate that one-fifth of the advanced AMD cases might have been prevented by eating foods low on the glycemic index.

Look to the East
Ayurveda, the healing tradition of ancient India, has used herbal medicine for centuries to promote eye health. It matches herbs and other treatments with your dosha, or bodily constitution: vata (made up of air and space elements), pitta (fire and water), or kapha (water and earth). (To discover your dosha, take the “What’s Your Dosha?” test.) “Ayurveda always looks at any health issue in relation to body constitution and dosha imbalance,” says Vishnu Dass, ayurvedic practitioner and director of Blue Lotus Ayurveda, an ayurveda and panchakarma clinic in Asheville, North Carolina.

When your doshas become unbalanced and one dominates another too much, your health suffers. “Common problems like dry and burning eyes, irritation, and even minor infections could be the result of a pitta or vata dosha imbalance,” says Dass. In those instances, he recommends herbs that soothe and cool pitta and pacify vata, such as shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), and jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi).

People with a predominate kapha dosha often have to worry about more serious conditions, such as glaucoma and cataracts, which typically result from excess kapha, says Dass. “The herb punarnava (Boerhavia diffusa) helps reduce excess water element in the body, thus relieving interocular pressure that can trigger glaucoma,” he explains. Another helpful herb: shankapushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis), which helps cleanse the liver and reduces excess kapha.

You can take any of the above herbs for prevention or to treat an acute condition. It’s OK to take up to 500 mg daily, says Dass, but you’d be better off visiting an ayurvedic practitioner for a more tailored regimen.

For all-around eye health—no matter what your dosha—try triphala, a popular herbal formula made from the dried fruit of the haritaki, amalaki, and bibhitaki plants. “It’s one of the best eye rejuvenators,” Dass says, because it calms stressed-out eyes and detoxifies them. Try brewing a triphala tea, either when your eyes need some TLC or as part of a daily eye-health routine:

1. Mix 1/2 to 1 teaspoon triphala powder with 1/2 to 1 cup hot water, in equal parts, and let steep for five to 15 minutes.

2. Strain the tea through a coffee filter.

3. Fill an eyecup with the strained liquid, and bathe your eyes. “You can also soak cotton balls and apply around the eyes to reduce puffiness,” says Dass.

For everyday eyestrain or to relieve dry, burning eyes irritated by stress, pollution, or allergies, put a drop of room-temperature, melted ghee (clarified butter) into each eye before bed. “It’s great for soothing computer eyestrain too,” says Dass. You can also use rosewater: Just place a few drops in each eye for instant relief.

Eye up yoga
Your eyes need exercise as well as good nutrition and herbs. Just like any other body part, they rely on regular workouts to stay strong. Weak eyes have trouble focusing on details, and they lose peripheral vision too. To complicate matters, one eye frequently becomes dominant, which can increase eyestrain and fatigue.

To avoid those kinds of problems, you might consider an effective exercise program called Yoga for Your Eyes. Meir Schneider, PhD, LMT, director of the School of Self-Healing in San Francisco, has designed a number of techniques to strengthen eyes, and possibly improve vision, as you age. He once had 20/2000 vision, meaning at best he could see the giant E on the eye chart from 2 feet away. But after using his own method for several years, he now boasts 20/70.

The exercises used in Yoga for Your Eyes have evolved from yoga’s root meaning of “union,” not from the poses everyone is familiar with. “They are a union between the eyes and the mind,” says Schneider. “By creating the connection, we create new visual pathways between the brain and eyes.” Schneider recommends the following exercises, taken from his program, to build up weak eyes:

Look at the horizon. Your eye’s ciliary muscles change the shape of the lens to focus light properly. “The muscles get weak as you age, so it’s important to keep them well stretched,” Schneider says. Once a day, spend time looking at the horizon to lengthen the muscles. In contrast, staring for hours at computers, books, and BlackBerrys contracts the ciliary muscles and can lead to strain. Pick a spot on the horizon, and focus on it for 30 seconds to a minute; then move to another location, and repeat this sequence for at least eight minutes.

Details, details. Over time, your eyes can lose their ability to focus on teeny tiny things, which further weakens the ciliary muscles, says Schneider. Go outside, and spend several minutes examining a flower or leaf. But don’t just look at it. With a soft gaze (no strain or tension), try to notice as many details as possible: the veins and patterns, the unique shape of the petals, the texture.

Equal eyes. Odds are one eye dominates when you look at something. (An eye exam can reveal which it is, or you can simply cover one eye at a time, read a sign from a distance, and note which eye produces the clearer view.) You can help equalize your vision, however, by removing the lenses from a pair of cheap sunglasses and covering the side of the frame that corresponds to your strong eye with masking tape. Then simply toss a ball against a wall and catch it. Stand about a yard away at first and gradually lengthen the distance. “Your weak eye has to do all the work, which helps it grow stronger,” says Schneider.

Peripheral skills. We spend so much time looking straight ahead that our peripheral vision gets neglected. Spend two or three minutes waving both arms at your sides while you gaze forward; focus on their motion without turning your head. Another method: Cover your right eye with your right hand. Extend your left arm straight out, with your left hand directly in front of your nose. While wiggling your fingers, slowly swing your arm to the left until it reaches your side and then bring it back to center. Focus on your hand and fingers as you look straight ahead. Go back and forth with your arm several times. Repeat the series of movements with your right hand.

Trataka. A great overall eye strengthener, this yoga and meditation technique increases concentration. Light a white candle, and place it at eye level a few feet away. Fix your gaze on the flame, resisting the urge to blink for as long as possible (your eyes may begin to water at some point). Practice this for three to five minutes. “Trataka not only purifies and strengthens your eyes, it encourages greater eye longevity,” says Dass. The light’s “energy purifies the eyes, and by making your eyes water, it cleanses them of all impurities.”

China syndrome
Vision problems sometimes involve more than meets the eye. A particular ailment—be it AMD or something less serious—may stem from systemic problems elsewhere in the body. Recognizing that, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at and treats underlying causes. “TCM doctors take a holistic view of the body to locate imbalances that may be triggering the eye problems,” says Andy Rosenfarb, LAc, author of Healing Your Eyes With Chinese Medicine (North Atlantic Books, 2007). You can use TCM to preserve healthy eyes and as a natural treatment approach.

In TCM, the eyes have a close relationship with specific organs. Any congestion in the flow of blood, fluids, or qi in these organs will also show up in the eyes, says Rosenfarb. More specifically, the liver and gall bladder connect with the iris and eye muscles; the kidneys and bladder with the pupil, macula, and retina; and the lungs and large intestine with the sclera and cornea. More often than not, however, common eye ailments like AMD can be traced to the liver. “When a person experiences any chronic and/or degenerative problem with vision, the liver is usually involved on some level,” says Rosenfarb. “According to TCM, each internal organ has an associated sensory organ, and the liver rules the eyes.”

What causes congestion in the organs? The reasons can vary as much as the shades of eye color, but they often involve emotional, physical, and metabolic factors, says Rosenfarb. Examples involving emotions include fatigue, depression, stress, and fear, while physical factors encompass such things as an injury or reaction to a medication. Metabolic issues that can harm eye health include blood sugar imbalances, thyroid disease, chronic inflammation, infections, and poor circulation.

Once a TCM practitioner determines the nature and underlying cause of the eye problem, he or she uses a variety of methods like acupuncture, acupressure (see “Spotlight on Eye Acupressure” below), Chinese herbs, moxibustion (the burning of an herb over specific acupuncture points), qigong, and nutrition to restore organ balance and promote the healthy flow of qi and blood to the eyes. “The holistic approach doesn’t emphasize any one thing, but instead focuses on making lifestyle changes,” says Rosenfarb. Such foresight will pay off. After all, your eyes always look out for you—now it’s time to look out for them.

Spotlight on Eye Acupressure

Traditional Chinese Medicine offers many home remedies to soothe everyday eyestrain and fatigue. A simple do-it-yourself treatment is an acupressure massage. “Acupressure increases blood flow to the eyes, which feeds the area with more oxygen and nourishment; it also helps ease muscle tension,” says Andy Rosenfarb, LAc, a TCM practitioner and acupuncturist in New Jersey. He recommends the following eye acupressure massage. Perform each step 30 times and the complete sequence two to three times a day to give your tired eyes a lift.

1. With both thumbs bent, use the knuckles to massage the eyebrows and just below the eyes on the orbital ridge. Massage from between the brows outward.

2. Using your thumbs, press and hold both UB-1 acupressure points, located directly above the inner part of your eye in the notch on the inner eyebrow line. This should be done with mild shaking or vibration. Press in on the inhale, and release on the exhale. Complete five breath cycles.

3. Massage Yuyao, the acupressure point found in the depression in the center of the eyebrow, with the tips of the index and/or middle fingers. Press in on the inhale, and release on the exhale.

4. Massage Yintang, the point right between the eyebrows, with the tips of the index and/ or middle fingers. Press in on the inhale, and release on the exhale.

5. Using your thumbs, massage the acupressure points GB-20, located in the large depressions in the back of your neck where your neck meets your skull. Press in on the inhale, and release on the exhale.

6. With your left thumb and index finger, press the LI-4 point on your right hand—the fleshy, webbed-like spot between the thumb and index finger. Press in on the inhale; release on the exhale. Now do the left hand.

The Eye and the iMac

Computers, while wonderful, routinely stress your eyes. A name actually exists for this eyestrain—computer vision syndrome (CVS), and it’s often the No. 1 office health complaint. You may have suffered from CVS symptoms after a long day at the ’puter yourself: fatigue, headache, dry eye, pain around the eyes, and trouble maintaining your focus. Your eyes are used to seeing sharp, well-defined details and contrasts, but computer screens flash soft images, which your eyes constantly try to put in better focus. Making a few minor adjustments to your screen time, however, can help you avoid CVS.

1. Use proper lighting. When on the computer, your ambient lighting should be about one-half that used in most offices. Bright ambient light causes glare. Reduce it by closing drapes, shades, or blinds and using lower-intensity bulbs. Also, try to position your monitor so the windows are to the sides of the monitor instead of in front or back of it.

2. Cut glare further. Install an antiglare screen, paint bright white walls a darker color with a matte finish, or use a computer hood.

3. Adjust the monitor. Position it 20 to 30 inches from your eyes or about an arm’s length away. The top should be at or below eye level.

4. Increase the font. If you constantly lean forward to read small type, switch to a larger font size, or zoom in to increase the page size.

5. Blink, blink, and blink. You blink about five times less than normal when on the computer, according to optometrist Larry K. Wan, OD, with the Family EyeCare Center in Campbell, California. This can trigger dry eyes. To keep your eyes well-lubricated, try this: Every 30 minutes, blink 10 times by closing your eyes very slowly as if falling asleep.

6. Take 10. Make sure to take a 10-minute break each hour. And every 30 minutes, do this exercise: Look away from the screen, and focus on a distant object for about five to 10 seconds. Or look far away at an object for 10 to 15 seconds and then nearby for 10 to 15 seconds. Go back and forth 10 times.

7. Do an eye meditation. Rub your palms quickly together until they feel warm. Cup them over your closed eyes. Feel the heat emanating from your palms, but don’t touch your eyelids. “You want complete blackness, and it takes about six minutes to get rid of any afterimages,” says Meir Schneider, PhD, LMT, of the School of Self-Healing in San Francisco. Sit quietly in this position, and slow your breathing to a steady rise and fall. This deep relaxation helps to soothe both eyes and body. Do this at least three times a day or whenever you need a quick eye break.

Matthew Solan is a freelance health writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida.