Macular Degeneration

June 5, 2015 Updated: June 5, 2015

When we think of macular degeneration, “baby boomers” and old age comes to mind.  While it is true that most macular degeneration typically appears at age sixty-five and beyond, prevention can start as far back as childhood and continue throughout life much the same way that we do with dental hygiene.  We usually are not taught about good eye care until it is too late, and some of the symptoms of macular degeneration slowly take over the ability to see and savor the sights our world.  

In terms of structure, the retina is in the back of our eye, and contains cells that respond to light and color.  The macula is the small area of the retina that is responsible for our central detailed vision, such as reading. Peripheral vision is everything that we see outside the center of our gaze or side vision, and it usually is not affected by macular degeneration.

Macular degeneration is caused by oxidative stress to the retinal cells responsible for light and color vision.  Oxidative stress occurs with ongoing exposure to light and oxygen, and depletes nutrients essential for eye health.  The good news is that these nutrients can be built back up by eating well and through supplementation.  Our body also produces its own anti-oxidants whose levels decrease as we age and we much work to boost these as well.  Good nutrition is especially important with aging since our ability to absorb nutrients also decreases as we grow older.  

Fruits and vegetables are especially high in anti-oxidants.  Any foods that help the body produce the anti-oxidant, glutathione, also are recommended. Foods rich in sulfur should be part of the diet as sulfur is needed to produce glutathione. Good sources of sulfur-rich foods include vegetables in the Brassica family, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and bok choy. Onions, garlic, leeks, and omega-3 eggs also are a good source of sulfur.  

Walnuts and cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring, and sardines, are high in DHA, a fatty acid known to support eye health and reduce the risk of macular degeneration.  They should be a regular part of the diet. Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates, including white bread and pasta, and especially refined carbs know to raise blood sugar significantly, has been linked to an increased risk of macular degeneration.

The macula also has pigments that can be protected through good nutrition.  Lutein as a pigment  is an anti-oxidant that protects the macula from high-energy light from the sun that can damage the eyes.  Lutein works with zeaxanthin, another anti-oxidant found in the eye, to protect against dangerous light rays. They can reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration and slow down the progression of the disease.

Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, and broccoli are recommended for lutein/zeaxanthin content. Egg yolk, corn, yellow peppers, zucchini, squash, kiwi fruit, and grapes also are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin.  Egg yolks from grass-fed chickens have contains DHA and EPA unlike chickens feeding on grain. For any fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids, the color in plants involved in the production of Vitamin A, they are best absorbed with a small amount of healthy fat.  Typical supplements for macular degeneration include lutein and zeaxanthin, and may contain omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA.

There are a host of risk factors associated with macular degeneration. Robert Abel, M.D., in his article, Age-Related Macular Degeneration, sheds considerable light on what puts us at risk for the condition.  Sun exposure is one factor, particularly with exposure of more than five hours a day.  Post-menopausal women are at least three times more likely to get macular degeneration as compared to men of the same age.  Smoking also can increase risk.  Some of the other risk factors associated with macular degeneration include family history, obesity, inflammation, sedentary life style, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, nocturnal hypotension, poor digestion, use of antacids and anti-inflammatory medications, hypothyroidism, use of thyroid hormones, and low zinc levels. 

There always is the obvious need to reduce our sun exposure to decrease the risk of macular degeneration. Dr. Abel also points out the less obvious. Sleep, for example, is needed to maintain eye health as it is during darkness that the integrity of the photoreceptors is restored and eye nutrients are replenished. Deep breathing and exercise also improve the flow of blood to the eyes.  Good nutrition combined with these practices should start young and be incorporated throughout life.  The more awareness we have of these practices, the more we can educate ourselves and others on the real meaning of good eye care.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates