Natural Foods Merchandiser

Boomers rage against the dying of their sight

The old joke, "Your eyesight isn't getting bad; your arms are getting shorter," doesn't seem quite as humorous to the millions of baby boomers who find themselves buying their first pair of reading glasses or, even worse, bifocals.

Although vision deterioration is inevitable with age—"I always tell people if you live long enough, you'll get cataracts," says Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association—certain foods can improve eye health. There are plenty of scientific studies establishing the role of carotenoids, vitamins and minerals in reducing vision problems. The most effective nutrients include:

Lutein. This carotenoid can help slow premature and regular aging of the eyes. According to an April 2004 study in Toxicology Letters, lutein is deposited in the lens and the macula lutea, an area of the retina responsible for central and high-acuity vision. The authors conclude that "human intervention studies show that lutein supplementation results in increased macular pigment and improved vision in patients with AMD [age-related macular degeneration] and other ocular diseases."

Lutein is found in leafy green vegetables, including spinach, kale, mustard, collard and turnip greens. It's also in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, squash, peppers and corn. In addition, look for it in kiwis, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peas and egg yolks.

There are no federal recommended dietary levels for lutein, but Gerbstadt says studies show people should consume around 6 milligrams a day. That's only a half-cup of cooked spinach or other leafy greens, but one and a half cups of orange peppers, 3 cups of broccoli or a whopping 6 cups of corn.

Zeaxanthin. A carotenoid like lutein, zeaxanthin also helps reduce age-related eye issues. A group of Hong Kong scientists published a study in the January 2005 British Journal of Nutrition that reported that wolfberries, which are rich in zeaxanthin, can help prevent AMD.

Zeaxanthin is found in the same foods that contain lutein, but in smaller quantities. Gerbstadt recommends 10 milligrams of zeaxanthin a day for macular degeneration and cataract treatment, and 3 milligrams a day for prevention. But the richest zeaxanthin source—leafy greens—only contains a half milligram per cup. "It's probably pretty hard to get the levels of zeaxanthin you need from food," Gerbstadt says, "but if you're in the ballpark with your lutein, you're going to be close enough on your zeaxanthin. A serving of leafy greens a day basically covers all the bases."

A British study published in the January issue of Nutrition & Metabolism found that participants who ate three eggs a day for 30 days showed improvement in their blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin. But, "there's no real advantage to eating eggs over fruits and vegetables," Gerbstadt says.

Foods fortified with lutein and zeaxanthin loom on the horizon but aren't commercially available yet. According to the January issue of Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals, "Kemin Foods, the market leader in lutein, has secured a place for its ingredient in more than 1,000 dietary supplements, yet in the last three years has only been able to get lutein into but a handful of beverage brands."

Vitamins E and B. Gerbstadt says vitamin E consumption can help prevent cataracts, retina problems and blood vessel disorders, while deficiencies in vitamin B are linked to cataracts, light sensitivity and bloodshot, dry and burning eyes. In addition, data from the Nurses' Health Study in Boston, published in the April 2005 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, found that increasing vitamin E, riboflavin and thiamin intake may reduce the progression of macular degeneration.

Vitamins C and E, zinc and beta-carotene. A Dutch study of 4,000 people age 55 and older, published in the December 2005 Journal of the American Medical Association, found that "a high intake of beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and zinc was associated with a substantially reduced risk of AMD in elderly persons." A below-median consumption of these antioxidants was linked to a 20 percent increased risk of AMD. The data echoes the findings of the 2001 Age-Related Eye Disease Study that showed supplements containing as much as 13 times the recommended daily allowance of zinc, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E slowed the progression of AMD.

Gerbstadt says the eye-lens fluid contains 10 to 15 times the blood concentration of vitamin C compared with other parts of the body, so maintaining those levels can help fight lens-related disorders such as cataracts and glaucoma.

Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer based in Lafayette, Colo.

Supps for Vision

Your mother warned you over and over again: If you don't read in proper light, your eyesight will go bad. But she probably didn't know that the strength of your vision actually depends upon a number of other factors—nutrition among them. It's inevitable that eyesight will diminish as you grow older. Experts estimate that the focusing lens of the eye loses 1 percent of its transparency each year. Inflammation, infection, metabolic problems and nutritional deficiencies can all contribute to vision loss. But boomers need not go gently into that dark, blurry night. There are a number of natural ways you can help your older customers with their eye-related conditions, most of them focusing on an increase in antioxidant and vitamin intake.

"Most people who don't have vision problems believe they never will," says Bob Martin, a chiropractor and formulator with Orem, Utah-based Natural Care and host of the nationally syndicated health radio show, The Dr. Bob Martin Show. "And they never will until the tears are wet in their eyes, so to speak."

Cataracts, a clouding of the natural lens (the part of the eye responsible for focusing light and producing clear images), are a major source of eye irritation and vision loss—half of all people between the ages of 65 and 74 have some cataract formation. They're caused by a variety of factors, including diabetes, advanced age and long-term exposure to sunlight.

"You can have laser surgery to treat cataracts, and the state of laser surgery is better now than it's ever been," Martin says. "But there's still the chance of blindness and other side effects. The key is staying out of the sun, not smoking and minimizing the cataracts with nutrients and antioxidant intake."

"There's a widely accepted body of evidence that's coming together nicely around antioxidants and their ability to fight the free radicals that cause cataracts and other eye problems like AMD [age-related macular degeneration]," says Richard Passwater, the former vice president of research at Leonia, N.J.-based vitamin manufacturer Solgar, and now a consultant for the company. "Lutein has been shown to be one of the most effective of these antioxidants."

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that gradually steal sight, often without the warning signs most people expect from diseases. In the early stages of the disease, there may be no symptoms. As a result, many people who have glaucoma may not even know it. Vision loss is caused by damage to the optic nerve, which is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain. The Glaucoma Research Foundation suggests that some of the vitamins and minerals important to the eye include zinc, copper, antioxidant vitamins C, E and A (as beta-carotene), and selenium, an antioxidant mineral.

AMD is the most common cause of blindness and vision impairment affecting older people, mostly those over the age of 60, according to the National Eye Institute. The disease tends to run in families, disproportionately occurring in women and people of European descent.

According to a 2005 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the antioxidant lutein can help protect vision. Lutein is present in a concentrated area of the macula, a small area of the retina responsible for central vision. This natural concentration of lutein may help protect the eye from oxidative stress and high-energy light.

By their nature, antioxidants work best in tandem with one another—the more you have in your system, the more effective they'll be. Martin says Natural Care's vision product has many of the ingredients proven to have beneficial effects on eye health: astaxanthin, lutein, alpha-lipoic acid and bilberry, along with standardized phytonutrients and essential vitamins and minerals. The product also comes packaged with a consumer guide booklet that gives tips on how to maximize the supplement's benefits. "The goal isn't just to have people take the supplement and do nothing else," Martin says. "The goal is that the consumer understands their health on a greater level, so that the chances of getting better results increases."

Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 60, 70

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