How Diet Can Be Used as a Tool to Reduce Risk of Macular Degeneration

The macula is the area of the eye responsible for our sharp, central vision.  Everything we look directly at, be it a face or print on a written page is identified by the macula of the eye.  The macula consists of densely packed cells called photoreceptors. When light hits these photoreceptors, the signal is transmitted through to nerves that lead to the vision center of the brain.  In macular degeneration or other disease of the macula, the photoreceptors are damaged and unable to transmit the image to the brain. Healthy photoreceptors mean a healthy macula.

The macula serves your keenest central vision, so damage to this area is responsible for loss of detail, like face recognition or difficulty discerning print on a page.

Damage to the macula occurs when molecules in and around the area of the macula are “oxidized”, or broken down.   UV light is one of the culprits – the eye focuses much of the incoming light onto the macula and a such, the macula is exposed to more UV than other parts of the internal eye.  UV light is an “oxidant” and can cause breakdown of integral components in and near the macula.  Another major cause of oxidation in the macula is the blood stream, which contacts the macula from below.  Smokers and people with poor diets are exposed to more oxidants through the blood stream than non-smokers and people with healthy diets, leading to greater risk of macular degeneration.  There is also a strong genetic component in some people, so they may smoke and have a poor diet and never develop macular degeneration while their spouse may have the same habits and develop it.

Diets high in antioxidants have been shown to reduce risk of developing macular degeneration (AREDS study).

Specific antioxidants that help reduce risk of Macular degeneration include Lutein, Zeaxanthin and meso-Zeaxanthin.  Intake of Omega 3 fatty acids has also been suggested to benefit the macula, specifically Olive oil.  While vitamins are available to supplement the intake of these micronutrients, the body best absorbs them by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, specifically fresh spinach.   Spinach is the new “carrots” for the eye – extremely beneficial in people with family histories of macular degeneration.  Be careful when taking fish oil supplements if you are male, as some supplements and the vehicles in which they are ingested have been tied to prostate problems.  The National Eye Institute sponsored a the Age Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) which determined the benefit of specific nutrients that may help to reduce the risk of progression of macular degeneration.

I try to eat a fresh spinach salad with a teaspoon of olive oil on it everyday to reduce my risk as we have a family history of macular degeneration and I recommend my patients do the same

Anatomical position of the macula of the eye

Anatomical position of the macula of the eye

Courtesy of the Doctors at Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care; Optometrists, Ophthalmologists and Opticians serving Rockville, Gaithersburg and Potomac Maryland suburbs of Washington DC for over 40 years.

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