A carrot a day: Eat more antioxidants for healthier eyes as you age.
There’s a lot of information floating around the web about antioxidants and how they can help you cure all manner of ills. But what’s the real story when it comes to antioxidants and eye health?
We know that what we eat can impact our vision, but why? Antioxidants are one of the key components of many common foods that can help your eyes stay at their best. But delving beneath the antioxidant hype is no mean feat – you come across some seriously mixed results. Read on to find out more.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are common plant nutrients that have been shown to neutralize chemicals called ‘free radicals’ produced by oxidization in the body, which may also cause damage to your eyes.There are hundreds, probably thousands, of different substances that can act as antioxidants. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese.Glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many more can also be termed ‘antioxidant.’ They’re present in green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, broccoli, fruits like blueberries and strawberries, nuts, eggs, whole grains and oily fish. Luckily, dark chocolate is chock full of antioxidants, too.
How do they help us? They work by fighting ‘free radicals’ – or chemicals that pose a threat to your body’s trillion or so cells and genetic material by stealing their electrons and destabilizing their structure.
Free radicals have been identified as contributing to:
- Artery clogging (atherosclerosis)
- Heart disease
- Vision loss (particularly macular degeneration)
- Other chronic health conditions.
Your body naturally generates free radicals as byproducts of turning food into energy. Others come to you via food, air and sunlight. And that’s fine, until they become so numerous they start attacking your cells to grab an electron snack. The super neat thing about antioxidants is they pass off their own electrons to the free radicals, which then leave your cells alone. Order restored!
Looking beyond the hype.
While the media and corporations jumped on the free radical fighting antioxidant bandwagon, to date most scientific studies about their efficacy have proven inconclusive. Randomized, placebo-controlled trials have offered little support that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, or any single antioxidant provides substantial protection against heart disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions. In fact, since the 1990s, repeated research has reported that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements don’t protect against heart disease, stroke or cancer. Typically mixed results include a study that shows taking beta-carotene may increase the chances of lung cancer in smokers, compared to one that suggests beta-carotene is associated with a modest reduction in cognitive decline. But there’s a silver lining for your vision.
Bright spot for age-related eye disease. A 6-year trial has found a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc offered some protection against advanced age-related macular degeneration in people who were at high risk of the disease. Further studies have found Lutein (found in spinach and kale) may also protect your vision, with more trials currently underway.
The bottom line. While it’s clear free radicals are implicated in chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and vision loss, antioxidants aren’t the panacea supplement brands would have you believe. Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge some studies have reported antioxidants can have detrimental effects, potentially causing a higher risk of lung cancer in smokers and those exposed to asbestos, and a higher risk of skin cancer in women. The good news is that a combination of certain antioxidants appears to slow development of macular degeneration. Beta-carotene has also shown a moderate benefit for cognitive function as you age. So, if you’re at high risk for either of these conditions, it may be beneficial to get more antioxidants into your diet. Ultimately, however, these findings must be weighed up against the obvious fact that a healthy diet right in fruits, vegetables and whole grains probably provides added protection against many forms of aging.