Helping Your Eyes Last A Lifetime
Can you imagine your world not being able to read, or appreciate the scenery, or see what your family members look like? Many people with good eyesight take this blessed gift for granted. Starting in their late ’30s most folks experience a natural decline in visual acuity. Especially in this age of computer technology, where 65% of all professionally employed adults have a least some exposure to working at a computer screen, we need to protect our eyesight. There are three basic areas which will be discussed here. First is PREVENTION of failing eyesight; second is NUTRITION for the eyes; third is EXERCISE to maintain eye health. Just like for any other part of the body or mind, the best approach to health is prevention of disease. Prevention and repair both can often be accomplished with proper nutrition and adequate daily exercise.
A number of well-acclaimed books have been published in the past 10 years on the theme of holistic approaches to eye care. A predominant theme of some of these books (Love Your Blur, Beyond 20:20 Vision) speaks to those who use corrective eye wear. In a nutshell, if you wear glasses and/or contacts now, try to minimize their use to times when you need sharp vision. Naturally, when you are reading or doing other precision work, or driving, please do wear your corrective eye wear. But if you’re just lounging around at home, or can manage to bathe, cook, garden, play ball etc. without your glasses, DO IT. The more dependent you become on your glasses (or contacts) the weaker your eyes become. By using your eye wear only when necessary, you give your eyes a chance to practice focusing unaided, thus strengthening them and allowing for fewer prescription changes in the long run.
The next tip for all you computer users in the arena of prevention is called a SCREEN SAVER. Capital Office Supply in downtown Juneau or the Valley and Yukon Office supply across from Nugget Mall can provide screen savers. You can also order one from your favorite computer catalog. These screens not only reduce glare bouncing off the screen, which means less eye strain, but also reduce the amount of radiation coming right at you from the computer monitor. Not that this is very much radiation, compared to having a chest X-ray for example, but nonetheless worth minimizing. One of the causes of cataract formation is exposure to X-rays. One more point about your eyes and computer use. NEVER, never, never watch or try to focus on computer text that is rapidly scrolling by on the screen for more than a second or two. This is a useless habit, and very hard on the eyes. Focus on something off to the side momentarily, the same way you do while driving at night if another driver who forgets to dim their brights approaches.
A third way to enhance the longevity of your natural vision is to provide a good light source for sustained reading and writing, or other close work. If possible use full-spectrum light bulbs at your desk. Use a high wattage, at least 75, for reading and try to have the light shine straight down onto what you’re working on. If you’re working at something on your desk, arrange to tilt it up to save your neck and shoulder muscles, then have a lamp with a long arm positioned perpendicular to the work. If you’re at a computer screen, ideally the light source would be behind you, coming across your shoulder and hitting the screen at right angles.
Now here are some pointers on nutrition for good eyesight. Remember being told that carrots are good for your eyes; that’s why rabbits never wear glasses? It’s true. What makes carrots orange is a pigment called beta-carotene and this is a precursor to Vitamin A. The scientific name for Vitamin A is retinol because it has a specific function in the retina of the eye. Simply stated, Vitamin A allows the rods and cones in the retina to adjust to light changes, produce visual excitation and send images to the visual centers of the brain. This mechanism was elucidated in 1950 and the work won a Nobel prize. An early sign of Vitamin A deficiency is night blindness. Carrots are indeed an excellent source of Vitamin A via the beta-carotene precursors, but so are all darkly colored vegetables. Dark green vegetables have lots of beta-carotene but the green of the chlorophyll overwhelms the yellow and orange tones. The highest food sources of Vitamin A, in descending order, are liver, carrots, sweet potato, spinach, apricots, winter squash, cantaloupe, broccoli, crab, peaches. The RDA for retinol equivalents are about 5000 IUs (international units). However, I consider a therapeutic dose, for those with compromised vision, to be closer to 150,000 IUs. Women who could become pregnant should not take higher than this dose, and if in doubt use the water-soluble beta-carotene rather than fat-soluble Vitamin A which stays in the tissues longer. Extremely high doses of Vitamin A are known to cause fetal damage. This was discovered through the marketing and use of the popular acne drug, Retin-A, which is a synthetic version of Vitamin A delivered in very high doses. Just eat some dark leafy green every day and you’ll be fine.
Another group of nutrients that have received much attention recently are the so-called anti-oxidants. This can be a confusing term because of course oxygen is critical to life, so how can anti-oxidants be helpful? Good question. Like so many answers, the answer here is about balance and moderation. Oxygen is critical to good health, and healthy eyes, but in moderation. Most of the damage which creates aging is in fact done by oxygen. This process is called oxidation and is very similar to what oxygen does to iron. It makes it rust. Oxygen is only stable in paired molecules (O2) and must be delivered to the body as such. All the hullabaloo about the ozone layer destruction is about driving ozone (O3) into our atmosphere, which breaks down to O2 and a lone oxygen molecule which is called a “free radical.” These free radicals do whatever they can to hook up with another lone oxygen molecule, even if it means ripping one off another stable atomic configuration, which perpetuates the damage in a long chain of “free radical destruction.” We are exposed to free radical damage in many ways, including eating fried foods (fats are especially susceptible to free radical damage heated above 170 degrees), using spray can devices (whipped cream, hair spray), breathing automobile exhaust, to name a few. Nutrients which have been shown to be most protective against free radical damage, besides Vitamin A, are Vitamin C (take at least 1 gram daily, preferably in buffered, powdered form), Vitamin E (400 IUs daily), and the trace minerals Zinc (50 mg daily) and Selenium (200 mcg daily). Many health food stores and natural pharmacies have “anti-oxidant” formulations containing all these supplements. Some pharmacies also carry eyedrops to soothe tired eyes that contain the above-mentioned anti-oxidant nutrients.
Another very helpful supplement for blood supply to the brain, ears and eyes is the leaves of an ancient plant called Gingko biloba. The leaves look like little mittens, with a thumb lobe and a larger fingers lobe — hence the species name biloba. Gingko and ferns are the oldest known plants, and the only ones thought to have survived the last Ice Age. Much research has been done, particularly in France, Germany and China on the Gingko species. Because of its strong and reproducible ability to enhance blood flow to the head, improve memory, eliminate tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and enhance vision and hearing, it is being used for Alzheimer’s patients as well as by people who are doing intense study or memorization. It works great when cramming for exams! And it will help reduce or reverse diminishing eyesight when used in conjunction with other preventive and nutritive measures. Gingo biloba in capsule or dropper form is available at Rainbow (downtown), Ron’s Apothecary Shoppe (Mendenhall Mall), or through the local Naturopathic doctors (Glenna Wilde, Scott Jamison and myself).
The last section of this essay is devoted to describing some eye exercises. Much of the work we do involving our eyes requires us to focus approximately 14 inches away from our face. This is a much closer range than the eyes were designed to accommodate. In order to see in focus, both eyes need to be directed at the object of our attention — the focal point. Many small muscles all around the eyeballs help to accomplish focus. With a focal point only 14 inches away, as you can imagine the muscles that are called into play most vigorously are the one at the inner edges of the eyeball — the muscles on the nose side of the eyes. What ends up happening over the course of a lifetime is that these inner eyeball muscles are constantly tightening up, thus becoming chronically contracted, while the outer eyeball muscles are forces to stretch, and eventually become lax. This imbalance in muscle tension around the eyeball can cause headaches, nearsightedness (myopia) and reduced acuity. The best remedy for this problem is to consciously RELAX the inner eyeball muscles and strengthen the outer eyeball muscles. How? Easy. The very best way is to focus on objects that are very distant, which requires that your individual eyeballs stay relatively further apart. A good exercise to do throughout the day, especially if you’re working at a computer, is to do “near-far jumps.” Focus on the end of a pencil held in front of your face, then “jump” your focus to a tree far away on a hill you see out the window, or the top of Mount Jumbo, or whatever you can see way out there. Linger on the distant object for 30 seconds then back to the pencil for a few seconds and back out the window. If you pay attention you will actually feel your inner eyeball muscles loosening.
Like any other muscle, it’s a good idea to warm up your eyes before using them. one good way is to quickly rub your palms together, building up some heat, then placing the palms gently over the eyes with the fingers pointing up towards the hairline and the thumbs over the temples, and hold them there until the heat penetrates in through the eyelids. Do this several times at the beginning of a long eye workout — like a morning at the computer terminal. You can also press quite firmly all around the bony orbit to stimulate circulation to the eyes and the muscles that move them. The orbit is the name of the cradle of bones that holds the eyeball that is prominent in skulls, for those of you who have seen a skull. There are actually 6 different bones that form the eye socket, and all of them can be tender. So give them some TLC today. You can also rest your chin in your hands and use the middle fingers to firmly stroke along the eyebrows from the inner to the outer aspect, several times in a row. Another eye strengthening exercise which just takes seconds is to close the eyes, then move them in a figure-eight pattern, first one way 6 to 8 times, then the other way. Go slowly enough to explore the full range of movement.
You should have your eyes evaluated by an ophthalmologist sometime before you turn 40. [Vocabulary note: An optometrist is not a physician, but one who is skilled in testing visual acuity and prescribing corrective lenses. An optician sells or makes optical materials.] Many people begin to need reading glasses at this time because the tissues of the eyeball become flaccid, and our eyeballs actually become longer, from front to back, thus making a close focal point more difficult to achieve. Again, a word of caution, don’t become prematurely dependent on reading glasses. After 40 please have your eyes checked every few years as part of a regular physical exam to look for early symptoms of cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes or other vascular problems. Looking into the pupils back to the retina is the only way a doctor can actually visualize your blood vessels without cutting you open. The eyes are an accurate indicator of systemic health, and, as you well know, are also the mirror of the soul.
Another small detail I can’t resist sharing is a pirate story. There is a whole section of Traditional Chinese Medicine which has studied the acupoints in the ear. The ear, in fact, contains the most densely concentrated array of acupuncture points on the body. Briefly, the ear represents an upside down fetus; the lobe represents the head, the outer bony portion of the ear that sticks out from your head is the curve of the spine, and the inner part of the ear, around the opening to the ear canal, contains the acupoints which represent, and are connected to, the internal organs. Much of the acupuncture work going on around the country in prisons and drug rehab centers is “Auriculo-Therapy” which involves tiny needles used in specific points in the ears. The point for the eye is right in the middle of the ear lobe. As the story goes, when Phoenician (ancient Egyptian) sailors were first exploring the world, staking out their territories and sometimes looting and stealing, they went to China and learned a little about Traditional Chinese Medicine. These men (mostly they were men) who became known as the early pirates, experimented with improving their vision on the high seas, they found that they could see further and more clearly when they stimulated the eye point on their ear lobes. As so they began to pierce their ears to have a more permanent stimulation of acuity, which evidently worked. And so our children still learn about pirates as having rings in their ears.