Our eyes are small but highly complex sensory organs that allow us to see and provide information to the brain on colours, shapes, depth and movement. We all know how important our vision and eye sight is, yet too little attention is paid to how we feed our eyes the nutrients they need to help prevent conditions such as age related macular degeneration (AMD). Here we explain the important vitamins for eyes you can gain through your diet and through eye supplements.
Eye Strain & Fatigue
The eye is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, from daily exposure to sunlight and oxygen in the atmosphere which, along with excessive screen time and glare can contribute to eye strain and fatigue.
There are basic tips for maintaining healthy eyes, and your diet can also play a role. Your eyes need a high amount of antioxidants for protection from such oxidative stress and a diet rich in antioxidants can help protect the eye from damage.
Vitamins for Eyes
Vitamin A is important for maintaining good vision and for helping you see in poor light.
Although Vitamin A is only found in animal foods such as dairy and eggs, the body can convert some plant compounds called carotenoids into Vitamin A. Beta-carotene, for example, is one type of carotenoid that can be converted to Vitamin A. Other types of carotenoids are not converted to Vitamin A, but are also beneficial to health (see the section below).
Good food sources: Including a variety of yellow, red and green leafy vegetables and yellow fruits in your diet will provide your body with beta-carotene, which can be converted into Vitamin A. Discover other sources of Vitamin A.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are the main dietary carotenoids found in the human retina.
The retina is a layer of light-sensitive cells on the back wall of your eyeball. This is protected by a pigment known as the Macular Pigment which absorbs light, acting as a sunscreen, preventing damage to the retina. Carotenoids such as Lutein, Zeaxanthin and Meso-Zeaxanthin, which is made in the body from these carotenoids, are key components of this protective pigment.
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There is evidence that these carotenoids may help prevent damage to your eyesight through age-related macular degeneration (a common condition that affects the middle part of your vision). Evidence is also emerging on the benefits of the carotenoid Astaxanthin on eye health.
These carotenoids play an important role in maintaining good vision and protecting your eyes against harmful blue light – for example the light emitted from artificial lighting and electronic devices such as smart phones and computer screens.
Good food sources: We can get Lutein and Zeaxanthin from eating dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, peas and lettuce and also egg yolks. Astaxanthin is found in trout, shrimp and salmon (it gives the fish its pinkish colour).
Vitamin B2 is known to help keep eyes healthy. The vitamin acts as an antioxidant and helps reduce oxidative stress which can cause damage to cells in the body, including those in the eyes.
Zinc is found in high concentrations in the eye and it plays a key role in maintaining normal vision. Zinc acts as an antioxidant as well as playing a vital role in bringing Vitamin A from the liver to provide protection to the eye.
Good food sources: Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, dairy foods, bread and cereal products. For more sources, see our section on Zinc.
Omega-3 fatty acids
DHA or (docosahexaenoic acid) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found in high amounts in the retina, where it helps maintain eye function.
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It is thought DHA has an anti-inflammatory effect that helps cells in the retina and cornea (the clear cover on the front or the eye) heal and regenerate after damage due to light exposure and ageing. Evidence shows that omega-3 fatty acids, either through your diet or a vegan omega 3 supplement, may help reduce dry eyes, something you may experience from too much screen-time.
Good food sources: The best source of long-chain omega-3s such as DHA is oily fish. The NHS recommends that we eat two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. If you're plant-based, there are also some plant sources of omega-3s that the body can convert into the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. For more info see our section on healthy fats.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant which helps protect the body from free radicals, which can lead to cell and tissue damage.
There is evidence to suggest that Vitamin C protects the eye from damage caused by sunlight, smoke and pollution over the years, although further studies are needed to fully understand this. Several large studies have shown Vitamin C may reduce the risk of getting some types of cataracts.
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Good food sources: Including plenty fruits and vegetables in your diet will help provide Vitamin C. For more information on good food sources see our section on Vitamin C.
Vitamin E may help provide protection to the lens of the eye, although further studies are required to confirm this. Fats, which form part of cell membranes are vulnerable to damage from free radicals. There is a high concentration of fatty acids within the retina, and Vitamin E, being a fat-soluble antioxidant, helps protect these fatty acids from being damaged.
Good food sources: plant oils such as rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds and wheatgerm found in cereals and cereal products.
As with so many parts of our health, a healthy, varied and balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, omega 3 fatty acids, nuts, seeds and healthy oils can provide antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients for maintaining your vision and eye health.
If you enjoyed this article, read our blog: Tips for excellent eye health
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American Optometric Association (2021) Caring for your eyes. Available: https://www.aoa.org/healthy-eyes/caring-for-your-eyes/diet-and-nutrition?sso=y
Bernstein et al (2015) Lutein, Zeaxanthin and meso-Zeaxanthin: The basic and clinical science underlying carotenoid-based nutritional interventions against ocular disease. Progress in Retinal and Eye Research. 50:34-66. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26541886/
El-Sayed et al (2013) Dietary sources of lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids and their role in eye health. Nutrients. 5, 1169-85. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705341/
Giannaccare et al (2020) Clinical applications of astaxanthin in the treatment of ocular diseases: emerging insights. Mar Drugs. 18(5): 219. Available: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-3397/18/5/239
Liu and Ji (2014) Omega-3 essential fatty acids therapy for dry eye syndrome: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. Med Sci Monit. 20: 1583-9. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4165511/
Miki (1991) Biological functions and activities of animal carotenoids. Pure Appl Chem. 63:141–146. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1351/pac199163010141
NHS (2018) Fish and shellfish. Available: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/fish-and-shellfish-nutrition/
Querques et al (2011) Retina and omega-3. J Nutr and Metab. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3206354/