You think you take good care of your eyes. You wear sunglasses outdoors and get regular eye exams. But did you know that exercise, stress and even mindfulness practices can impact eye health? Holistic optometrist Dr. Marc Grossman suggests 10 natural ways to show your eyes some love—and see your way to healthy vision for years to come.
Pay attention to your posture. The eyes are extensions of the brain and part of our central nervous system. Signals and messages are sent from the eyes to the visual cortex in the brain, which processes and sends the information down the spinal cord to the rest of the body. Poor posture can disrupt these connections and lead to blurred vision, and conversely, visual strain can result in poor posture. To avoid this, when sitting, keep your chest up, shoulders back and weight over your seat so that both eyes are at task level and an equal distance from what is being seen. Always sit upright while reading or watching television instead of lying on your back, side or stomach.
Seek out sunlight. Walking is one of the best things we can do for exercise, and depending where you walk, it has another benefit—natural sunlight. The eyes are light-sensing organs. It’s important to get enough sunlight so that your eyes operate optimally. In fact, a recent study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that increased exposure to sunlight reduces your risk for myopia (nearsightedness). Aim for at least 20 minutes of natural sunlight a day—just be sure to wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection and filter out both UVA and UVB rays.
Go Mediterranean. The health-promoting effects of the Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes eating mostly vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds…and limiting animal products and sweets—are well-known. Yet few people realize that adhering to this eating plan also can greatly reduce their risk for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness after age 50. Most recently, a large-scale European study published in Ophthalmology investigated the connection between genes and lifestyle on the development of AMD and found that those who ate a primarily Mediterranean diet were 41% less likely to develop AMD than those who did not. Interestingly, it wasn’t any of the specific components that lowered AMD risk. Rather, it was the overall pattern of consistently consuming a nutrient-rich diet that mattered.
Cut back on sugar. Sugar is lurking in so much of what we consume—from beverages to processed foods to desserts—and it’s not just bad for your teeth and your weight. Higher sugar intake also is associated with an increased risk of developing—as well as worsening—most eye conditions, such as cataracts, glaucoma and AMD. In the case of cataracts, high blood sugar levels limit the ability of the eye to keep the lens clear. High blood sugar also can cause the blood vessels in the eye to narrow, creating a buildup of fluid that can lead to glaucoma. And people with type 2 diabetes are at risk for a condition known as diabetic retinopathy. Their blood sugar levels have to be carefully regulated with the right amount of insulin or the blood vessels in the eye can leak, which may cause spots in their vision that can lead to severe impairment or blindness.
Get moving. Aerobic exercise not only benefits your heart, it also has been linked to improved retinal health and prevention of eye disease. Exercise raises oxygen levels in the cells and increases lymph and blood circulation. This increased circulation is a prerequisite for good vision. In addition, research published in The Journal of Neuroscience has found that moderate aerobic exercise may be able to delay the progression of AMD by preserving the structure and function of the nerve cells in the retina. Get 20 minutes of aerobic exercise daily by walking, swimming or doing any other activity that you enjoy.
Don’t forget about vision fitness. Simple eye exercises will ease discomfort and support healthy vision. Try figure eights to increase the flexibility of your eye muscles in a relaxed way…
- Stand or sit with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands at your sides.
- Imagine a horizontal figure eight (as wide as is comfortable) about 10 feet away.
- Without moving your head, trace the figure eight with your eyes in one direction, then in the opposite direction. Remember to breathe normally and blink your eyes regularly as they move along the figure eight. Repeat several times. Do this for two minutes twice a day.
Change focus. Don’t keep your eyes locked on a computer or television or any other screen for a sustained period of time. Doing so causes tension on the visual system. We don’t blink as much when we’re staring at something, which dries out the cornea and exhausts the eye muscles. To change your focus when you’re doing close-up work, look up and away often—such as out a window—to give your eyes a break. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Relax your eyes. Relax the muscles around your eyes, and bring healing energy to your eyes through increased circulation and energy flow with a technique called palming. This is especially useful after long periods of computer use. How to do it…
- Remove your glasses or contact lenses, and sit leaning forward with your elbows resting on a table and your eyes closed.
- Place the palm of your left hand over your left eye, with your fingers on your forehead, the hollow of your palm directly over your eye (but not touching it), and the heel of your hand resting on your left cheekbone.
- Do the same thing with your right palm over the right eye and the right fingers crossing over the fingers of your left hand and the heel of your hand resting on your right cheekbone.
- Remain this way for three minutes, remembering to breathe normally.
Go the distance. The eye muscles are most relaxed when using our distance vision because that’s what they were designed for. Nowadays, to keep your eyes in top shape, make an effort to perform outdoor activities that require seeing at a distance, such as playing golf or tennis, riding a bike or just walking. When walking, keep your head up and scan the horizon. Indoors, do reading, writing or close-up work with an eye-to-activity distance of roughly 14 to 16 inches for adults. Watch TV from a distance of about eight to 10 feet for most large-screen TVs.
Be mindful. It’s no secret that mental stress affects the immune and respiratory systems and causes inflammation throughout the body. But did you know that stress-reduction techniques can have a specific impact on glaucoma? Your body can’t deliver essential nutrients to your eyes if stress is impairing circulation and digestion. Destress by practicing proven mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga. Inversion poses in yoga, such as downward dog, also benefit vision because they increase blood flow to the head (consult your doctor first if you have glaucoma or high blood pressure).
An intriguing new study published in Journal of Glaucoma found that meditation in particular may be especially helpful for glaucoma patients. Hour-long, daily mindful-meditation sessions for just three weeks resulted in a significant reduction in eye pressure and in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, helping to minimize optic damage. Even five to 20 minutes a day can be very helpful.