What is macular degeneration?

saladYou probably won’t like this advice. Eat more spinach! I can hear the yucks already, but listen up and maybe you’ll see things my way. And seeing is what we’re talking about. I bet that Popeye didn’t suffer from age related macular degeneration, a disease that affects about 20% of people over the age of 65.

The retina is a tissue that lines the back of the eye and transforms the light that is focused on it by the lens into nerve impulses that the brain then registers as vision. The central part of the retina is the macula and if it degenerates then the central field of vision is lost. Such degeneration can come about from cumulative exposure to ultraviolet and blue light. These energetic rays can damage the cells of the macula by triggering the formation of free radicals. But the macula does have some built-in protection in the form of two pigments, lutein and zeaxanthin, that not only protect it against such damage by absorbing the appropriate wavelengths of light but also act as antioxidants, or in other words, free-radical scavengers.

Given that lutein is present in the macula and that it protects it from damage, researchers focused in on the role of the diet in macular degeneration. They quickly learned from retrospective studies that people who ate more foods that were high in lutein had a lower risk of eye disease. This was particularly so for spinach, the most significant source of lutein in the diet. Cooked spinach was better than raw since cooking breaks down plant cell walls causing nutrients to be released more readily. Spinach of course is not the only source of lutein. Corn, egg yolks, yellow peppers, broccoli and collard greens also contain some.

When 14 patients in the early stages of macular degeneration were given about half a dozen five ounce servings of spinach a week, all showed some improvement within three months. This prompted an investigation of lutein as a dietary supplement. In a small study, twelve of sixteen people who took 20 mg of lutein daily for six months improved their vision. As a result many supplement manufacturers are already including lutein in their product and touting it as protection for the eyes. Lutein ,however, is not the only player in this game. A recent study showed that people suffering from macular degeneration could benefit from taking 500 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E, 15 mg beta carotene, 80 mg zinc and 2 mg copper on a daily basis. Presumably this blend has an antioxidant effect that protects the macula.

Future studies may or may not confirm the use of supplements. But one thing is for sure, we should be eating more dark green vegetables. Lutein protects more than just the eyes. High blood levels are associated with a reduced risk of stroke. So even if you don’t have to fight against Bluto, grab that spinach. And like Popeye, eat it with olive oil. A little fat allows for better absorption of the lutein. You may even see the difference!

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