In the first chapter I attempted to give you a picture of the physiology of the eye and how macular degeneration affects the eye. I am now going to explain this in more detail in order to help you understand some of the nutritional recommendations I will make in this and the following chapters. First of all, the complete name of the macula is the macula lutea. This means yellow spot, and it is a bright yellow spot, about two millimeters in diameter in the center of the retina, which is about 20 mm in diameter itself. The macula is like a bull’s eye that has the job of providing central vision and color vision.
If you have ever had a suntan, or if you have freckles or moles, you have seen evidence of the effect of melanin in your skin. Melanin is a pigment in the skin; the amount you have is genetically determined. Dark skinned people have an abundance of melanin while pale people have little. The purpose of melanin is to protect your skin from the harmful effects, or burn, from the sun. Similarly, there is a pigment in the eye that serves the same purpose. This is called the xanthophyll pigment. Its two forms are lutein and Zeaxanthin. These yellow pigments are actually hidden in leafy green vegetables. When the leaves turn yellow or orange in autumn, they are ‘revealing’ the xanthophyll pigment that was obscured by chlorophyll. Certain green vegetables also turn yellow if allowed to age. Perhaps you have seen a nice fresh bunch of kale turn yellow in your vegetable bin.
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Eat colorful foods to enhance your eye pigment
The job of these pigments is to absorb the blue rays of sunlight so that they do not burn the delicate tissues of the retina. While we are given a fairly good supply of them as children, most of us begin to lose xanthophyll pigments as early as the twenties or thirties. Daily consumption of leafy green vegetables, notably spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens keeps our eyes supplied with xanthophyll pigments. It is now understood that eating these foods is more significant for macular health than is the consumption of beta carotenes.
The good news is that research has shown that eating food rich in the xanthophyll pigments immediately increases the amount measurable in your blood, and soon after, the amount seen in the macula of the eye. The amount in the macula is measured by macula pigment density. Pigment in macula correlates to the health of the macula. Diminishing color vision occurs when the pigment density decreases. This is one of the early signs of ARMD. Because smoking seriously reduces both xanthophyll pigment levels in the blood as well as the pigment density of the macula, it is imperative to stop smoking now if you hope to heal your eye disease. There has been a lot of scientific documentation about the relationship between ARMD and smoking. Smoking is associated with a six fold increase in the likelihood of developing the condition. Secondhand smoke has also been implicated in ARMD developing in spouses of smokers.
Two types of pigment
Lutein and zeaxanthin are the names of the specific carotenes required by the macula. The beta carotenes, which are more familiar to the American public, are found in carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes, and a host of other root and tuberous vegetables as well as fruit. Just about any richly colored produce is a source of beta carotene. While these foods and their nutrients are vital for overall health, including protection from cancer, it seems that the carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin are the most important for eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin have been found to be present in abundance in just a few specific foods. These are, in the order of the amount of lutein and zeaxanthin they contain:
Kale Spinach Pa rsiey-fresh Collard greens Mustard Greens Cooked broccoli Green peas Pumpkin Brussels sprouts Corn
When these foods are eaten, lutein and zeaxanthin are deposited in the lungs, and the lens and macula of the eye. The fact that they are deposited in the lens demonstrates their ability to protect against and reverse cataracts. Since many people have both ARMD and cataracts, or a tendency to cataracts, these powerful nutrients are a double boon. Grace Halloran, author of Amazing Grace, and a world renowned vision instructor, observes that when there is an insufficient supply of lutein and Zeaxanthin, the body will deposit available amounts in the lungs and starve the eyes since the lungs are more important for sustaining life than are the eyes. This sparing by the body is completely unnecessary when enough lutein-containing food is consumed on a daily basis. I say, Let the eyes have it! Eat enough of it.