There are a number of vitamins and minerals involved in the healthy function of the eyes. If your diet is deficient in any of these vitamins, it can potentially lead to eye health problems. Read on to learn about the vitamins and supplements that promote healthy eyes.
When people talk about vitamins that are good for eye health, vitamin A typically tops the list – and for good reason. Vitamin A helps maintain a clean cornea, which is the transparent layer that covers your eye. It’s also a key element in the protein rhodopsin, which helps you be able to see in conditions of limited light. Studies have shown that vitamin A deficiency can lead to eye problems, including issues with nighttime vision.
You can get vitamin A from many foods including liver, herring, yogurt, milk, cheese, and eggs. Beta-carotene—which can be converted into vitamin A in the gut—is common in yellow-orange fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, melon, carrots, and pumpkin.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A in adults is 900 mcg RAE for adults born male and 700 mcg RAE for adults born female.
Antioxidant nutrients like vitamin C are essential for healthy tissues in the body. The eyes are exposed to UV rays every day, just by being out and about. Antioxidants help prevent oxidative damage to the eyes and other vulnerable tissues. Studies suggest that vitamin C can help protect against age-related eye issues. Another study found that daily supplementation with vitamin C could support healthy eye pressure.
Vitamin C is also necessary for the body’s production of collagen, which helps provide structure to the eyes. Since vitamin C is abundant in so many fruits and vegetables, most people often obtain the amounts they need. The RDA for adults born male is 90 mg and 75 mg for adults born female.
Like vitamin C, vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means that it can help protect your body from oxidative stress. A randomized, placebo-controlled study followed participants for more than 6 years to assess how a combination of antioxidant nutrients (vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene) performed compared to minerals (zinc and copper), a combination of antioxidants with minerals, and placebo. The four groups were analyzed over the study period, and the only statistically significant benefits came from those who received the antioxidants with minerals. While vitamin E was not the only antioxidant nutrient, it is important to consider the synergistic effects of how antioxidants work together versus on their own.
A review of other studies found that a diet rich in vitamin E could reduce the risk of age-related eye concerns.. Vitamin E also supports the regeneration of vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant that supports eye health in a number of ways. The RDA for all adults is 15 mg per day.
Your retinas have cell membranes that contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is a type of omega-3. Omega-3s are needed to support the health of the cell membranes in the eyes. Studies have also shown that omega-3 fats can support eye care for people with dry eyes. Moreover, a systematic review of 31 studies found an association between diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids and overall comprehensive nutrition and eye health. Most of the studies were observational, so more research is needed to determine whether these findings can be replicated intentionally.
Vitamin B12 and the other B vitamins (which together are referred to as B-complex) are important water-soluble nutrients. They perform varied roles in the body. Homocysteine is an amino acid that can be converted to another amino acid, methionine, when your body has enough B vitamins to use. Excess homocysteine is related to worsening eye health as part of the aging process. A study of people born female found that supplementing with vitamins B12, B6, and B9 led to a 35-40% reduction in the risk of developing degenerative eye complications as part of aging. More research is needed to determine how these nutrients may impact other aspects of eye health.
Zinc is important for eye health. There are high levels of zinc in ocular tissues. Zinc deficiency has been linked to reduced night vision, among other eye functions. While zinc is needed for retinal health, studies that investigate the impacts of zinc supplements on eye health have returned inconsistent results.
The RDA for zinc is set at 11 mg per day for adults born male and 8 mg per day for adults born female. Rich sources of zinc include oysters, beef, fortified breakfast cereals, oats, pumpkin seeds, pork, turkey, cheese, and lentils.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two carotenoid pigments that are responsible for the yellow and orange hues in many foods. These powerful carotenoids are found in foods like cantaloupe, corn, carrots, bell peppers, fish, salmon, and eggs. They are concentrated in the yellow spot of the retina where they protect the macula from blue light damage. These carotenoids are able to scavenge free radicals, which can promote healthy visual acuity and support healthy eye aging.
Lutein is the most abundant molecule in vision-related tissues of the eyes and brain. Lutein best promotes eye health when absorbed efficiently. Since it is fat-soluble, it’s recommended to pair lutein-rich foods with dietary fats to ensure optimal absorption. This same principle also goes for lutein supplements. However, factors such as diets exceptionally high in fiber, other competing carotenoids, protein deficiency, certain medications, and habits like tobacco and alcohol use can reduce lutein's bioavailability and absorption. Additionally, a lack of digestive enzymes can diminish the body's ability to transport lutein effectively.
There is currently no established recommended intake for either lutein or zeaxanthin, but the consensus is that most adults can benefit from more of both in their diets. Rich food sources for lutein include asparagus, spinach, kale, green beans, romaine lettuce, broccoli, parsley, corn, pistachios, eggs, peas, squash, and edamame. On the other hand, zeaxanthin can be abundantly found in foods like orange bell peppers, corn, eggs, peas, squash, edamame, and pumpkin. If you struggle to obtain enough of these foods, many antioxidant supplements and certain multivitamins often incorporate these two carotenoids.
While we've already highlighted the importance of vitamin A in eye health, have you ever wondered about its precursor, known as provitamin A? Beta-carotene is often referred to as provitamin A because our body can turn it into vitamin A (specifically retinol) when needed. To help with the absorption of beta-carotene and its conversion to retinol, it’s best to consume it with fat-containing meals.
There are over 600 different carotenoids in nature, but only about 20 of them can be found in human blood, with beta-carotene being one of the most well-studied. Its role as a precursor to vitamin A is so important for our eye health. In our eyes, certain carotenoids, including beta-carotene, have the job of absorbing light so they can protect the retina and lens from damage caused by light exposure.
Apart from its protective roles in eye health, beta-carotene is also known to quench free radicals, support healthy mitochondria, maintain regular tissue responses, and promote healthy eye aging.
Beta-carotene is present in an abundance of foods, with the top choices being sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and carrots. Other sources include spinach, collards, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, winter squash, and dandelion greens. It can also be found in many multivitamins, prenatal vitamins, and antioxidant supplements.
Bioflavonoids are a group of plant compounds (known as polyphenols) that give color and flavor to fruits, veggies, chocolate, wine, and tea. Among the flavonoids, there are various types such as anthocyanins, flavonols, flavanones, flavones, and isoflavones.
Flavonoids are important for our health because they support healthy immune system functioning, cell communication, antioxidant activity, and cellular defenses. Specific flavonoids, like quercetin, are particularly beneficial for eye health. Quercetin aids in maintaining eye moisture by promoting normal tear production. This can be especially beneficial for those dealing with dry eyes.
There is a long list of flavonoid-containing foods that you can incorporate into your diet. Some of these include: apples, apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, elderberries, grapefruit, grapes, lemons, limes, pears, plums, raspberries, strawberries, and tangelos.
However, when it comes to flavonoid supplements, they should be approached with caution as they can interact with anticoagulants and a number of other medications. It’s imperative to check with your doctor before introducing them into your regimen.
Selenium is an essential trace mineral that acts as an antioxidant in the body. Selenium is integral to our body’s functioning. It makes up something called selenoproteins, which are responsible for supporting hormone balance, metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative stress.
Getting enough selenium is associated with healthy eye aging. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 55 mcg for adults, with the requirement increasing to 60 mcg in pregnancy and 70 mcg during lactation.
Most individuals typically consume enough selenium in their diet. However, there are a few exceptions, especially among those with certain health conditions. Another factor to note is that selenium concentrations in soil are lower now than ever, which may lead to a reduced dietary intake. Natural food sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, sardines, ham, shrimp, macaroni, beef, turkey, liver, chicken, cottage cheese, brown rice, eggs, whole wheat, baked beans, and oats.
If you’re considering supplementation, selenium can be found in many multivitamins, but it’s also available as a standalone supplement. Yet, caution is necessary if consuming selenium as a standalone supplement because it can disrupt the balance of other minerals in the body when over-consumed. The tolerable upper intake level for all adults is 400 mcg. Always consult with your healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your diet.
Like selenium, copper is another trace mineral essential for our health. It’s needed in balance with both selenium and zinc. Copper’s primary role is to act as a cofactor for enzymes responsible for energy production, immune functioning, iron metabolism, and the creation of neurotransmitters and connective tissues.
When it comes to eye health, copper plays a vital role. An enzyme known as superoxide dismutase (SOD), which contains copper, is crucial in defending against oxidative damage. SOD breaks down free radicals that if not properly managed may lead to oxidative stress – a primary concern for ocular health. Notably, antioxidants, including SOD and glutathione, have been identified within the cornea, with the highest activity of SOD being in the corneal tissue.
The recommended dietary allowance for all adults is 900 mcg. Copper is abundant in foods such as beef liver, oysters, chocolate, potatoes, mushrooms, cashews, crab, sunflower seeds, tofu, chickpeas, millet, salmon, avocado, figs, spinach, and asparagus.
But, when it comes to supplements, caution should be taken. Although copper is essential, it’s possible to consume too much, leading to toxicity. Excessive copper can inhibit the absorption of other minerals like calcium, zinc, iron, and selenium, or even damage cells. For most, a balanced diet – or the amounts found in standard multivitamins – provides enough copper. Your doctor can test your zinc/copper ratio, to see if there are any imbalances, especially after long-term supplementation with zinc.
It’s important to remember that supplementation is meant to address dietary gaps. Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is still a great way to take care of your eye health. You’ll especially benefit from eating foods rich in antioxidants, like the many we’ve mentioned throughout this article. Some of the best foods for eye health are those rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots and sweet potatoes (hint: foods rich in beta-carotene will typically be orange). Fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes are also great for eye health.
Here are two more words to keep in mind: lutein and zeaxanthin. These are the two carotenoids we’ve discussed earlier that are particularly important for protecting your eyes. Cooked spinach, kale, and collard greens are all high in these beneficial compounds. (Side note: For a highly effective supplement form of a carotenoid, you can check out Care/of’s astaxanthin supplement, which supports brain, heart, skin, and eye health.)
And, of course, proper hydration is essential.
There are some other ways you can improve your eye health. If your life circumstances are such that you’re spending a lot of time staring at a screen, you may have heard of blue light blocking glasses. While these aren’t likely to hurt, research has not found any clear benefit to wearing them—either for eye health or for sleep benefits.
Many eye doctors recommend using the 20-20-20 rule: After every 20 minutes you spend looking at a screen, you should look away at something that’s 20 feet away for 20 total seconds. While this rule may not be harmful, and even though doctors frequently suggest it, a study that tested whether it provided noted benefits found that 20-second scheduled breaks are not actually effective for managing eye strain.
Strategies that support general health can, even in roundabout ways, support eye health. Consider getting regular physical activity, practicing healthy sleep habits, avoiding tobacco use, wearing sunglasses while outdoors, and be sure to keep your regular medical check-ups and eye exams.
There’s a lot of scientific research that suggests that vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients can help support eye health, including protecting against age-related eye issues. A nutrient-rich diet can go a long way toward supporting eye health. Supplements can help if you have any gaps in your diet. By supporting overall good health, you can also support healthy vision and eyes.