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Look, we’re all guilty of spending too much time staring at our screens. The average adult American spends 7 hours per day or more looking at digital devices, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). All that scrolling and sharing, reading and retweeting can affect your sleep, creativity, and even brain function. But our vision especially takes a beating.
Digital eye strain—defined as a group of eye- or vision-related problems that result from prolonged screen time—is all too common, says Robert C. Layman, OD, president of the AOA. Symptoms can include headaches, blurred vision, and dry or irritated eyes.
“Viewing a computer or digital screen makes the eyes work harder; our eyes were not designed to use them for long periods of time,” Layman says. Reading a digital screen is different from reading a printed page. Fuzzier letters, less contrast between the letters and the background, and screen glare all make viewing difficult.
The pandemic has only made things worse. People are spending more time on their digital devices, which has exacerbated existing eye issues and created new ones. “Doctors have reported increased numbers of patients with binocularity issues (which is the inability of both eyes to coordinate properly), digital eye strain, and dry eye,” Layman says.
Keeping our eyes in good shape can not only reduce strain, but also help minimize the risk of other eye conditions, including glaucoma, cataracts, or age-related macular degeneration. Take a peek at these expert ideas for keeping your baby blues (or browns, greens, or hazels) healthy.
Nutrition for the best vision
“Research shows there is a relationship between our vision and our food decisions,” says Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, owner of Caroline West LLC and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Look for antioxidant-rich foods to help maintain eye health and vision.
Vitamin A: Carrots are probably the first thing that pops to mind when we think about eating for our peepers—and for good reason. Orange-red foods—carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin—are great sources of beta carotene. The body converts it to vitamin A, which is essential for proper eye function. Herring and fortified milk are other good sources of vitamin A.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin: These fat-soluble antioxidants can be found in eggs and in green vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens. Research has found eating enough of them–or adding vitamin supplements that contain them—can reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a condition of the retina that is a leading cause of blindness.
Vitamin E: Emerging research links vitamin E to eye health, specifically reducing the risk of developing cataracts. Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds, plant-based oils, fruits, and vegetables. Find it in avocado, sunflower seeds and oil, almonds, peanuts, leafy greens, and mango.
All of these nutrients are fat-soluble: They’re absorbed better you eat them with fat. Passerrello suggests drizzling olive oil on a kale salad, adding peanut butter to a spinach smoothie, and eating whole eggs (don’t skip those yolks!) to increase overall nutrient consumption and maintain eye health.
Herbs for healthy vision
“Herbs have been used for generations to help protect and heal the eyes,” says Sara-Chana Silverstein, master herbalist and author of the book Moodtopia: Tame Your Moods, De-Stress, and Find Balance Using Herbal Remedies. Here are her three favorites:
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis): Eyebright is full of the flavonoids quercetin and luteolin (not to be confused with lutein). Quercetin may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress from ultraviolet rays in the eye. It also has antihistamine properties, which can help relieve itchy, watery eyes from allergies. Luteolin may protect the retina from oxidative stress and inflammation, and prevent the formation of cataracts. It has also been studied as a possible treatment for glaucoma.
Silverstein recommends taking eyebright in tincture form (by mouth, not in the eyes) for itchy, burning, and tired eyes.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus): Known as European blueberry, bilberry is packed with antioxidant flavonoids called anthocyanins, just like its North American counterpart. Research has found it may improve vision and prevent further degeneration in people with glaucoma. “This herb has been used for generations to help the small capillaries in the eyes recover from overuse and stress,” Silverstein adds. Take as a tincture or capsule.
Gingko Biloba: The herbal powerhouse contains more than 60 bioactive compounds. It can protect the eyes from free-radical damage and oxidative stress. Gingko can also increase blood flow to the eyes and reduce inflammation. Research suggests it’s another effective treatment for glaucoma. Silverstein recommends taking it in tincture form.
An ophthalmologist’s advice for happy eyes
Observing simple lifestyle practices can go a long way toward keeping your eyes in fine form. Robert Layman recommends these habits:
- Schedule an annual in-person eye exam: “Some individuals may mistakenly believe that if you don’t have any vision problems, you don’t need to see a doctor of optometry,” Layman says. “In-person comprehensive eye health care is one of the most important preventive ways to preserve vision.” A comprehensive eye exam can detect early signs of more than 270 serious health conditions (not just eye problems) including high blood pressure and cancer.
- Take breaks from screens: To reduce digital eye strain, practice the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.
- Protect from UV rays: Wear sunglasses no matter the season. Choose ones that block more than 95 percent of UV-A and more than 99 percent of UV-B radiation.
- Care for your contacts: Many common contact-lens mistakes—failing to clean and store them properly, or wearing them while sleeping, showering, or swimming—can increase risk of blurred vision, irritation, pain, or a more serious condition called keratitis, in which the cornea becomes inflamed.