It’s no secret that a lot of diseases are influenced by lifestyle factors. For example, your risk of cardiovascular disease can be reduced through physical exercise. Avoiding cigarette smoke, whether that cigarette is dangling from your own lips or you’re inhaling second-hand smoke, is good for, well, pretty much everything. Research into a number of eye conditions has also demonstrated that the risk of developing the disease or the disease progressing can be modified through changing some of your daily habits. Here’s how glaucoma is influenced by your lifestyle factors.
What is Glaucoma?
First, let’s discover what glaucoma actually is.
Glaucoma is a disease that basically damages the optic nerve of your eye. It’s part of a group of eye diseases known as optical neuropathies.
The exact underlying cause of glaucoma is not fully understood. However, we know that it is often associated with high eye pressures (often called intraocular pressure). Elevated intraocular pressure is thought to be detrimental to the health of the optic nerve, which becomes damaged during glaucoma. However, glaucoma and optic nerve damage is also known to occur even when intraocular pressures are within normal range; this is a subtype of glaucoma known as normotension or low-tension glaucoma. Other theories for the development of glaucoma include compromised blood circulation to the optic nerve or oxidative damage. Glaucoma may also be part of a syndrome, such as congenital malformation of the eyeball.
Symptoms of Glaucoma
The symptoms of glaucoma are very subtle in the early stages. In fact, this eye disease has been nicknamed the sneak thief of sight as people are oblivious to the fact they have the condition until the disease is in its advanced stages or it’s detected on a routine eye exam. Glaucoma results in slow, painless, and progressive vision loss starting in the edges of your sight, also known as your peripheral vision. As the disease advances, the vision loss becomes more pronounced and can eventually include your central sight. Vision that is lost from glaucoma cannot be restored.
At the moment, treatment for glaucoma is based on lowering the intraocular pressure to a point that preserves the health of the optic nerve. In most cases, this is successful at slowing or delaying any further progression of vision loss. However, some people with aggressive forms of glaucoma may find it difficult to find a treatment that adequately manages their condition.
The first line of treatment has typically been through pressure-lowering eye drops. These medicated eye drops are taken at least once a day, sometimes up to three times, and long-term. Some people may need more than one type of drop to adequately control their intraocular pressures. For those who are not keen on using eye drops for the rest of their life, find the drops too difficult to use, or whose intraocular pressures are not well-controlled with the drops, other treatment options include laser treatment or surgery.
What Lifestyle Factors Can Help Manage Glaucoma?
With so much interest in lifestyle and health nowadays, this is the million dollar question. Although modifying some of your daily habits can help to manage your intraocular pressures, if you have glaucoma, it’s important to understand that these lifestyle changes are complementary to your current glaucoma treatments, not a substitute.
Getting in a good amount of physical activity every week is typically considered a great idea for everyone, not just those trying to avoid vision loss from glaucoma. From reducing the risk of falls in older people, supporting mental health, to helping manage diabetes, we can also add lowering intraocular pressure to the list of exercise benefits. However, physical activity for glaucoma does come with some caveats. While aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, etc.) has been associated with lowering eye pressure, studies have found that some types of exercise can increase eye pressure. While these increases are typically small, in people with existing glaucoma or vulnerable optic nerves, you may want to avoid these activities. Weightlifting, certain yoga postures with the head positioned lower than the heart, and the use of swimming goggles can actually increase your intraocular pressures.
Since oxidative stress is one of the underlying causes of glaucomatous optic nerve damage, smoking will do you no favors. The compounds in tobacco increase the concentration of damaging free oxygen radicals in the body, while simultaneously decreasing protective antioxidant levels in the eye and altering blood flow to the optic nerve – all ultimately leading to direct optic nerve damage as well as damage through increasing intraocular pressure. In addition to having negative impacts on glaucoma, cigarette smoking has also been found to contribute to other eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Nutrition and diet is another lifestyle factor with a lot of potential to modify your risk for a variety of diseases. When it comes to glaucoma, the following components of your diet have been shown to help reduce your risk:
- Fruit and vegetables. The nitrates found in dark green leafy vegetables are thought to be protective against glaucoma through improving blood flow around the eye and reducing intraocular pressure. As oxidative damage plays a role in glaucoma, a diet high in antioxidants can help, too. Look for fruits and vegetables such as carrots, berries, citrus, pomegranate, broccoli, collard greens, and brussels sprouts.
- Omega-3. The evidence behind omega-3 in glaucoma management is controversial. Some studies point to omega-3 intake as being helpful for improving blood flow to the eye, reducing intraocular pressure, and lowering the risk of glaucoma. However, another study noted that having a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in the diet may increase the risk of glaucoma. Generally, omega-3 in the diet is thought to be beneficial for the eye. It can be found in oily fish such as salmon, and chia seeds.
- Vitamin B3. More research is needed into the benefit of vitamin B3 for glaucoma. However, at this time, it appears that may be useful for protecting the optic nerve. Vitamin B3 is found in foods such as turkey, chicken, mushrooms, and peanuts.
- Alcohol. The impact of alcohol consumption on glaucoma is not fully understood at the moment. It is thought that moderate alcohol intake may be protective against glaucoma, due to the antioxidant properties of grapes.
- Flavonoids. Chocolate and tea lovers rejoice! Dark chocolate and tea contain flavonoids, a naturally occurring compound also found in a number of other foods, including fruits and vegetables. Eating dark chocolate has shown some benefit for vascular health, though more research is needed to see how this applies specifically to glaucoma patients.
As a general rule of thumb, keeping your body healthy overall will be beneficial for your eyes too, especially if you’re being treated for glaucoma. However, as you’ve seen, there are some deviations from the rule of thumb if you actually do have glaucoma, such as avoiding weightlifting or swimming goggles (you can also add playing high-resistance brass or wind instruments to that list – playing trumpet and oboe have been shown to increase eye pressure). As always, making dramatic lifestyle changes should always be run by your doctor first.
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