There’s no shortage of myths about the quality of a person’s vision. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty yourself: That you can damage your eyes by sitting too close to a television screen or trying to read in the dark. Such late-night activities might give you a headache from eyestrain, but there’s no risk of permanent damage. Most likely, your parents were looking for any excuse to send you to bed earlier! Other “myths” are all too real: Staring directly into the sun will cause irreversible damage to the eye. Do you know the real reason why pirates and sailors are often depicted with an eye patch? Back when telescopes were new and not well understood, some sailors turned their spyglasses towards the sun, either by accident or curiosity. You can imagine the immediate result. A modern variation involves the breathtaking solar eclipse: We’re warned, over and over, again and again, not to look at a solar eclipse without protective eyewear. These warnings are very real!
We’ve also heard that carrots are good for the eyes. Is there any truth to this? Well… yes, and no. Carrots contain beta-carotene, a useful anti-oxidant and a substance that your body can break down into Vitamin A. This vitamin is essential for maintaining your skin, mucous membranes, immune systems, and (you guessed it) eyes. But carrots aren’t the only source of beta-carotene, and beta-carotene isn’t the only source of vitamin A. There are a whole variety of vegetables that serve as a source: onions, peas, spinach, and squash to name a few. Be warned that vitamin A is toxic in high concentrations. If you get your daily dose from natural foods rather than concentrated vitamins, your body will only break down as much as it needs. Some studies suggest that beta-carotene might slow cognitive decline and help older people maintain the strength of their lung tissues, while the antioxidant properties might lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. Other studies suggest that smokers with high beta-carotene intake are at a higher risk of lung cancer. Tests are still being done, and the results aren’t yet conclusive. As with everything you eat, you want to aim for the “Goldilocks” zone: not too much, not too little, but just right.
Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment abundant in plants. It’s the source of all those rich orange colors we see in many fruits and vegetables, as well as dry leaves and foliage. “Carotenes” are a family of unsaturated hydrocarbon molecules that are generated almost exclusively by plants and play a vital role in photosynthesis. They’re good at absorbing the lower end of the light spectrum, including blue, violet, and ultraviolet light (the latter of which is invisible to humans). Carotene pigments absorb very little yellow light and tend to scatter orange and red light instead of absorbing it.
There’s a reason I mentioned the solar eclipse earlier. Although an eclipsed sun does appear to be darker, it still gives off plenty of invisible or less-visible light energy. It also gives off the same amount of “high-energy blue” light: a frequency of electromagnetic radiation that may not seem all that bright to us, but still contains a great deal of energy. This light can fool your eye’s inner mechanism into absorbing too much of it, causing permanent damage. It’s most hazardous during an eclipse, but blue light shines on us all the time, from just about everywhere. It’s a natural part of normal sunlight. If only there were a way to shield the human eye… some kind of material that blocks the lower end of the light spectrum, without blocking the common yellow light we rely on for vision? It turns out that we have just such a shield: the “macula” is an area in the middle of the retina that contains specific pigments. It’s about the size of a pencil eraser, and it provides us with the high-resolution color vision that allows us to focus on acute details.
If you’ve been keeping up with the latest studies, you may have heard about Zeaxanthin. It’s a “carotenoid,” like beta-carotene, and also a natural pigment produced only by plants. More relevant to humans, zeaxanthin, meso-zeaxanthin, and lutein are three types of carotenoids that are found in human eye as macular pigments, protecting the eye’s delicate inner workings from overexposure to light… including that high-energy blue light mentioned above. Plants use it for the same reason we do: to prevent damage from overexposure to light. The condition known as snow-blindness is one such type of overexposure: the back of your eye is actually getting sunburnt, just like your skin after a long day at the beach (You most certainly can get a sunburn in the middle of an arctic winter… I speak from personal experience!). Zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin have undergone intense clinical research since 2017, and researchers are still struggling to understand exactly how important they are for long-term health. The main interest is in the condition known as age-related macular degeneration, a common source of blindness in older individuals. Some studies suggest that zeaxanthin has a positive effect on preventing or slowing the effects of age-related macular degeneration, while other studies show little or no change.
We’re understandably excited about these new discoveries, given that Karen phytoplankton is not only an excellent source of zeaxanthin but a whole food rather than a refined artificial supplement: Your body’s digestive system will only absorb as much as it needs, which naturally prevents vitamin A from reaching toxic levels. There’s always a chance that zeaxanthin might be the key ingredient in slowing or even preventing age-related macular degeneration, and an all-natural way to maintain healthy vision at all stages of life. We’re keeping a close eye on the outcome of each new test, and you can expect to hear more from us once the results are conclusive. And even if it doesn’t turn out to be the miracle cure we all hope for, it’s still one of several anti-oxidants and a valuable element in its own right.