The First 1000 Days: Nutrients for Eye Health
The human eye is a complex organ that is composed of specialized cells and a network of nerves that communicate with the brain for vision processing. Upon correct development of the visual system during pregnancy, the eyes become one of the most important and well-used organs of the body, as the eye works collaboratively with the brain for learning behavior and processing new information from the environment.
During infancy (particularly in the breastfeeding stage) the eyes slowly adapt to their new environment, allowing for the development of visual recognition, and distinction of shapes, colours, depth, and contrast. Maintaining an excellent supply of key nutrients during this time will strengthen the eyes whilst also reducing the risks of poor long-term visual development. Proper formation and development of the visual system relies on several nutrients, including the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); the carotenoid lutein; and vitamins A (Retinol , with beta-carotene), B3 (Niacin), B9 (Folate) and E.
The Best Nutrients for Eye Health
Long chain fatty acids
The essential omega-3 fatty acid DHA is vital for supporting the development of cognitive, motor, concentration and visual skills. In general, fish oil is an excellent source of DHA, along with plant oils and seeds or nuts. DHA is essential for creating brain cells during pregnancy, followed by establishing connections between brains cells after birth, in turn aiding in visual development. With specific reference to improved vision, DHA supplementation in infant formula during the first year of life has been shown to dramatically improve visual acuity and brain development , in some cases to levels seen in breastfed children .
Lutein for eye health
Lutein is a “xanthophyll carotenoid” (or, fat-soluble pigment) obtained from plants that, when consumed, accumulates within the macula of the eye  as a means to better protect the eye from light damage . Experimental evidence has determined that lutein alone, as well as lutein combined with other carotenoids, can act as an antioxidant within the macula, garnering protection for the eye from blindness-inducing oxidative damage . In pre-term infants, dietary lutein supplementation provided added structural support and protection within under-developed eyes, allowing for retinal maturation to be reached .
Vitamins for eye health
Vitamins A, B3, B9 and E are essential to healthy fetal development during pregnancy and beyond, whilst also aiding in sustaining maternal health. It is therefore fitting that healthy dietary choices such as cereals, legumes, seafood, green vegetables, and meats are excellent sources of these vitamins. As they are associated with markedly varied activity ranging from antioxidative to the maintenance of skin, deficiencies in these vitamins are often associated with negative health outcomes in both mums and babies. Table 1 below summarizes the effects of Retinol (vitamin A, alongside beta-carotene), Niacin (vitamin B3), Folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin E upon visual development.
Table 1: Summary of vitamins for eye health.
|Retinol (A)||The most important vitamin in the retina, as it protects against childhood blindness. Beta-carotene (a provitamin-A nutrient) absorbs UV-light, which protects important molecules from damage within the eye.||[4, 7]|
|Niacin (B3)||Direct role in DNA maintenance and repair.|||
|Folate (B9)||Acts as a light-gathering co-factor within the eye – important to maintain normal day-night rhythm. Deficiency has been linked to visual disturbances, which can be corrected following B9 supplementation.||[4, 8]|
|Vitamin E||Protects the structure and function of the retina. Severe deficiency of Vitamin E has been linked to significant visual impairment that can progress to complete blindness.||[9, 10]|
|Eye development and vision||DHA, Lutein, Vitamins A, B3, B9, E.|
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