Eye Health for Athletes
By David Yeager
Among the various aspects of athletic performance, eye health rarely gets much attention. A stroll through any nutritional supplement aisle, a glance at any fitness-related magazine, or a quick Web search will feature pills and powders to help athletes bulk up, slim down, improve endurance, recover from exercise, increase alertness, and even maintain optimal gut health. But finding supplements for eye health requires a sharp eye. There’s some evidence, though, that nutritional supplements specifically for eye health can have measurable effects on visual function, which may translate to on-field performance.
Bugs Bunny Was Onto Something
Carotenoids are plant-produced pigments that are orange, red, and yellow. Some of the most common ones are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. Although most often associated with carrots, carotenoids also can be found in numerous fruits and vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, collard greens, corn, kale, peas, pumpkin, spinach, and winter squash. Billy R. Hammond, PhD, graduate coordinator and a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Georgia, says researchers have known for 50 years or so that lutein and zeaxanthin dramatically affect visual function, but those compounds mainly have been used to prevent macular degeneration, due to their ability to help the eye filter out harmful ultraviolet rays.
About 10 years ago, Hammond began studying other ways that lutein and zeaxanthin might affect vision. Specifically, he was interested in whether carotenoids affect how light scatters on the eye, chromatic contrast, and visual motor reaction time.
“When it comes to those kinds of variables, athletes are a very good group to look at,” Hammond says. “They tend to have very good visual acuity, and they’re outside doing highly demanding visual tasks that require very extreme visual motor coordination.”
Hammond and his colleagues found that increased amounts of carotenoids in the retina can directly improve vision. Although they don’t improve visual acuity, which is controlled by how the eye’s lens refracts light, they do improve visual function. Specifically, they enhance the eye’s ability to reduce glare and recognize visual patterns; faster visual pattern recognition translates to faster reaction times.1
“That’s a big deal for athletes,” says Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS, a sports dietitian and one of the founding members of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association. “In a sport like baseball or ice hockey—or even if you’re a fighter pilot or an airline pilot—you’ve got to acquire a lot of information that’s coming at you fast. And if there’s something to be gained there that doesn’t involve stimulants and can improve efficiency in that respect, that’s a big deal.”
No Crying in Baseball
ZeaVision has been producing zeaxanthin supplements for medical use for more than a decade. About five years ago, the company saw some of Hammond’s research and began working on supplements specifically for athletes. At the 2011 Major League Baseball (MLB) winter meetings, they launched EyePromise vizual EDGE PRO, a supplement formulated for athletes’ needs. Shane Gierhart, business development manager for ZeaVision, says players from all 30 MLB organizations have been exposed to EyePromise through the Arizona Fall League, a training ground for some of baseball’s most promising young players. He adds that ZeaVision also has worked with trainers and strength coaches of professional and college athletes in other sports, such as hockey, golf, skiing, and Olympic-level trap and skeet shooting.
The supplements are in softgel form and are taken once per day. They contain 26 mg of zeaxanthin, 8 mg of lutein, 1,480 mg of omega-3 fish oil, and 4,000 IU of vitamin D.
“To get that much zeaxanthin from your diet, you would have to eat about 50 ears of corn per day,” Gierhart says.
Along with zeaxanthin and lutein, the supplements contain anti-inflammatory compounds, such as EPA and DHA, which help stimulate tear production. Ellis says that’s a significant benefit for players who frequently experience dry eyes, such as those who play in the Arizona Fall League or go to Arizona for spring training. He says most players begin using the supplements specifically to relieve dry eyes.2
Ellis says he’s seen strong interest in the supplements from athletes in many sports who play in challenging light conditions. Talking to athletes about nutritional supplements also opens a window to discuss proper nutrition. He says modern diets often fall short of many essential vitamins and minerals, including zeaxanthin and lutein.
“There’s a bit more of a scarcity of zeaxanthin in the diet compared to the lutein, but both could be in jeopardy, depending on whether the athlete has a penchant for fresh produce, which can be a limited skill for a generation of kids who have grown up eating on the fly,” Ellis says. “These kids, sometimes, come from some pretty tough backgrounds, and they have tremendous upsides for improving the patterns or the quality of their diets. So this is a way to at least target some of the nutrients specific to dry eye and the static and dynamic visual performance outcomes that we’re after in sports. And acceptance has been very good. It’s a bit of a new concept, something focused on vision, but [vision is sometimes] taken for granted.”
— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor in southeastern Pennsylvania.
1. Bovier ER, Renzi LM, Hammond BR. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study on the effects of lutein and zeaxanthin on neural processing speed and efficiency. PLoS One. 2014;9(9):e108178.
2. Bhargava R, Kumar P, Kumar M, Mehra N, Mishra A. A randomized controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids in dry eye syndrome. Int J Ophthalmol. 2013;6(6):811-816.