Diabetes can cause a whole host of serious health problems including kidney failure, neuropathy, and lower-limb amputations, all brought on by nerve and blood vessel damage.
Diabetes can also damage many parts of the eye including the macula, retina, lens, and the optic nerve, causing eye and vision problems. In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in Americans adults under the age of 75.
How Does Diabetes Affect Eyes?
High blood sugar is particularly problematic for the eyes. When blood glucose levels remain chronically high for an extended period of time, sugar molecules can adhere to protein molecules in a process called glycation.
When this process occurs, it creates irreversible cross-links between nearby protein molecules. As a result, new structures called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed. AGEs can cause the collagen in the tiny blood vessels in the eye to become inflexible and stiff.
Eye Problems Due to Diabetes
Diabetes can cause blurred vision due to lenses swelling from elevated blood sugar. But in other cases, eye problems caused by diabetes can potentially lead to severe vision loss and blindness. Let’s take a look at the three top eye concerns caused by diabetes to better understand how diabetes affects your vision.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common eye problem caused by diabetes. It is also a leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working age adults.
Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the tiny blood vessels in the retina become damaged, usually a direct result of high blood glucose levels. It can lead to blurry vision, which occurs when the blood vessels in the retina leak fluid or hemorrhage (bleed).
There are three types of diabetic retinopathy:
- Background retinopathy
- Proliferative retinopathy
Your risk of developing eye problems, including blindness, increases the longer you have diabetes.
Cataracts are blind spots or clouding in the eye’s lens that develop as result of glycation.
Picture what happens when you crack an egg and drop it in a hot pan. The white/clear portion of the egg becomes cloudy as the proteins go through the process of glycation. A similar thing happens when the protein-dense lens of the eye interacts with high levels of blood glucose. The eye’s lens clouds over.
Cataracts tend to develop as we age, but diabetics are two to five times more likely to develop this eye problem than people without diabetes.
Glaucoma, also known as ocular hypertension, is an eye condition where there is an increase in inner eye pressures and as a result, damage to the optic nerve. You are at higher risk of developing the more severe forms of glaucoma if you have diabetes because the abnormal pressure in the eye compounds damage caused by high blood sugar levels.
After cataracts, glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world.
Can Diabetes Cause Vision Problems?
Diabetes has the potential to cause vision problems, including severe loss of vision and blindness. In the early stages of eye problems like diabetic retinopathy, there are usually no symptoms until the disease progresses and vision problems are noticed.
Unfortunately, if you don’t detect and treat vision problems, it can cause blindness. That’s why it’s important to have your eyes examined regularly by an eye care professional to prevent or delay blindness.
The risk of blindness from diabetes is 25 times greater for people with untreated diabetes than the general population. Diabetic retinopathy causes blood to leak from the vessels and fragile new vessels to grow. When the nerve cells become damaged, vision is impacted, result in blurring, bleeding into the eye, or, if untreated, retinal detachment and blindness.
Protect Your Eyes and Vision
To safeguard your eyes from diabetic retinopathy and other eye problems caused by diabetes, you need to stay active, eat a healthy diet, take eye-supportive supplements, and have a comprehensive eye exam with dilation at least annually.
If you have diabetes, it is critically important you add targeted nutritional supplements to protect your vision. At a minimum though, I recommend that anyone who has diabetes take a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement daily because diabetes is essentially a nutritionally wasting disease. Chronically high blood sugar levels act like a diuretic and cause a significant loss of nutrients to pass through the urine.
In addition, two of my top recommended nutrients for eye health are lutein and zeaxanthin. These naturally occurring carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables, specifically dark, leafy green ones such as kale and spinach, as well as egg yolks.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are highly concentrated in the macula of the eye, with lesser amounts found in the lens, retina, and optic nerve. There are numerous studies touting the benefits of these carotenoids to ward off vision problems, which is why they are on the top of my list to prevent eye problems caused by diabetes.
The problem is most people don’t get enough lutein and zeaxanthin in their daily diet. For this reason, my recommendation is to take it them in supplement form: 15–30 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin daily.
I also recommend high doses of antioxidants. The 10-year Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) indicated that vitamin C and vitamin E, vitamin A (beta-carotene), and zinc reduced the risk of advanced macular degeneration and vision loss in patients. My recommendation is to take 5,000 IU of vitamin A, 2,500 mg of vitamin C, and 25 mg of zinc daily.
Because overall well-being and eye health go hand in hand, it’s important not to overlook how diabetes affects vision and maintain a healthy lifestyle to protect your eyes from vision problems due to diabetes.