Our visual interpretation of the world is dependent upon the healthy function of the retina, a layer of light-sensitive tissue in the rear interior of the eye. Subsequent to the admittance of light into the eye through the pupil, nerve impulses are transmitted from specialized cells in the retina called photoreceptors to the brain via the optic nerve; this retina-brain communication facilitates sight as we know it (Dugdale 2011; Marshall 1987). Retinal damage, known as retinopathy, can severely and permanently impair vision and even lead to blindness (Cunha-Vaz 1998; Buch 2001; Torpy 2007).
Unfortunately, the retina is very delicate, which makes it especially vulnerable to damage (Sim 2013; Heng 2013). Retinopathy is, to a large extent, a manifestation of damage to the tiny blood vessels that supply the retina. As such, retinopathy is often reflective of systemic vascular disease, such as that caused by elevated blood sugar levels and high blood pressure (Torpy 2007).
One of the most common causes of retinopathy is diabetes. Despite advances in screening and treatment, diabetic retinopathy is present in nearly 50% of the diabetic population at any time and likely occurs to some degree to nearly all people with diabetes (Tremolada 2007). Globally, 93 million people have diabetic retinopathy, making it one of the most common causes of vision loss among adults in developed nations (Heng 2013; Rosberger 2013). Most people with diabetic retinopathy do not have any symptoms until the late stages, at which point the efficacy of treatment may be limited (Fraser 2013).
Retinopathy can also occur in non-diabetics. Individuals with high blood pressure can develop hypertensive retinopathy (Wong 2004).
Retinopathy is generally a preventable condition (Simo 2014). However, conventional medicine often fails to encourage aging individuals to initiate specific dietary and lifestyle strategies to minimize retinopathy risk, instead waiting to address the condition after it manifests as visual impairment for those affected. Procedures utilized in the treatment of retinopathy have the potential to cause serious side effects or complications (Arrigg 1998; Smiddy 1999; Singh 2008).
Fortunately, several scientifically-studied integrative interventions can support healthy physiology of various structures in the eye and may reduce risk of retinopathy. Moreover, since the retina is metabolically very active, adhering to a nutrient-rich, plant-based, low-glycemic diet is important for ensuring this unique tissue gets the nutrients it needs to function optimally (Delahanty 2013; Vlassara 2014).
This protocol will focus primarily on diabetic and hypertensive retinopathy among adults. It will provide readers with additional background information about retinopathy and review conventional as well as emerging treatment options for this condition. The importance of diet and lifestyle in retinopathy prevention and management will be discussed as well, and several natural agents that may support retinal health will be outlined. Because elevated blood sugar and blood pressure are two leading causes of retinopathy among adults, readers are encouraged to review the protocols on High Blood Pressure and Diabetes in conjunction with this one.