If you experience floaters - irritating shapes that dance around your vision - then you've probably heard tales of natural cures. In a sea of anecdotes and misinformation, we've picked out and analysed the scientific facts to determine if there really are natural treatments for floaters and how you can protect your eyes from further damage.
You might be worried about or have already experienced floaters, dark shadows across your vision, that you want to get rid of.
Doctors often insist that floaters go away on their own, or that if they’re really that bad, the only treatment is invasive and expensive surgery that you might not want to go through with, despite the annoyance that floaters cause. Is there a more natural way of treating floaters?
A few recent studies have investigated this question, looking at nutrients available in a balanced diet and their impact on floaters. In this article, we look at some potential nutrients you can incorporate into your diet and whether they will make a difference to your floaters.
We’ll also take a look at changes you can make to your lifestyle so that, if floaters are inevitable, you can manage how much of an impact they have on your quality of life.
What Are Eye Floaters?
Floaters are shadows which move with your vision, ranging from stringy and web-like to darker splodges. They are most visible against bright backgrounds such as a clear sky or laptop screen.
Floaters are common and becoming a growing frustration in the modern age; one study on phone users reported that around 76% of participants experience floaters. Floaters also cause a reduction in contrast sensitivity (i.e. telling between two similar shades of a colour) and reduce quality of life, according to questionnaires.
Whilst floaters are not inherently dangerous, the common rhetoric of doctors that floaters are only a mild annoyance which go away on their own over time is poorly substantiated. According to a study on 311 patients suffering with floaters, on average, those in the study would sacrifice 1.1 years every decade if it meant they could live without floaters.
Floaters can become particularly noticeable if the vitreous separates from the retina, the part of the eye that senses light and turns it into a signal for your brain.
This is because the back of the vitreous has an extra dense collagen network that suddenly becomes visible upon vitreo-retinal separation. This process is usually associated with age but is becoming more common in younger individuals, possibly due to modern diets and habits of screen use.
The Causes of Floaters
Floaters are thought to arise from degradation of the vitreous, a transparent gel-like structure which fills the inside of your eyeball.
The vitreous is a network of collagen (a fibrous protein) and hyaluronan (a fibrous carbohydrate). If these two components dissociate from each other, collagen clumps together (aggregates) to form opaque blobs of protein which can be seen as floaters.
Collagen dissociation from hyaluronan also leads to pockets of liquid vitreous where collagen no longer supports the gel structure.
There are other causes of floaters, such as internal bleeding in the eye (haemorrhaging) or the presence of certain cells - often resulting in the more sudden onset of floaters - but for more common, long-term floaters, collagen aggregation is thought to be the main cause.
Multiple biochemical processes can lead to collagen and hyaluronan dissociating, leading to floater formation.
One of the main causes is oxidative stress, which is when reactive oxygen species (ROS) become overabundant and react with important components of cells, such as DNA, proteins and cell membranes. ROS are produced largely as a by-product of respiration in mitochondria (the ‘powerhouse’ of the cell), but can also be caused by environmental factors such as UV and blue light, and pollutants.
These highly reactive chemicals are usually kept under control by antioxidants, until the ratio of ROS to antioxidants is too high to be managed.
Oxidative stress has been suggested to cause floaters since it is linked to vitreous degeneration. Excess ROS are thought to react with collagen and hyaluronan, causing their dissociation.
The resulting collagen aggregation could form floaters, although it’s important to remember the link between oxidative stress and floaters hasn’t been directly studied.
Nevertheless, there is a decrease in antioxidants in the eye with age, as well as an increased likelihood of developing floaters as you get older. The light your eyes are exposed to throughout your lifetime is one of the sources of ROS generation independent of the cells’ own mitochondria, and this can damage the health of your eye and might cause floaters. For more information on oxidative stress in the eye, see our article here.
Glycation is a process associated with oxidative stress where sugar molecules bind to proteins such as collagen. In the vitreous, this causes its dissociation from hyaluronan.
Glycation promotes oxidative stress and oxidative stress promotes glycation in a positive feedback loop called glycoxidation, a set of conditions ideal for floater formation. For more information on glycation, see our article on the topic.
Floaters can arise from an array of different processes that might seem unavoidable. However, a lot of inexpensive and common foods contain chemicals which can help protect against these processes.
How Changing Your Diet Might Decrease Floaters
Nutrients that protect against oxidative damage
If oxidative damage to collagen and hyaluronan is the main cause of floaters, it makes sense that antioxidants obtained from food would protect against floaters.
The vitreous contains certain antioxidants to protect against light-induced oxidative stress, but as we age the number of antioxidants decreases.
Many of these are essential antioxidants, meaning your body can’t make them on its own and you can only obtain them through your diet.
Not to worry - many of these can be found in common foods. The following are all vitreous antioxidants you can incorporate into your diet:
Vitamin C: Vitamin C reacts with ROS to form much less reactive compounds to stop them from damaging the vitreous.
Although there are no studies directly linking vitamin C intake to floater management, there is a correlation between vitreous degeneration and lowered vitamin C in the vitreous, and we know that vitamin C absorbed from diet is transported to the vitreous.
Vitamin C is also essential for collagen formation, meaning vitamin C might help regenerate damaged vitreous. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli, among other fruits and vegetables.
There are no studies directly linking vitamin B2 intake to floater management. Furthermore, there is some evidence that riboflavin actually makes the vitreous more susceptible to light-induced oxidative stress.
It’s currently unclear whether the negatives of vitamin B2 outweigh the positives. Vitamin B2 can be found in dairy, eggs, meat and fish, as well as bread and grains.
Lysine: Lysine is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein.
Excess lysine also limits glycation, and is thought to do so by reacting with sugar molecules before they can react with important proteins such as collagen. This means lysine prevents glycoxidation of collagen and hyaluronan, protecting against floaters.
Lysine can be found in any good protein source, such as red meat, some fish such as cod, and tofu, as well as spirulina and fenugreek.
Zinc: Zinc is a metal found in tiny quantities in certain foods, but these tiny quantities can have a large impact.
Zinc is found in oysters, meat and seafood, as well as seeds and nuts, although zinc is less able to be absorbed from non-animal sources. Cereals fortified with zinc are a great source if meat consumption is not an option.
Selenium and iodine: Selenium and iodine are other trace elements found in the vitreous that have antioxidant capability.
We know that these nutrients are good for your health, but is there any evidence that they get rid of floaters?
One recent study gave participants a supplement containing vitamin C, lysine, zinc, grape extract (containing antioxidants like proanthocyanidin) and seville orange extract (containing antioxidants like hesperidin). This was based on earlier studies outside of actual human eyes that suggested these nutrients might be beneficial to vitreous health.
The patients that took the supplement were found to have decreased visual discomfort and reduced floaters compared to those on a placebo pill: eye-imaging showed that 77% of participants taking the supplement had a reduction in floaters, compared to just 23% on the placebo.
However, the study only looked at 61 patients and it’s unclear which ingredient(s) are actively targeting floaters, but it’s a promising preliminary result that suggests there is hope for minimising the effect of floaters naturally.
The list above makes it clear where these floater-combatting nutrients can be incorporated into your diet, but if that’s not possible, supplements might provide an easier means of accessing all the important antioxidants. For example, TheiaBio Clearer contains all the active compounds provided to participants of the study above, but at increased doses.
Whilst studies like these seem promising, the evaluation of the differences supplementation can make to floaters is still in its early days. Indeed, whilst antioxidants would help prevent oxidative damage to collagen, there’s no clear reason why they’d be able to reverse damage as seen in the study.
More wide-scale studies in the future could lead to improved supplements and even optimisation to specific individuals. Currently, it’s not clear if everyone suffering from floaters will have the same experience as those in the study.
Can some foods break down floaters?
Some natural treatments for floaters, rather than providing protection against ROS, might directly target floaters and digest them into non-visible fragments using enzymes called proteases.
A pilot study in Taiwan fed patients pineapple each day and found that reports of eye floaters significantly decreased. However, there was no control or placebo group, and the study is poorly written, lazily cited, wasn’t peer-reviewed, and is authored by the Kaohsiung City Government, which would benefit from an increase in demand for pineapples. There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of this paper.
A more recent study looked at a mixture of fruit proteases to see whether the claim had any truth to it, and if it was proteases that were responsible. In this study, patients were given papain (from papaya), bromelain (from pineapple) and ficin (from figs), and their floaters were significantly reduced compared to a control group on vitamin C alone.
Both studies used both patient questionnaires and eye imaging techniques to assess the number of floaters. In the second study, 93% of participants were satisfied with mixed fruit enzymes as a treatment for floaters.
It remains unclear how fruit enzymes would make their way to the vitreous. Usually proteins like enzymes are broken down by our own digestive enzymes and their constituent parts absorbed. Our own digestive enzymes, including proteases, are reabsorbed into blood.
Fruit enzymes could potentially enter the body through the same mechanism, but even then there’s no guarantee they would reach the vitreous, since it is separated from blood vessels by the blood-brain barrier, a filter meant to prevent large molecules (such as proteases) from reaching the brain. We have a blog taking a deeper dive into these studies if you want to find out more and decide for yourself.
How To Manage Your Relationship With Floaters
Whilst the handful of studies mentioned above have suggested that a balanced diet can reduce the impact of floaters, no study has shown a natural 100% effective cure for them. However, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make that might reduce how much you notice and become irritated by floaters.
Psychological stress can heighten your sensitivity and behaviours associated with stress such as spending a long time in front of a screen can strain your eyes, all making floaters more noticeable.
Long term stress also increases oxidative stress in the body, although it’s unclear whether this has an effect on floaters. We examine this potential link more closely in our blog on the topic. Nevertheless, taking steps to reduce stress, such as counselling, exercise, sleeping well, and reducing intake of stimulant drugs such as caffeine, might make your existing floaters easier to ignore.
You can also manage how you react to floaters when you notice them. On top of stress, factors such as poor sleep can increase irritability.
Mental health conditions can make you more worried or pessimistic about floaters than necessary, and depressant drugs such as alcohol can exacerbate this effect.
Ensuring you keep a good routine of sleep, limit alcohol intake and take steps to deal with mental health conditions (therapy, counselling, medication) could help make floaters something that you barely notice.
There is only a limited number of studies directly linking a healthy and balanced diet to a reduction in floaters, but the evidence so far looks promising.
Incorporating more antioxidants into your diet will have a beneficial effect on your whole body health, if not a direct effect on your floaters. So why wouldn’t you expand your diet to include these vitamins and minerals?
Given their ease of access in common foods, there is little reason to buy expensive fad superfoods (e.g. Ginkgo biloba).
If you can’t incorporate these into your diet (for example if you’re vegetarian or vegan, considering a lot of them are found in meat and seafood) then supplements could be considered. TheiaBio Clearer, for example, contains the same active ingredients as seen in the study discussed earlier, with additional antioxidants.
You might not be able to entirely get rid of your floaters, but it’s worth examining how you respond to them and what elements of your life might actually be making your experience of floaters worse.
Stress and mood management might be just as effective as changing your diet, and several approaches in combination will be even more effective. As a bonus, eating a healthy and balanced diet, controlling your stress, maintaining a good sleep schedule - it’s all likely to improve your general health and wellbeing, not just your eyes, so you might as well.
However, if you’re finding floaters are seriously impacting your life, surgical treatment is available which has been shown to be effective. We have a blog discussing these different options so you can decide how best to treat them.
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