Warm, sunny days provide many healthful benefits for the body and soul. But the same sunshine that lights up your spirits can damage your precious eyesight if you don't take proper precautions. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays, whether from natural sunlight or artificial rays, can lead to cataracts, a clouding of the eye's lens that can blur vision. Cataracts and age-related macular degeneration are the leading causes of blindness in the U.S.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, UV exposure risks have been exacerbated in recent years due to stratospheric ozone layer depletion. The EPA recently launched "SunWise," an eye damage prevention awareness campaign, to help people understand the importance of protecting their eyes from UV rays.

A study conducted by the National Eye Institute confirmed the role of UV rays in cataract formation. Research concluded that cataracts are often caused by oxidative stress which results from prolonged and repeated exposure to sunlight and other sources of UV rays.

The good news is that the oxidative process in the eyes and other tissues can be mitigated by "oxyradical scavengers" such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, pyruvate and xanthine alkaloids, such as caffeine. Lab studies involving mice have focused on the prevention of oxidative stress and cataract formation through the use of oral and topical forms of pyruvate and caffeine.

A diet rich in antioxidants can go a long way toward protecting your eyes and your overall health. Nutritionists recommend that you eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day to make sure you are getting the antioxidant protection you need to stay healthy.

Because many people do not get the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables, nutritional supplements are often recommended. There are several nutritional supplements on the market that are targeted for eye disease prevention. Look for supplements that contain lutein, zeaxanthin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Zinc, Lechitin, Beta-Carotene and Astaxanthin. Pyruvate is also available in supplement form at natural health stores and online

In addition to proper nutrients, there are other steps you can take to prevent cataracts. Choose sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of UV rays. Contrary to what some people think, sunglasses do not have to be expensive to be effective. The important thing is their ability to block UV rays. It is important to wear sunglasses every day, even if the sun isn't shining brightly. Wraparound sunglasses are especially helpful because they block the UV rays from the sides of the eyes. Always wear a wide-brimmed hat when you are in the sun.

The American Ophthalmology Association estimates that more than 22 million Americans have cataracts, and that number is expected to rise substantially in response to the aging of the baby boomer generation. Take a few simple steps to protect your vision so that you won't be included in that number.