You’ve probably heard someone say, “Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes.” You may have also seen advertisements for nutritional supplements for eye health. Can vitamins and minerals benefit your eye health and vision? Keep reading to learn more about supplements and eye health.
What science has to say
Plenty of claims are made about the positive effects of supplements on vision and eye health, but very few research studies support these claims. One exception is the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies (AREDS and AREDS2). These are large studies conducted by the National Eye Institute. Results from AREDS 2 took what was learned from AREDS and improved the supplement recommendations.
The studies focused on two conditions that affect millions of Americans, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in the United States. It affects more than 10 million people. It’s mainly associated with aging, but some forms of macular degeneration affect younger people as well.
AMD occurs when there’s deterioration of light-sensitive cells in the macula area of the retina. This is the part of the eye responsible for:
- recording what we see and sending the information to our brains
- seeing fine detail
A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye. It may impair your ability to see well enough to perform daily tasks and can become worse over time.
Cataracts are extremely common, particularly among older adults. In 2010, 24.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cataracts.
AREDS and AREDS2 looked at the effects of high doses of several antioxidants taken together for several years. The final recommendations from AREDS2 were:
|vitamin C||500 mg|
|vitamin E||400 IU|
|copper||2 mg (taken to prevent copper deficiency caused by zinc)|
This supplement formulation is available in capsule form and is usually taken twice daily.
Participants in the AREDS2 study took one of four supplement formulations that had been identified as potentially beneficial in the AREDS study. Each participant took the supplement daily for five years.
In study participants, the risk of AMD and serious vision loss was reduced by 25 percent over six years. In people with AMD, the condition was slowed only in people with moderate AMD. Supplements were not effective for people with mild or very advanced stages.
Additionally, supplements used in the study did not prevent AMD or restore vision loss.
Lutein and zeaxanthin supplements taken as part of the AREDS2 formulation were seen to reduce the need for cataract surgery by 32 percent in people who initially had low dietary levels of these carotenoids.
The studies were promising and found that there are some benefits to certain supplements, but they won’t have beneficial effects in everyone. More research is needed to better understand the connection between supplements and eye health.
What supplements may help
my eye health?
The following supplements, including the antioxidants found in AREDS2 capsules, have been shown to be beneficial for some people.
1. Lutein and zeaxanthin
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are carotenoids. Carotenoids are pigments found in plants and in your retina. Supplementing these pigments helps increase their density in your retina. They also absorb high-energy blue and ultraviolet light that can damage your eyes.
Also found naturally in your eyes, zinc is a powerful antioxidant that protects against cell damage. Zinc is the primary mineral in the AREDS2 formulation. When taking zinc, copper absorption is lessened. It’s recommended that zinc be combined with copper supplements.
3. Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
Vitamin B1 is essential for the health of your eyes. There’s evidence that vitamin B1, taken with other vitamins, may reduce your risk of getting cataracts, but more research is needed.
Known as one of the “anti-stress” B vitamins, vitamin B1 reduces inflammation.
Initial research also indicates that it may be an effective for treating uveitis, an inflammatory eye condition that can lead to blindness.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids
The diet of most Americans doesn’t contain enough omega-3 fatty acids, the main source of which is fish. Photoreceptors cells in your retina contain a large quantity of omega-3 fatty acid. It’s believed that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, helps in the development of retinal cells. It’s also thought to have a role in reducing inflammation and helping cells of the retina and the cornea heal and regenerate after damage due to light exposure and aging.
A number of studies indicate that people who consume more of two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), were less likely to have AMD. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with dry eye syndrome and retinopathy, a disease that causes progressive damage to the retina. Research has also shown that infants whose formula contains DHA develop better vision than infants not given DHA.
5. Vitamin C
Several large studies show that vitamin C reduces the risk of getting some types of cataracts. Two of these studies also found that a combination of vitamins C and E supplements reduced risk for cataracts and slowed the progression of cataracts.
Do you need supplements?
Diet should always be your primary source of vitamins and minerals. However, the National Eye Institute advises that the high doses found in AREDS2 can’t be obtained from diet alone.
In addition to diet and supplements, there are some other things you can do at home to promote eye health:
- Use a humidifier in your home if your house is dry. You may only need to use it seasonally, or you may need to use it year round, depending on the climate where you live.
- Drink plenty of water. Although recommendations vary by weight, adults should drink, roughly, between 1.5 liters (6 ¼ cups) and 2 liters (8 1/3 cups) of fluid daily.
- Keep your eyes moist with artificial tears.
- Change your furnace or air conditioner filters regularly.
- Avoid environments with dusty or dirty air.
- Use cold compresses, cucumbers, or dampened and cooled green or black tea bags on your eyes. Some people prefer calendula tea.
When should you see your doctor?
Consult your ophthalmologist before taking AREDS2. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who specializes in eye health. Your doctor will be able to determine if the supplements will be effective, given the status of your eye health.
Because the high dosages in AREDS2 can interact with other medications and shouldn’t be taken by people with certain health conditions, it’s important to talk with your primary care doctor, too.
Can I use supplements to improve my eye health?
Your eyes and vision are affected by many factors, including genetics and age. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet that contains antioxidant-rich foods can contribute significantly to the health of your eyes.
Tips for eye health
There are many things you can do to benefit your eye health.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking damages blood vessels in the eyes and can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, and other sight problems.
- Protect your eyes from ultraviolet light. Wear sunglasses when you’re outdoors and avoid staring directly into bright lights.
- Maintain a healthy weight and an active lifestyle.
- After age 60, get a dilated eye exam each year.
- Make sure your diet contains plenty of green leafy vegetables, spinach, corn, oranges, eggs, yellow carrots. These foods contain high levels of nutrients, including those found in the AREDS2 formulation.