Vision loss is a serious threat for those suffering from eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. As people age, their rate of degenerative eye disease increases dramatically. Each year some 13 million people are diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (deterioration of the central retina called the macula), the world's leading cause of irreversible blindness. Cataracts, though operable here in the United States, are the major cause of blindness in the world. Glaucoma also can lead to vision loss.
Despite the grim statistics, there are ways your customers can prevent, and in some cases reverse, the damaging effects of certain degenerative eye conditions. Recent studies substantiate key antioxidants—particularly certain carotenoids—as a healthy prescription for eyesight.
Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and beta-carotene have long been touted for their ability to fight free radicals in the body, an important factor in maintaining eye health.
"Free radicals are unpaired electrons that come into our bodies looking for an electron," explains Diane Raile, technical support manager for NutriCology, the Hayward, Calif.-based manufacturer of OcuDyne eye support formula. "Antioxidants act as unpaired electrons saying 'take me, take me,' so they protect the healthy tissue and prevent oxidation because the antioxidant offers itself."
Carotenoids are a group of powerful antioxidants that have been shown to prevent free-radical oxidation in the eye. Many of these nutrients can improve visual acuity, as well as prevent a host of other eye problems such as dry eyes, macular degeneration, cataracts (opacity of the eye lens) and glaucoma (a group of eye diseases that leads to atrophy of the optic nerve).
There are more than 400 known carotenoids, but in the past couple of years, research has singled out lutein—found in dark green leafy vegetables—as a critical nutrient for good vision. Lutein and zeaxanthin, a similar carotene produced by the body from lutein, are concentrated in the macula and retina and act like filters, preventing photochemical damage and oxidation leading to age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
"My number one nutrient for eye health, that I prescribe to everybody over the age of 50, is lutein," says Marc Grossman, O.D., L.Ac., author of Natural Eye Care (Keats Publishing, 1999). "For prevention I recommend 6 mg of lutein per day, which has been shown to cut the risk of macular degeneration by 63 percent in a study from Harvard University.
"It's very important for us as we become an older population to keep our gift of sight," Grossman says. "That's why I stress that people start taking care of themselves in their 40s and 50s, if not sooner, because they can prevent a lot of eye problems."
His approach to eye health is holistic, incorporating a "vision" diet loaded with eye-enhancing nutrients; healthy lifestyle habits including eye protection and eye exercises; as well as vitamin and herb supplementation.
His top-three prescribed supplements for prevention of degenerative eye conditions are lutein, bilberry and omega-3 fatty acids. Lutein is an excellent preventive for macular degeneration and cataracts, but he prescribes higher doses of the nutrient for those already suffering from those conditions.
"I deal with lots of people who have macular degeneration," Grossman says. "It's a lot easier to reverse when they just find out they have it, but there is still hope for those in later stages. In regular medicine, they say there's nothing you can do for macular degeneration, but it's a nutritionally responsive condition, and that's been shown definitively by lots of studies."
Though Grossman has seen conditions like macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts improve with nutritional therapy, he says that often nutrition alone isn't a cure. "I just sent my mom to cataract surgery," he admits. "We were able to slow it down for about 10 years with nutritional therapy, but then she moved to Florida and it got worse because of the ultraviolet light."
NutriCology has generated positive results with its OcuDyne formulation as well. "We have tons of letters from people with cataracts and macular degeneration," Raile says. "The feedback has ranged from they turned their cataracts around to they put off cataract surgery for 15 years."
A recent seven-year study, conducted by the National Eye Institute, showed that a high-dose combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and zinc significantly reduced the risk of developing advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration by about 25 percent. Lutein was not included in the study because during the study's planning stages in the early 1990s, the carotenoid was not commercially available. The NEI is currently conducting a pilot study to see how well lutein is absorbed in the bloodstream in people over age 60.
Most manufacturers of eye support formulas have considered the research when formulating their products, which often include a long list of vitamins, herbs and other eye nutrients that work synergistically. "When you eat a piece of fruit that is high in antioxidants, you're not just getting one antioxidant, you're getting a group of antioxidants," says Louise MacIntosh, director of research and development for Futurebiotics Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y., developers of the eye support formula Eyes Bright. "The closer you can take [nutrients] to the way things are in nature, the better off you are. Whenever we do a formula, we try to keep the nutrients in certain ratios that resemble the way they are in what you'd eat."
NutriCology's OcuDyne, a hypoallergenic eye support formula created more than a decade ago, was recently updated to keep up with new research. OcuDyne II includes lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamins and minerals. "When you're using an eye-support formula as a main supplement, you also have to find an adequate mineral formula and antioxidants," Raile says. "This meets those needs. Its main function is for eye support, but there are so many vitamins in there, and with the addition of lutein and the minerals, it can be used as a multivitamin."
Most experts agree about the importance of nutrients for the eye, but there are differing opinions about delivery and dosage. Grossman says he prefers liquid or tinctures for better absorption. "They also might have all the right ingredients, but it's very important to look at the therapeutic dosages," he says. Lutein has been available as a commercial supplement since 1995, and though some manufacturers are including it in their eye-support combination formulations, Grossman suggests his patients take it separately from beta-carotene, because the two substances compete for absorption.
Many factors go into a preventive eye health program, including diet, healthy lifestyle habits, eye protection and exercise, as well as nutritional supplementation. By taking steps now toward a holistic approach to vision care, consumers can decrease their chances for degenerative eye disease and make the future look bright for clear eyesight.
Catherine Gregory is a Louisville, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 69-70
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 69
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 70