spinach salad

Are you confused by conflicting claims regarding supplements for eye health? Do you need supplements to make your eyes remain healthier longer?

In the most general terms, it is safe to say that whatever makes the rest of you healthy in a nutritional sense, will also make your eyes healthy. Although this statement is accepted by most experts, it’s not very helpful for people who want to know how to maximize the health of their eyes, or even protect against disease and age-related degeneration.

Many nutritional studies have been done over the years, and I won’t attempt to do an exhaustive review here. There have been multiple indications that antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E) are helpful. Zinc has been shown to be helpful to macular health in some studies, but refuted in others. Omega-3 has also shown signs of helping to protect the macula, as well as helping with dry eye syndrome.

Back around the turn of the century, a large-scale well-designed study called the Age Related Eye Disease Study, or AREDS for short, was done to test the effects of various nutrients on the eye, and results were published in 2001. The result, which became known as the AREDS formulation, found that antioxidants did indeed help to reduce the risk of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), and that zinc and copper were also beneficial. The formula soon appeared commercially in products such as Vitalux, Preservision, and others.

In 2006, the AREDS2 study was done by the same research group. This time they left out beta-carotene (a precursor of Vitamin A) but included lutein and zeaxanthin, which are minor carotenes. They reduced the amount of zinc, and added omega-3 fatty acids. The sticking point this time was exclusion of beta-carotene, done because other studies had appeared to implicate beta-carotene in a slightly increased risk of lung cancer in smokers.

This bothered many eye care professionals, since instinctively we believe beta-carotene to be helpful. Beta-carotene is converted by the body into Vitamin A, and it is Vitamin A which makes vision possible. Vitamin A is present in the receptors of the retina, and when light hits a receptor, the Vitamin A is changed into a different form, releasing a small electrical charge, which then travels along nerve fibres to the brain, where it is interpreted as sight. Carrots contain beta-carotene, which gives rise to the old belief that carrots are good for the eyes.

Detractors and doubters of AREDS2 were many, and criticisms of the study’s design grew. I have now attended three separate lectures in which the presenter dismissed the AREDS2 study as invalid. In spite of this, the companies that make Vitalux and Preservision have altered their new formulations to exclude beta-carotene.

So where does that leave us? I will give you my opinion as an eye care professional, and although I am well informed, I am not a nutritional expert. And if you ask others, you’ll almost certainly get different answers.

In my opinion, the anti-oxidants are a no-brainer. The Carotenes, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, are central to good eye health. The other antioxidants are also essential, so Vitamin C and E must be included. Fish oil is a prime source of Omega 3 fatty acids (including EPA and DHA), which also plays an important role. Small amounts of zinc and copper are a good idea.

The best way to achieve this? I attended a nutritional lecture once at which the expert said that if we would just eat spinach and sardines at least three times a week, then we’d get all we need for healthy eyes. Since most of us are not likely to do that, I recommend a product from Natural Factors called Beta Care-All. It contains a good dose of Beta-carotene, and includes small amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin. A fish oil capsule will supply the omegas. A tablet with 1000mg. of Vitamin C, and another with 400 units of Vitamin E round out the antioxidants. Finally, a good multivitamin fills in the nutritional gaps, and also supplies small amounts of several minerals, including zinc and copper.

So there you have it. There is no one correct answer when it comes to nutrition, and every human has different requirements. Genetic predispositions to certain conditions will express themselves regardless of your nutritional habits. This is my best recommendation, based on current information. And don’t forget regular comprehensive eye examinations by a Doctor of Optometry!