Vitamin Eye: Can Vitamin Supplements Improve Eye Health?

Posted By Key-Whitman Eye Center || 31-Jul-2014

pic_vitaminThe business of dietary supplements is no small affair. It’s so big in fact, that Americans spent an estimated $30 billion on vitamins and supplements in 2011. Recently, vitamin supplements to promote eye health have become increasingly popular – but do they really work?

Major research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did reveal that a specific combination of nutrients (vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin) can slow the progression of macular degeneration. Some smaller studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can relieve certain dry eye symptoms. However, there is no research that supports the use of supplements to cure eye disease or improve eyesight.

Why doctors are excited about research findings on eye vitamins

According to Key-Whitman Eye Center Director of Optometric Services, Todd J. Agnew, O.D., "There’s definitive NIH research that shows if patients with macular degeneration – mild, moderate or severe – take the AREDS2 nutrient formulation, they are 25 to 30 percent less likely to experience more advanced macular degeneration. We have also found success in prescribing nutraceuticals (vitamin supplements) to treat some patients who suffer from dry eye syndrome."

Dr. Agnew prescribed a prescription-grade nutraceutical as a macular degeneration treatment for his patient Tina D., "I jumped right on it," she says. "I just wanted to do whatever I could to keep it from coming on any faster."

Tina, who is 53-years-old, learned she had macular degeneration during her annual eye exam. "I didn’t know I had it. Since I'm diabetic, I try to get in regularly to get my eyes checked, and that's when they spotted it."

Diabetes is one of the three biggest risks for macular degeneration, along with smoking and hypertension. "Smoking is No. 1 for patients who have the gene profile for macular degeneration. Anything that affects blood flow to the eye can contribute to cell loss in the retina and help advance macular degeneration." Dr. Agnew says.

So what happens when you have macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration, also known as age related macular degeneration (AMD), can happen as we age and occurs due to cell loss in the macula area of the retina. This results in the deterioration of sharp and central vision. Without treatment, it typically becomes progressively more difficult to see clearly or make out small details.

Learn more about macular degeneration types, symptoms and treatments here.

As a macular degeneration eye doctor, Dr. Agnew knows, "A lot of these patients lose much of their vision if they don’t get treatment early on, and that really affects their ability to do things we take for granted, things relative to basic living skills like reading or driving." For people with advanced AMD, "a big part of what we do here is counsel patients and teach them coping techniques that help them enjoy their daily lives," Dr. Agnew says.

For Tina, who is studying to be a surgical technician, losing her eyesight wasn’t an option. While her vision had been pretty good and stable for the past 30 years, "I noticed that I had a change [in my eyesight] for several years. Then I noticed more of a change in the past couple of years. I tried to ignore it, but I knew there definitely was something happening," she says.

Are over-the-counter eye care supplements effective?

People need to be wary of over-the-counter eye health supplements, according to Dr. Agnew. While traditional medications are highly regulated by the FDA, "there isn't much oversight at all, when it comes to the vitamin and supplement industry. Nutraceuticals are not monitored by the FDA, so you can't know for sure what you're getting."

Dr. Agnew cautions, "If you are concerned about eye health, don't try to diagnose or treat yourself. Schedule afull eye health exam with an optometrist or ophthalmologist who can determine what is causing your issue, and who can prescribe prescription-grade nutraceuticals. Quality matters when it comes to putting anything in your body."

Whether a patient needs macular degeneration eye services or dry eye treatment, Dr. Agnew says it's important to approach each situation on a case-by-case basis. "Some patients, like Tina, can benefit from taking nutraceuticals, but we need to weigh all available options."

Tina is relieved that her macular degeneration diagnosis came about before the condition progressed too far. She says, "I recommend that you take [the supplements], because if you lose your eyesight, you don’t get it back, and anything that we can do to fight off losing our eyesight, I’m definitely for."

Photo Source: iStock by Getty Images

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