Monday, March 6, 2017

Taking a Closer Look at Eye Supplements

If you’re taking a nutritional supplement for your eyes, you might want to take a close look at what’s in it.

Back in 2001, a well-done study by the National Eye institute found that a specific combination of nutrients could slow down the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is one of the biggest causes of blindness in people over the age of 65.

The landmark study is “AREDS” (Age-Related Eye Disease Study). The researchers randomly assigned over 3600 participants either to a placebo or to a high dose supplement. The researchers found that the participants on the AREDS supplement reduced their risk of progressing to advanced disease by about 25%. The researchers also looked at whether the supplement had an effect on cataracts. It did not.

The Original AREDS Formula:

500 mg vitamin C
400 IU’s vitamin E
15 mg beta-carotene OR Lutein/Zeaxanthin
80 mg zinc (as zinc oxide)
2 mg copper (as cupric acid)

While this was great news for people with macular degeneration, there were some problems with the supplement:

1.    The high amount of supplemental beta-carotene had been shown in other studies to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers.
2.    The high level of zinc caused stomach upset in some of the study participants
3.    The original formula did not have lutein or zeaxanthin or omega-3 fatty acids which some researchers thought might help

So, researchers started the AREDS 2 study to answer these questions.

They found that cutting the beta-carotene and replacing it with lutein and zeaxanthin was effective and safer. They also found that the omega-3 fatty acids did not slow down macular degeneration. So now we have the new AREDS 2 formula that came out several years ago. They also found that reducing the zinc didn’t change the effectiveness.

Here’s what you should look for in an eye supplement:

AREDS 2 Formula:

500 mg vitamin C
400 IU vitamin E
10 mg lutein
2 mg zeaxanthin
80 mg zinc
2 mg copper
These amounts are much higher than what you could get in your diet or in a typical vitamin/mineral supplement.  Of course, after the first AREDS study came out, sales of eye supplements boomed. But some of these eye supplements are not the AREDS formula and probably won’t give you the results you want.

The supplement only helped people at the intermediate and advanced of macular degeneration. People in the early stages did not see much benefit. So this high-dose supplementation is only for people with intermediate or advanced stage macular degeneration and should only be taken under the supervision of an eye doctor.

The Bottom Line: If you have macular degeneration, talk to your doctor about which eye supplement is best for you.  Read the labels carefully to make sure they have the right combination of nutrients in them.  If you are shopping for the supplement, you need to compare directly the label on the bottle with the information from the National Eye Institute.  And remember, if you do not have macular degeneration, there is no proof that an eye health supplement will help prevent diseases of the eye!

For more information on eye supplements, the ARED2 study, and advice on whether you need an eye health supplement, visit the National Eye Institute site. 

Beth Kitchin PhD RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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