You may have heard about recent research suggesting that certain nutrients can help delay or prevent eye problems and disease. You may also have heard a lot of claims for over-the-counter (OTC) vision supplements containing these nutrients -- and claims for others that have not been tested in clinical studies.
Important: Your doctor is your first resource for information about your health. Regardless of dosage, supplements are not a cure for health problems or a substitute for medication your doctor has recommended. Always check with your doctor before beginning to take any dietary supplement, including vision supplements.
Vision Supplements in Multivitamins
Before you ask your doctor about taking mega-doses of vision supplements, take a look at your multivitamin, if you use one. You'll probably find you're already taking several of the following nutrients for healthy eyes. If not, look for these nutrients, in at least these amounts, when you buy a multivitamin or supplement:
- Vitamin C, 250 mg
- Vitamin E, 200 mg
- Beta-carotene, 5,000 IU
- Zinc, 25 mg
- Zeaxanthin, 500 mcg
- Selenium, 100 mcg
- Lutein, 10 mg
- Calcium, 500 mg
- Thiamin, 2 mg
- Folic acid, 800 mcg
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids (including flaxseed oil), 2,000-3,000 mg
- N-acetyl cysteine, 100 mg
- Alpha lipoic acid, 100 mg
If you can't find a single product that contains all or most of these nutrients, they are available individually.
Read the Labels!
As with any prepared food you buy, read the labels on supplements to be sure you're getting what you want. Here are some tips:
- Be sure the product you buy is fresh: Check expiration dates.
- The bottle should be sealed for your protection. If it isn't, or if the seal is broken, don't buy it.
- Look for a reputable manufacturer as quality can vary widely.
- If you're prone to stomach upset, capsules may be a better choice than tablets, which are harder for your system to absorb.
- Consider organic vision supplements. You may pay more, but the quality is often better.
- Avoid supplements containing fillers, ingredients used to bulk up products so they "look like more." These include wheat, corn, and dairy products, which could cause digestive or allergic problems.
- If fish oil is listed as a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, the label should state that it has been produced in a manner that eliminates contaminants, particularly mercury.
- The FDA does regulate dietary supplements, but treats them like food rather than medications; unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don't have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them. The FDA can get a supplement removed from the market, though. And supplement manufacturers must maintain certain standards (called GMP) that are similar to those for pharmaceutical makers.
Should You Take High Doses of Vision Supplements?
For people with or at risk for some eye conditions, high-dose vision supplements may help slow or prevent these conditions.
For example, the National Eye Institute released the findings of its Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS). The results showed that high doses of antioxidants vitamin C (500 mg), vitamin E (400 IU), and beta-carotene (15 mg/25,000 IU), along with zinc (8 mg), reduced the risk of vision loss from advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in some, but not all, people with this disease. The only patients who benefited were those with:
- Intermediate AMD or
- Advanced AMD in just one eye
Ask your doctor if you're in one of those categories.
However, the ingredients of vision supplements may change with the completion of the AREDS2 study. This study sought to see if adding other vitamins and mineral to the supplement would improve results of the AREDS. The first addition was omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), and the second was a combination of two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in leafy green vegetables and highly colored fruits and vegetables. The research showed:
- Beta-carotene did not lower the risk of progression of AMD.
- Adding omega-3 to the AREDS formula did not lower the risk of progression of AMD.
- The AREDS formula was still found to be protective with less zinc added.
- People who took a formula with lutein and zeaxanthin (and who may not have been taking enough in their diet) showed further improvement with the new AREDS formula.
- In general, people who took lutein and zeaxanthin instead of beta-carotene had more of a benefit.
This supplement regimen, however, was not shown to prevent the onset of AMD, slow its progression in early stages, or improve vision already lost. If you or someone you care about has AMD in one of the two categories listed, an eye doctor may recommend taking a vision supplement. Note: The study also included 2 mg copper to replace copper lost when you take zinc.
In another example, studies have shown that deficiencies of antioxidants contribute to the development of chronic dry eye syndrome. Nutritional supplements containing the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 are available to help restore and maintain tear formation and eye lubrication. Again, check with your doctor first.
A Few Tips About Supplement Use
And keep this in mind: Supplements are called that because they supplement your overall nutrition; they don't take the place of it. So to get the full benefits of vision supplements, be sure to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods.