The Role of Nutrition in Age Related Macular Degeneration

There is growing evidence that by improving your diet, you may also improve the health of your eyes. Research has suggested an association between macular degeneration and a diet high in saturated fat (e.g. butter, cheese, animal fats). There is also evidence that eating fresh fruits and dark green, leafy vegetables – foods rich in vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids (including beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin) -- may delay or reduce the severity of AMD.

Eat Your Greens: Eat the freshest and brightest fruits and vegetables.

Pick the most colorful vegetables and fruits you can find - red, dark green, orange, or yellow. These foods play a key role in keeping your eyes healthy. Foods believed to be good for eye health include: carrots, corn, kiwi, pumpkin, zucchini squash, yellow squash, red grapes, green peas, cucumber, butternut squash, green bell pepper, celery, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and dried apricots. Tomato and tomato products may also benefit the eyes, as well as dark green leafy vegetables including spinach, kale, turnips, and collard greens.

Vitamins and Supplements

Scientists have long debated whether taking vitamin and/or mineral supplements could help prevent, treat or cure certain eye conditions. Some studies seem to show that supplements have the potential to prevent or slow the progression of AMD. The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), sponsored by the National Eye Institute (NEI) looked at the effects of zinc and antioxidants, and a combination of both, on patients with varying stages and types of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). They also studied patients without evidence of AMD to determine if zinc and/or antioxidants can prevent the development of these conditions.

The study showed a number of important things:

  • High doses of antioxidants and zinc can reduce the risk of vision loss from advanced AMD by about 19 percent in high-risk patients (patients with intermediate AMD or advanced AMD in one eye but not the other).
  • Supplements do not provide significant benefit to patients with minimal AMD.

These nutritional supplements do not prevent the initial development of AMD, nor do they improve vision already lost to AMD.

The doses used in the study were:

  • Vitamin C 500 mg
  • Vitamin E 400 IU
  • Beta-carotene 15 mg (approximately 25,000 IU)
  • inc 80 mg, as zinc oxide
  • Copper 2 mg, as cupric oxide (copper should be taken with zinc, because high-dose zinc is associated with copper deficiency.)

While most patients in the study experienced no serious side effects from the doses of zinc and antioxidants used, a few taking zinc alone had urinary tract problems that required hospitalization. Some patients taking large doses of antioxidants experienced some yellowing of the skin. Some supplements may interfere with each other or other medications. Smokers and ex-smokers probably should not take beta-carotene, as studies have shown a link between beta-carotene use and lung cancer among smokers. The long-term effects of taking large doses of these supplements are still unknown.

Although not yet proven, there is growing evidence from recent research to suggest that the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin may help protect against AMD. Both lutein and zeaxantin are concentrated in healthy maculas. It is believed that these compounds help maintain healthy cells and tissues in the eye, absorbing light and acting as antioxidants. To naturally add lutein and zeaxanthin to your diet, doctors recommend eating spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli, papaya, oranges, kiwi, mango, green beans, peaches, apricots, sweet potatoes, lima beans, squash, red grapes, yellow corn, and green and orange bell peppers.

More research is needed before definitive recommendations can be made concerning diet and its role in AMD; AMD patients should discuss diet, vitamins and nutritional supplements with their eye care specialist who can help them determine what is best for their particular situation.

So, before embarking on a vitamin supplement program, consult with your eye care professional and follow his or her dosage recommendations carefully.