Cataract surgery is truly a wonder of modern medicine. Today, ophthalmologists remove cataracts and insert lens implants as skillfully (and, it appears, as effortlessly) as you tie your shoes. As a bonus, Medicare picks up the tab because almost all surgery is performed on people over age 65. At WholeHealth Chicago, we believe you don’t necessarily have to develop cataracts. They may be a normal part of aging (rather than a disease), but they’re not inevitable. While no medicine is available to reverse cataracts, plenty of evidence exists on how lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements can significantly lessen your chances of developing them in the first place. Even if you’ve developed the start of a cataract, you can keep it from worsening.
What are Cataracts?
Cataracts create a very gradual but treatable vision disorder in which the lens of the eye loses its normal transparency and begins to impair your vision. The name comes from the ancient idea that the characteristic cataract whiteness behind the pupil was a kind of waterfall (a “cataract”) from the brain. The process of forming a cataract begins when proteins in a healthy lens become damaged and then clump together to form an opaque cluster. This change (similar to what occurs to the proteins in an egg white when it’s boiled) is entirely painless and causes only visual symptoms. Cataracts, however, never lead to complete blindness because the lens will always transmit some light.
The process of forming a cataract is very slow, and the onset of symptoms is virtually imperceptible. Usually individuals first become slightly nearsighted, so that older people who once needed glasses for reading are surprised to find they can do without them. Colors are also changed: Blue becomes dull, while red, orange, and yellow become exaggerated.
The most predominant symptom, however, is a progressive decline in vision with increased blurring. In addition, the opacities that develop within the lens cause a scattering of light rays, which may seriously affect night driving. Most people with cataracts are barely aware of any of these symptoms and simply notice their vision is not what it used to be. Then, when their cataracts are surgically removed, they are usually astonished to find out how much they had actually been missing.
This disorder is very common, affecting half of all Americans over age 50–virtually everyone over age 65 has some degree of cataract formation. In fact, cataracts in older people are so common that this condition is no longer really considered a disease but rather an age-related change in the body, like wrinkles and gray hair.
Although once a lens has developed a cataract, there’s no way of reversing the change and restoring the transparency, research has shown that cataracts are far more preventable than was previously thought.
Gradual painless blurring of vision
Halos around lights
Increasing sensitivity to bright light, especially sun glare and headlights of cars at night
Dulled or altered perceptions of color
What Causes Cataracts?
Long-term physical changes associated with aging make up the principal risk factor in the development of cataracts. In particular, a lifetime of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun (especially ultraviolet B rays) may be the leading single cause of damage; cataract rates are highest in regions with the most intense sunlight.
Cigarette smoking is believed to be another major cause; studies have found a direct correlation between inhaled smoke and cataract formation, with the heaviest smokers running the highest risk.
A deficiency of certain antioxidants (chiefly vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and selenium) may also raise the risk. These compounds help neutralize lens-damaging free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules created by UV rays, tobacco smoke, and other factors). Lenses normally have high levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that protects them from free-radical damage. Vitamin C and other antioxidants play a critical role in raising glutathione levels within all the body’s tissues and are obviously of special importance in the lens of the eye.
Other factors associated with cataract formation are:
Eye injury or inflammation
Exposure to X-rays, microwaves and other forms of radiation
Diabetes or obesity (high levels of sugar in the blood can destroy lens proteins)
Long-term use of corticosteroid drugs
Treatment and Prevention
Although common among older people, cataracts are not inevitable by-products of age. Once a cataract has formed, it cannot be reversed and surgery may be needed to remove it if there is interference with vision. An operation can often be postponed for years, however, and may not be necessary at all, unless vision impairment becomes severe enough to prevent working, reading, driving, and other basic activities.
Whether someone with a cataract formation actually needs surgery depends, of course, on how much the cataract is affecting his or her vision. Ophthalmologists (eye specialists) are quite conservative in their approach and usually will offer surgery only when a person feels the cataract is seriously affecting his or her vision.
Cataract extraction is one of the most successful and least complex procedures available in surgery. Usually removal of the cataract is followed by the placement of a substitute lens (implant) or a prescription for a contact lens. More than 1.4 million cataract operations are now performed in the U.S. each year.
If you are over age 40 and taking a prescription cortisone, have diabetes, or are exposed to any of the other risks associated with cataracts, you should be on a cataract preventive supplement program.
The proper combination of supplements and behavioral safeguards can slow or halt cataract formation and growth, and possibly stop them from developing at all.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Vitamin C, an antioxidant, raises the tissue levels of glutathione, the body’s most potent antioxidant. Vitamin C also acts to regenerate (literally recycle) another potent and well-known antioxidant, vitamin E. Taking vitamin C regularly may protect the eye from the harmful effects of cigarette smoke and sunlight. Vitamin E has been found in some studies to reduce the incidence of cataracts significantly.
A third antioxidant that may protect against damage by free radicals is selenium. Caution is needed, however: Too much selenium can be toxic, so limit your daily intake to 200 to 600 micrograms (mcg).
The flavonoid-rich herb bilberry helps clear the lens and retina of impurities. An alternative to bilberry is ginkgo biloba, especially for those who already use this herb to improve memory.
Alpha-lipoic acid, which boosts the effectiveness of vitamins C and E, may also have cataract-preventive properties. It appears to have a broader range of activity against free radicals than either vitamins C or E and also promotes glutathione regeneration.
Good circulation in the eyes is promoted by grape seed extract, another antioxidant, with bioflavonoid properties (which have beneficial effects on the small blood vessels throughout the body including the eye).
The essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in flaxseed oil, although not specifically involved in cataract prevention, play a critical role in the prevention of numerous chronic diseases of all types, including atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.
Avoid bright sunlight. Wear sunglasses designed to screen out ultraviolet B (UVB) rays (many have amber lenses; some are marked “general purpose” or “special purpose”). In addition, wear hats with protective brims that shade your eyes from direct sunlight.
Use lamps or light fixtures with incandescent bulbs; they are easier on your eyes than fluorescent bulbs or high-intensity halogen lights.
Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke. If you are a smoker yourself, take whatever steps are necessary to stop.
Eat fresh fruits and vegetables regularly to assure a good supply of antioxidants.
When to Call a Doctor
If you begin to notice any of the cataract symptoms listed above. Prompt attention may give you a greater range of options.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Studies have shown that antioxidants and flavonoids definitely slow cataract formation. These natural substances can help prevent cataracts, too–just not reverse them. So, if you’d rather avoid surgery (no matter what a medical wonder it is), try adding the following supplement to your daily routine.
How to Take the Supplements
If you’ve got early cataracts, your best bet is to be on a basic daily nutritional program consisting of a high-potency multiple vitamin (including vitamins C and E) and an antioxidant combination. Whatever daily multiple you’re taking, however, try to get at least 500 mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, and 200 mcg of selenium.
Then add bilberry and alpha-lipoic acid for extra flavonoid and antioxidant protection. The herb bilberry helps rid the lens and retina of toxins; alpha-lipoic acid boosts the power of vitamins C and E and may be a cataract preventive. For the bilberry, you can substitute ginkgo biloba (as ginkgo biloba extract, or GBE), which improves circulation and has antioxidant properties.
This is your cataract preventive or containment program. Take it for life–it’s your eyes at stake here!
These supplements should be enough, but for added protection you might want to include grape seed extract (another super antioxidant) and flaxseed oil, a source of essential fatty acids. EFAs help keep blood vessels throughout the body (including your eyes) healthy–which is a reason to add the flaxseed oil to this regimen.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders, click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.