It’s likely that many of the 6 million Americans with macular degeneration first hear about it during a visit to an eye doctor where they’ve come complaining about their declining vision. Most of them leave the office in a very discouraged state of mind, with the phrase “nothing can be done” ringing in their ears. The macula is a tiny spot in the center of the retina that enables you to distinguish the fine detail in the center of your visual field. In other words, all the truly important stuff of looking at things: reading, watching TV, threading a needle, driving a car.
Let’s face it, we value vision above all our other senses, and we don’t want to hear “nothing can be done.” In actual fact, there’s plenty of evidence that nutritional supplements can prevent, slow down, or even improve this devastating condition. Let’s see what our WholeHealth Chicago Healing Center can offer.
What is Macular Degeneration?
The most common cause of blindness in people over age 50, macular degeneration affects millions of Americans to varying degrees. The macula is the central and most light-sensitive portion of the retina, which is located at the back of the eye. It controls the central field of vision and the ability to distinguish color and fine detail. When macular degeneration occurs, these basic functions of eyesight begin to break down. Objects in a person’s central viewing area–things being directly looked at–appear blurred, gray, or simply blank, even though peripheral vision remains normal. As the condition progresses, it threatens the patient’s ability to read, drive, watch television, or recognize people easily.
There are two forms of macular degeneration: “dry” and “wet,” both of which are painless and usually affect one eye at a time. The dry, or age-related, form is so called because tiny bits of debris accumulate beneath the macula as it thins over time. Dry macular degeneration, which accounts for about 90% of cases, progresses slowly enough that most patients do not have serious loss of vision.
In wet, or hemorrhagic, macular degeneration, new blood vessels develop under the retina and begin to push against it. The vessels can leak fluid, which is believed to cause scarring of the macula and result in permanent damage to central vision in a matter of days. Patients with dry macular degeneration may suddenly develop this fast-moving form.
- A hazy, gray, or blank spot blocking the center of your vision, and peripheral vision that is not affected
- Visual distortions that cause objects to appear blurred or misshapen, or straight lines to look wavy
- Colors that are altered or faded
What Causes Macular Degeneration?
The principal damage in macular degeneration is probably caused by the unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals, which can be dangerous to many types of cells, not just those in the eyes. Environmental and lifestyle factors such as high dietary levels of saturated fat, tobacco smoke, and years of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays all encourage production of free radicals in the retina.
Medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease can also contribute to macular degeneration by restricting the supply of blood to the eye. Having light-colored eyes also increases the risk of macular degeneration, as does a family history of the disorder.
In addition, advancing age magnifies all of these risk factors. About one-fourth of all Americans over age 65–a rapidly growing segment of the population–show some signs of macular degeneration, as do one-third of those over age 80.
Treatment and Prevention
Although regular ophthalmic checkups are essential for anyone at risk for macular degeneration, a program of preventive steps can lower your risks of developing this condition dramatically.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
The most valuable antioxidant protection against macular degeneration is supplied by vitamins C and E and various carotenoids, all of which help neutralize the free radicals that can damage the retina. (These can all be supplied by a daily high-potency multivitamin.) Two carotenoids in particular, lutein and zeaxanthin, play an important role in macular function by blocking the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. These substances provide the macula with its yellowish color. If you are using anticoagulant drugs, see your doctor before taking vitamin E.
Zinc supplements help by not only correcting the deficiency of zinc that’s common in older people, but also possibly by slowing the progress of macular degeneration. (If zinc is taken for a month or more, however, it needs to be combined with copper supplements, since zinc inhibits the body’s absorption of copper.)
Along with all these supplements, take bilberry, an herb that supplies other antioxidant compounds and also improves blood flow to the eye. Two possible substitutes are grape seed extract, good for people with poor night vision, and gingko biloba, which may help those also experiencing memory loss (although neither is as effective against macular degeneration as bilberry).
Finally, the general effectiveness of the body’s antioxidants may get a boost from selenium (in doses of no more than 400 to 600 mcg daily).
Protect your eyes from ultraviolet light by wearing sunglasses and hats that shade the face. People with blue or green eyes need to be especially careful.
Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke, one of the primary causes of macular degeneration. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day more than doubles an individual’s risk in comparison to someone who has never smoked; smokers who quit lower their risk substantially, but they still contract the disease 30% more often than non-smokers.
Reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet; it’s another powerful risk factor.
Spinach, collard greens, and other dark green vegetables may prevent macular degeneration because of their high levels of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
Drinking a glass of wine a day may also lower your risk of macular degeneration. However, heavier consumption of wine does not provide added protection and may lead to other health problems. Drinking other alcoholic beverages has not been shown to provide any reduction in risk.
When to Call a Doctor
- Any of the symptoms described above is a signal to see an ophthalmologist immediately. Early treatment can dramatically reduce eye damage and loss of vision.
- Individuals over age 50 should have yearly ophthalmic checkups to screen for macular degeneration and other eye disorders.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Many studies have found that patients with macular degeneration, which is often linked to damaging free-radical molecules, consistently have low levels of antioxidants in their blood. Taking antioxidant supplements can help neutralize the free radicals as well as dramatically reduce your risk of developing this condition, or at least help slow down its progression. Unfortunately, reversing severe macular degeneration with antioxidants and minerals has been less promising, with inconsistent results.
How to Take the Supplements
Current antioxidant research indicates that taking a single antioxidant (say beta-carotene) all by itself, probably has little overall effect in preventing free-radical damage. In fact, an excess of one antioxidant may actually block the absorption, and thus the benefits, of others.
For maximum protection, take all of the “Most Effective” supplements recommended below on a permanent basis–including the carotenoids, vitamins C and E, zinc/copper, bilberry, and grape seed extract. If you’ve been diagnosed with macular degeneration, or you have a high family risk to develop it, make this list part of your daily supplement program.
Although bilberry, grape seed extract and ginkgo biloba can be used interchangeably, all three taken together provide antioxidant protection against macular degeneration, memory loss, and the development of other free radical-associated diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Add zinc/copper and selenium because the body’s levels of these minerals decline with age. Low levels of these minerals have been associated with declining immune function and susceptibility to cancer, so again maintenance is especially important.
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.
David Edelberg, MD