See the Truth About Vision Supplements

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Perhaps you notice a vision supplement at your local drugstore or in a commercial on TV. Will this product really help preserve your vision?

That depends.

Eye health is not as simple as popping a pill.

David Kleinman, ophthalmologist with UR Medicine’s Flaum Eye Institute, offered his expertise on the topic.

“Eyes, like the rest of the body, will benefit from a healthy lifestyle,” Kleinman said. “Getting enough exercise, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and normal blood pressure, refraining from smoking, seeing your primary care physician regularly to help reduce the risk for acute and chronic illnesses and eating the right foods are very important and beneficial approaches to optimizing systemic and ocular health.”

A healthful diet is not only about eschewing fried, sugary and processed foods. It’s also about focusing on the nutritious foods that support bodily health.

“Foods that contain important micronutrients, including zeaxanthin, lutein and omega-3 fatty acids are thought to be helpful for keeping your eyes healthy,” Kleinman said.

He listed:

• Green leafy vegetables, including Swiss chard, kale, turnip greens, collard greens and spinach, green peas and Brussels sprouts.

• Brightly colored fruits and vegetables including red, orange, and yellow peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, watermelon, blueberries and zucchini

• Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and flax seed oil.

“A low-fat, vegetable rich diet is also recommended,” Kleinman said. “There are oral supplements on the market that contain many of the important micronutrient components of food, but a healthy diet is the best place to start.

“Specific vitamin combinations may be recommended by your primary care physician or ophthalmologist on a case-by-case basis, but routine use of these products by the general population has not proven beneficial for eye health.

“Also, adults should have periodic, comprehensive eye examinations at a frequency determined by their eye care provider.”

Many people see the AREDS2 supplement and assume that this will support general eye health. However, Kleinman explained that the nutraceutical was proven beneficial for only one population of patients: those with intermediate stage macular degeneration.

“I don’t recommend it for patients in general or for those with early-stage macular degeneration,” he said. “They will not see improvement.”

The research indicates that those diagnosed with intermediate stage macular degeneration who take the supplement under the direction of an ophthalmologist or optometrist experienced about a 25% reduction in rates of advanced vision loss over five years.

Kleinman said that the original AREDS formula included high levels of beta carotene, which proved to raise the risk of death among former or present smokers. AREDS2 leaves out the beta carotene and uses lutein and zeaxanthin. It also includes vitamins C and E, and zinc and copper.

“It’s at pretty high doses, so I make sure the primary care provider knows but I don’t think it’s risky in any special way,” Kleinman said. “It’s not medically indicated to use AREDS in any other situation.”

He is not aware of any other nutraceuticals helpful for supporting vision health, although some evidence exists that omega-3 fatty acids can help with dry eye symptoms.

“Everyone should eat healthfully and eat fewer calories and eat a plant-based diet full of nutrients,” Kleinman said. “But what’s compelling is that the antioxidant properties of certain foods, patients with higher blood levels of zeaxanthins found in the macula as is lutein, those patients have lower incidence of macular degeneration. What I think that means is that patients who eat these in their diet have benefit. It’s not the same as taking a pill. You can’t undo a lot of poor habits by taking a pill.”

He also added that a diet high in red meat and meat in general and processed foods is related to age-related macular degeneration, along with correlation with hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

It’s also beneficial to exercise, once cleared by a physician. Kleinman recommends walking.

“Start with half a mile, two and three miles a day,” he said. “It’s an incredible way to increase muscular strength and circulatory performance. Macular degeneration is a multifactorial disease. There’s some genetics, maybe 30% of the risk. But there’s a lot to control.”

He added that quitting tobacco use is vital.

“These changes are difficult initially, but once they hold onto them for three months, they don’t want to go back and are happier and healthier,” Kleinman said.

For more information on plant-based, healthy diets, Kleinman recommends visiting the website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and The Campbell Plan, a book by Thomas Campbell, physician.