Vision Loss and Protecting Your Sight

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine

“Where were you when the lights went out?” That’s what millions of Americans and Canadians were asking each other after the recent blackout that left more than 6 million people in the dark throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. It’s one of those shared experiences that can bring out the best in people. For 29 hours, folks from New York to Detroit to Toronto helped each other, developing a sense of camaraderie and community.

But just imagine living the rest of your life in the dark. That’s what people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have to look forward to. And instead of fostering closeness, AMD can leave its victims feeling helpless, isolated and afraid.

A Dim View

Personally, I can’t think of anything more frightening than the prospect of going blind. Yet, AMD is the most common cause of vision loss in Americans over sixty. It’s also the most serious – and the odds just get worse as we get older. In fact, one in three people over the age of 75 are affected by AMD.

Now, we all experience some visual impairment as we age. But, there’s a big difference between needing a pair of glasses and developing AMD, a disease marked by the degeneration of the center part of the retina known as the macula. The macula is responsible for fine, detailed vision and as it deteriorates, your field of vision narrows until you can’t see at all. The most typical form of the disease is dry macular degeneration, which occurs when the light-sensitive macular cells break down. This type of AMD may take years to develop and the most common symptoms are a gradual shift in perception (normally straight objects appear bent or wavy) and a dark or blurry spot in the center of your vision.

Less common, but by far more debilitating, is wet macular degeneration. Wet AMD occurs when new blood vessels behind the retina grow toward it and leak blood and fluid. This form of macular degeneration causes a very sudden – and severe – loss of central vision.

MD Exposes the Hidden Danger to Your Eyes

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So, who is at risk? Although your risk of developing AMD increases with age, other risk factors include gender (women are at a higher risk than men), a family history of the disease, smoking and excessive exposure to sunlight. And, according to Australian researchers, the use of blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering drugs can also put you at higher risk (yet another reason to opt for nutritional intervention instead of ACE inhibitors and statin drugs).

But, while an ophthalmologist can tell you if you’re at risk – and can even detect the early onset of AMD – mainstream medicine doesn’t have much to offer in the way of treatment. But I’ll tell you about some natural things you can do to prevent and possibly even slow down the progression of AMD.

Powerful Protectors

Sure, we all know that vitamin A and its precursor beta-carotene can protect our eyesight. But, over the past decade, scientists have discovered two other carotenoids that offer even more protection against vision loss. In fact, researchers from Tufts University and the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging found that the carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein can reduce the risk of developing AMD by 40 percent. Here’s why: zeaxanthin and lutein are concentrated in the macula. The concentration of zeaxanthin in the center of the macula is about 85 times greater than its concentration in the periphery. Lutein is also dispersed throughout the entire retina and acts like a filter to protect the macula from potentially damaging forms of light. In fact, these two carotenoids play such an important role in maintaining your vision that one study by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston found that 60-year-olds with normal levels of zeaxanthin and lutein have the visual sensitivity of 20-year-olds! Other dietary studies have confirmed the link between the frequent consumption of kale, spinach or collard greens (all good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin) and lower AMD risk. According to the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which took place at the University of Wisconsin, consuming 6 mg. of both lutein and zeaxanthin a day can reduce the risk of developing AMD. But getting that much zeaxanthin and lutein through food alone can be tough. (Be honest, when was the last time you ate a heaping bowl of greens?) The best way I’ve found to maintain healthy levels of these two sight-saving nutrients is with supplements. Another carotenoid, astaxanthin, may also offer insurance against AMD. Derived from a microalgae, animal studies have found that this novel carotenoid has some amazing antioxidant properties. In fact, researchers have found astaxanthin to be 100 times more potent than viramin E and 10 times more powerful then beta-carotene. And, unlike beta-carotene, astaxanthin easily crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Investigations of the antioxidant effectiveness of astaxanthin in the eye are just beginning but the preliminary findings are already very promising. In one study by scientists at the University of Illinois in Chicago, astaxanthin protected the retinas of rats exposed to damaging ultraviolet light. The results suggest that astaxanthin could be useful for the prevention and treatment of neuronal damage associated with age-related macular degeneration.

According to ophthalmologist and surgeon James McMillan, M.D., taking 2 mg. of astaxanthin a day can help prevent AMD. But since the evidence is still speculative, it’s also a good idea to include an eye supplement containing the dynamic duo – zeaxanthin and lutein.

One Last Thing …

Ginkgo biloba has been getting a lot of attention lately. So it really didn’t surprise me that this versatile herb is also good for warding off the onset of AMD. Because ginko helps prevent oxidative damage, improves circulation and enhances cellular metabolism, researchers have suggested that these anti-aging properties may prevent degenerative changes in the eye. Several studies have shown that ginkgo has significant value in cases of retinal damage and that it can be used successfully and safely to protect the eye from AMD. Ginkgo may also offer some help to people already suffering from the disease. In one double-blind trial, 99 patients with dry senile macular degeneration were given either 240 mg. or 60 mg. of ginkgo a day. After just four weeks, the researchers found that those taking the higher dose of the herb had significant improvements in visual acuity compared to those taking the lower dose. When it comes to protecting your sight, these natural alternatives have a definite edge over mainstream medicine. If you want to see into your future, include these eye-friendly supplements in your daily routine now.

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This Just In …

Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a reader named Preston, who wanted to know if there was a safe way to use tanning beds. Now, I can certainly understand why some people may want to keep that golden summer glow. But the truth is that there is NO safe way to tan. And tanning beds may be even more dangerous than spending a day in the sun.

Tanning beds use Ultraviolet-A light to trigger the production of melanin, the pigment that gives us that characteristic bronzed look. But the amount of UVA tanning lamps expose you to is many, many times higher than you get outdoors. As dermatologists learn more about the effect of different wavelengths of light on our skin, it’s now understood that UVA rays are the ones responsible for premature ageing.

There are bigger concerns, too. In a recently published 37-year study, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden examined information on more than 51,000 people diagnosed with skin cancer. The data showed that squamous cell carcinoma has become the most rapidly increasing type of cancer in Sweden in the past 20 years. Noninvasive types of skin cancer increased “drastically,” the researchers say, especially on areas of the body normally protected from the sun by clothing. Their report, which appeared in The Archives of Dermatology, suggests the increase is attributable to the use of tanning beds.

Earlier studies have found that people who used tanning devices were 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to have basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer than people who did not use the devices. And at least one investigation found that exposure to the type of ultraviolet light used in tanning salons can alter DNA.

So, Preston, forget tanning beds – and limit your exposure to the sun, even after the scorch of summer is gone.


Fies P, et al. “Ginkgo extract in impaired vision-treatment with special extract Egb 761 of impaired vision due to dry senile macular degeneration.” Wien Med Wochenschr . 2002;52:23-426.

Gale CR, et al. “Lutein and zeaxanthin status and risk of age-related macular degeneration.” Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science. 2003;44:1-2465.

Guerin M, et al. “ Haematococcus astaxanthin: health and nutritional applications.” Report presented at the 1st Congress of the International Society for Applied Phycology. 2002.

McCarty CA, et al. “Risk factors for age-related maculopathy: the Visual Impairment Project.” Archives of Ophthalmology. 2001;119:1455-1462.

Seddon JM, et al. “Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 1994; 272:1413-1420.

“Tanning Beds Fingered for Rise in Skin Cancer.” HealthScout. 23 July 2003.

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