By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
A few weeks ago, my mom called me up in a panic. It seems that, when she woke up that morning and reached over to shut off the alarm clock, half of the numbers on the clock were blurred beyond recognition! It was like a veil had fallen over her eyes during the night. At my urging, she went to see the ophthalmologist who broke the bad news: cataracts.
If you’ve begun seeing colored halos, it’s not a flashback to the psychedelic 60’s. Like my mom, you may be among the 4 million Americans with cataracts. Marked by blurred or double vision, sensitivity to light, fading of colors, poor night vision and halos around lights, cataracts are the leading cause of decreased vision in older Americans and the No. 1 cause of blindness worldwide.
Which is why a new study linking tumeric to a reduced risk of cataracts is so exciting.
A Guessing Game
Nobody really knows what causes cataracts, but there are plenty of theories. The damage that occurs to the lens and the subsequent clouding may be due to advancing age, heredity, an injury or disease, cigarette smoking or the use of certain medications.
One theory that’s gotten a lot of attention over the past few years is the sunshine theory. More specifically, a growing number of scientists believe that sunlight increases the risk of developing cataracts. In one population-based study of more than 2,500 adults, age 64 to 84, by Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that those subjects with the greatest exposure to the sun had a 60 percent higher chance of developing cataracts. But, don’t think that donning a pair of shades will solve the problem. French researchers have recently deflated the belief that regular sunglass can protect against the formation of cataracts. Instead, most ophthalmologists now recommend getting a pair of sunglasses coated with a special UVA/UVB protectant.
Whatever the cause, conventional treatments aren’t all that effective. In the beginning stages, a lot of doctors recommend magnifying lenses or stronger eyeglasses to compensate for the vision problems caused by cataracts. Once you can no longer see well enough to accomplish daily activities, you doctor may recommend surgery to remove the clouded lens and replace it with a clear artificial lens. In fact, cataract surgery is the most common surgical procedure for people over 65. But the problem many people have with surgery is that the lens capsule that remains in the eye after the operation eventually turns cloudy, causing additional loss of vision.
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The Curcumin Connection
The best way to avoid surgery is by preventing cataracts in the first place – and that’s where this new study comes in. In the study, researchers from the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, India, fed three groups of rats diets containing various amounts of curcumin. Two other groups were fed a standard diet as controls. After four weeks, the researchers found that curcurmin boosted antioxidant levels and inhibited lipid peroxidation. While this effectively delayed the onset and development of cataracts, the researchers discovered that it only works with small doses. In other words, more isn’t better.
Curcurmin supplements are available – and are often used as an alternative for cancer prevention and treatment. But if you’re looking to avoid cataracts, it’s likely the supplements will provide too large a dose. Instead, many nutritionists recommend hitting the spice rack since curcumin is the active ingredient in the curry spice tumeric.
Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Asian and Indian cookery and is a staple in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Most of the nutritionists I’ve talked with suggest consuming one-quarter teaspoon every day to ward off cataracts, and I find the easiest way to accomplish that is by adding it to whatever’s on the menu for dinner. Ground from dried curcumin, a rhizome of the ginger family, turmeric isn’t peppery – it’s mild-tasting and fairly inexpensive – so I toss a bit into spaghetti sauce, chili, stews, soups and even salad dressings.
Lifting the Cloud
While the Indian study adds another piece to the cataract puzzle, it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Researchers have also linked the depletion of several key nutrients to the formation of cataracts. Here’s how it works: as you age, the cumulative effects of sun exposure and other lifestyle choices cause several biochemical changes to occur in the eye’s lens, including decreased levels of the key antioxidants vitamin C and glutathione, increased oxidation, loss of amino acids and decreased lens metabolism.
Several studies suggest that vitamins C and E might protect against the development and progression of cataracts. More than half of the observational studies done reported a reduced risk of cataracts among people who have a higher dietary intake of the vitamins. Long-term use of vitamin C and E supplements (10 years or more) also showed a reduction in the risk of cataracts.
You’ve probably also heard about lutein, a carotinoid that provides antioxidant protection against cataracts. According to recent research, lutein may act as a filter to protect the macula from potentially damaging ultra-violet light. In one clinical trial, 17 cataract patients were randomly divided into three groups receiving either 15 mg. of lutein, 100 mg. of vitamin E or a placebo three times a week for up to two years. By the end of the study, those taking the lutein supplements experienced significant improvement in their eyesight, especially in visual acutity and glare sensitivity. No such improvement was seen in the other two groups.
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Admittedly, this was an extremely small study and the amount of vitamin E was far too small to make any difference. But it does point out just how powerful lutein is in the fight against cataracts.
But while lutein is critical to eye health, there’s another, equally important carotinoid that can help prevent cararacts. If you read the e-bulletin “Keeping an eye on health” (6/2/03), you may remember a supplement called zeaxanthin. Zeaxanthin works hand-in-hand with lutein to bolster eye health.
Three recent epidemiological trials have examined the correlation between dietary lutein and zeaxanthin and the risk of cataracts or cataract surgery. In the first, researchers conducting a five-year longitudinal follow-up of the Beaver Dam Eye Study found that subjects who consumed the most lutein and zeaxanthin had a significantly lower risk of cataracts compared to those with the lowest intakes. Another study analyzed prospective follow-up data from the Nurse’s Health Study and found that the higher the intake of lutein and zeaxanthin, the lower the chance of needing cataract surgery. The third study conducted an analysis of the data similar to that of the Nurses’s Health Study. In this study group, which was a subset from the Health Professional’s Follow-up Study, the investigators also found a statistically significant trend toward lower risk of surgery with higher lutein and zeaxanthin intake.
So, what’s the best way to get these eye-friendly nutrients? Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, cantaloupe, green peppers and tomatoes. Vitamin E can be found in most nuts and seeds as well as most vegetable oils. Lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens and spinach and can also be found in corn, peas, orange peppers and tangerines.
But food alone probably won’t provide enough of these nutrients to effectively prevent cataracts. To make sure you’re getting the amount needed, it’s a good idea to take supplements. James Balch, MD, the author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, recommends taking 2,000 mg. of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E and a carotenoid complex containing both lutein and zeaxanthin on a daily basis.
One Last Thing …
I can’t stress the importance of getting an annual eye exam enough. If you experience any of the symptoms I’ve mentioned above – blurred or hazy vision, the appearance of spots in front of the eyes, increased sensitivity to glare, the feeling of having a film over the eyes or even a temporary improvement in near vision – a cataract may be forming. It’s critical that you have a qualified eye care professional diagnose the problem. Fortunately, my mom did and was able to catch her cataracts long before surgery was necessary. While she’s being monitored by her ophthalmologist, she’s also started taking the antioxidants and carotenoids I’ve told you about. It’s only been six weeks or so, but both she and her doctor are already noticing the difference.
This Just In …
My father-in-law has kidney disease so, needless to say, I was excited to read a new study in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine which found that supplementing with coenzyme Q10 can improve kidney function and reduce the need for dialysis in people with severe, chronic kidney (renal) failure.
In the study, 97 people with chronic renal failure were randomly assigned to receive a placebo or 60 mg. of CoQ10 three times per day for 12 weeks. Among the 45 participants who were already receiving dialysis, supplementation with CoQ10 resulted in an improvement in various measures of kidney function, including serum creatinine (29 percent improvement) and blood urea nitrogen (9 percent improvement). In contrast, kidney function tended to worsen in the placebo group, and the differences between CoQ10 and placebo were statistically significant. CoQ10 also produced significant improvements relative to placebo among the participants who weren’t receiving dialysis. By the end of the study, the number of people requiring dialysis had decreased from 21 to 12 in the CoQ10 group, but remained unchanged in the placebo group.
If you know someone undergoing dialysis, I’m sure you’ve seen just how debilitating it can be. So anything that could reduce the need for this treatment would truly be lifechanging. Please share this e-bulletin with anyone who might benefit from these findings, especially your doctor. This is the best news people with kidney failure have gotten in a very long time.
Brown L, et al. “A prospective study carotenoid intake and risk of cataract extraction in US men.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999; 70:517-524.
KaLuzny JJ. “Contemporary views on the pathogenesis and possible prophylaxis of age related cataracts.” Pol Merkuriusz Lek (Poland). 1997; 2:76-78.
Lyle BJ, et al. “Antioxidant intake and the risk of incident age-related nuclear cataracts in the Beaver Dam Eye Study.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 1999; 149:801-809.
Olmedilla B, et al. “Lutein, but not alpha-tocopherol, supplementation improves visual function in patients with age-related cataracts: a 2-y double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study.” Nutrition. 2003; 19:21-24.
Singh RB, et al. “Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Trial of Coenzyme Q10 in Patients with End-stage Renal Failure.” Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine. 2003; 13:13-22.
Suryanarayana P, et al. “Effect of curcurmin on galactose-induced cataractogenesis in rats.” Molecular Vision. 2003; 9:223-230.