Truth Squad: Supplements for Eye Health

"[The AREDS study] is the kind of study we need to actually say that a certain nutrient is good for your eye," said Dr. Timothy Stout, associate professor of ophthalmology at the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Ore., and a scientific advisor for the nonprofit organization,Prevent Blindness America.

While the science is still out on some of these specific nutrients and their relation to eye health, some eye experts have weighed in on the purported benefits and warning signs of these most popularly marketed supplements:

Bilberry

The claim: Bilberry can improve low light vision and prevent macular degeneration.

The truth: During World War II, Royal Air Force pilots would eat a Bilberry jam to help improve their vision for overnight flights. It is thought that Bilberry is an antioxidant that can help improve night vision, and prevent macular degeneration.

However, just because a supplement is an antioxidant, and some antioxidants may improve eye health, does not mean that antioxidants are a "one size fits all," approach, according to Stout.

"The truth is we just don't know if it does what we're told it does," said Stout. "It could, but we just don't know."

Selenium

The claim: taking a 50 mcg nutritional supplement daily can improve vision.

The truth: According to Chew, selenium is another form of antioxidant that has not yet been studied.

"We do know that we haven't found nutrients that can turn vision loss around completely," said Chew. "So I would be cautious about supplements that say they can protect against an eye disease."

Turmeric

The claim: two 500 mg capsules twice a day will help protect against cataracts.

The truth: While many people have reported better eyesight from taking turmeric supplements or from having a diet high in turmeric, the effects of the nutrient on eye health has not been studied in humans, said Stout. And while there may be benefits from taking antioxidants such as turmeric, Stout again cautioned against believing supplements with antioxidants work.

"Somewhere, all of these supplements hang their hats on the antioxidant peg," said Stout, "but don't think that just because the nutrient is an antioxidant, it must be good."

For Eye Health, It's Not All About the Pills

Indeed, antioxidants found as supplements on store shelves are also found naturally in the body and in many types of foods. And, previous research suggests that eating green leafy vegetables reduced the chance of vision loss.

Antioxidants in foods are much more numerous in foods than in individual supplements, according to Julie Mares, professor of nutrition the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, who has studied the link between nutrition and eye health for more than a decade.

"We know that our body processes nutrient easier when it is given in the form of food rather than as a supplement," said Mares.

Stout added that for those who suffer from vision loss, relying on a healthy diet may not be enough.

"It's nearly impossible for someone who suffers from vision loss to receive the amount of nutrients he or she needs just from a healthy diet," he said.

But while many companies market high dose antioxidants, it is unclear whether taking larger doses of antioxidants are beneficial. Stout particularly cautioned against taking the "it can't hurt to take more" approach when taking supplements, since the body can only use a certain amount of nutrients.

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