October 4, 2023/Nutrition

Can Vitamins Help Slow Macular Degeneration?

They may help, but it depends on factors like the stage of your disease

person taking vitamins at breakfast table

When you’re losing your vision due to wet age-related macular degeneration, or wet AMD, it’s normal to want to try everything in your power to maintain as much of your sight as you can. And if you’ve heard that vitamins may help, you may be ready to jump into the wide world of supplements.

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But not so fast, says ophthalmologist Ananth Sastry, MD. Some vitamins may help slow the progression of AMD in people with certain types of the disease — but not for everyone. Before you start taking any vitamins for eye health, it’s important to understand what they can and can’t do.

Are vitamins helpful for AMD?

Two large studies of age-related eye diseases, both sponsored by the National Eye Institute, found that a combo of certain vitamins and minerals, known as AREDS2, could help slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration in some people. These supplements have high concentrations of specific micronutrients — more than you could get through diet or in a regular multivitamin.

But there’s a big caveat: AREDS2 supplements aren’t helpful to everyone with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). These supplements primarily help people with intermediate-stage dry macular degeneration, not wet AMD.

“AREDS2 hasn’t been demonstrated to have any significant benefit for eyes with wet macular degeneration or very advanced dry macular degeneration,” Dr. Sastry clarifies. “There’s also not enough evidence to show that taking AREDS2 vitamins prevents the onset of macular degeneration in patients who don’t already have it.”

Wet AMD is an advanced condition that can’t be cured, though it can be managed and treated. Your ophthalmologist may offer options like anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) injections, which may help preserve your remaining vision and prevent your wet AMD from getting worse.

Which vitamins can help wet AMD?

While there isn’t a cure for wet AMD, when you’re living with this serious eye condition, it’s still important to practice habits that will promote eye health. That includes eating a healthy, well-balanced diet full of vitamins and nutrients known to protect your eyes.

And though AREDS2 vitamins haven’t been shown to impact wet AMD, your ophthalmologist might prescribe them if your condition hasn’t progressed at the same rate in both eyes. If, for example, one eye still only has intermediate-stage dry AMD, you might start taking AREDS2 to keep it from getting worse.

“AREDS2 vitamins are recommended for people who have early or intermediate dry macular degeneration in one eye but advanced disease in the fellow eye,” Dr. Sastry explains. “Plus, dry macular degeneration can convert into wet macular degeneration at any time.”

Let’s take a look at the specific vitamins in AREDS2 and how they help with eye health.

Lutein and zeaxanthin

Never heard of lutein and zeaxanthin? Most Americans don’t get enough of them through diet alone, but they have an important role to play in eye health — such a big role, in fact, that they’re sometimes known as “eye vitamins.”

Both lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, pigmented nutrients that give plants their bright colors. “They’re also found in high concentrations in your retina, where they protect against oxidative stress and help the eyes filter out harmful blue light,” Dr. Sastry says.

AREDS2 supplements contain 10 milligrams (mg) of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin.

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Vitamins C and E

Vitamin C and vitamin E are both potent antioxidants, which means they can help your body fight off unstable molecules known as free radicals. If left unchecked, free radicals can cause oxidative stress in your body, which is known to lead to diseases and may be a contributor to macular degeneration.

AREDS2 supplements contain 500 mg of vitamin C and 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E.

Zinc

Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning you only need a little bit of it — but it has an outsized effect on eye health. It all has to do with how your body stores and uses vitamin A.

“Your eyes need vitamin A in order to produce certain pigments, see in the dark and maintain a healthy cornea,” Dr. Sastry explains. But your body stores vitamin A in your liver, not in your eyes, so zinc acts as a taxi driver, helping vitamin A travel from your liver to your retinas.

There’s 80 mg of zinc in AREDS2 supplements.

Copper

Copper is also a trace mineral, though it isn’t necessarily related to eye health. So, why is it included in AREDS2? Zinc can affect your body’s ability to absorb copper, so adding extra zinc to your diet, like through supplementation, can actually lead to a copper deficiency. This puts you at risk for conditions like anemia, leukopenia and osteoporosis.

“To help prevent copper deficiencies, AREDS2 supplements include 2 mg of copper,” Dr. Sastry says. “Just enough to give your body a little extra boost.”

What about fish oil?

Omega-3 fatty acids are good for eye health, too. But the same study that developed AREDS2 found that there was no added benefit to incorporating omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fish oil pills) to the AREDS2 supplement combo. And you’re better off getting your omega-3s in food, as food sources have been shown to have bigger health benefits than supplements.

Taking care of your eyes when you have wet AMD

When you have macular degeneration — whether wet or dry — you shouldn’t rely on nutrition alone to help you manage your condition or prevent it from getting worse. These serious eye conditions need to be treated by specialists.

“If you don’t treat vision loss quickly, it can be irreversible,” Dr. Sastry warns. “It’s also important to know that dry macular degeneration can convert into wet macular degeneration at any time.

“If you have dry AMD and notice a new blind spot or central distortion that you hadn’t previously noticed, seek urgent treatment from a retina specialist.”

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