Most people know about the importance of vitamins and minerals for things like bone health or maintaining youthful skin, but few people connect the nutrients in their diets to the health of their eyes. In reality, the eyes are incredibly complex and require a balance of different vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in order to function properly and keep you seeing clearly. Vitamin deficiencies are linked to a number of common eye conditions, including diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma, and cataracts. While most age-related eye disease studies have found the same multiple contributing factors, nutrition plays a role in many of them, so ensuring that you are receiving the proper balance of vitamins and minerals is extremely important to prevent vision loss. There are a number of minerals and vitamins for eye health; vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, zeaxanthin, lutein, DHA, beta-carotene, and carotenoids all play an important role in eye health, but some of the most influential vitamins, multivitamins and minerals are harder to find in our diets, making deficiencies likely.
How can vitamins impact eye health?
When people experience a deficiency of a certain vitamin or mineral that is linked to healthy eyes, they may start to suffer from vision loss or have existing vision loss that occurs more quickly. For example, The National Eye Institute reports that age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disease that typically affects adults as they age and is the most common cause of vision loss for adults aged 50 and older. AMD affects a part of the eye called the macula, and when people have the disease, the central vision needed for activities like driving or reading can become impaired. The rate at which AMD progresses varies from person to person. Although AMD is not caused by a nutritional deficiency, studies have shown that vitamin and mineral deficiencies can escalate the progression of the disease and cause vision loss to occur more quickly. The same holds true for many other eye conditions; vitamins and minerals usually do not cause vision loss on their own, but deficiencies can increase the progression of the disease, while proper nutrition can keep progression to a minimum.
Vitamins B6, B9, and B12
Some vitamins for eye health are most effective when taken in combination with others. While vitamins B6, B9 (folate), and B12 are all helpful for improving eye health on their own, studies have shown that the combination of these three vitamins lowers the levels of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is an amino acid found in the blood, and high levels of homocysteine are associated with low levels of vitamins B6, B9, and B12. Homocysteine is linked to inflammation in the body, and at high levels, it can cause an increased risk of AMD as well as heart disease. Taking vitamins B6, B9, and B12 together was found to reduce the risk of developing AMD by 34 percent in women because it reduced the levels of homocysteine found in the body. Whole food vitamins like GEM include all three of these important vitamins in a real food supplement that is easily absorbed by the body.
Riboflavin is another B vitamin (Vitamin B2) that is linked to eye health. Riboflavin is an important antioxidant that helps fight oxidative stress by stabilizing free radicals in the body. Although our bodies need free radicals to perform important functions, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants can lead to oxidative stress. Over a prolonged period of time, oxidative stress begins to damage the DNA and other molecules in the body and can cause cell death. Oxidative stress has been linked to a number of health conditions, including cataracts. It appears that riboflavin plays a particularly important role in reducing oxidative stress in the eyes; people with cataracts are commonly deficient in riboflavin, and scientists believe that a long term riboflavin deficiency can actually cause cataracts. People taking a riboflavin supplement of 1.6 - 2.2 mg per day were found to have a 31 to 51 percent lower risk of developing cataracts as compared to people consuming 0.8 mg of riboflavin per day.
Niacin, or Vitamin B3, is most commonly recognized for its assistance in converting food, like kale, into energy in our bodies. However, this important vitamin also acts as an antioxidant and can help reduce oxidative stress. Researchers have found a link between niacin deficiency and glaucoma, which is a family of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve; glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. One study found that people with a low dietary intake of niacin are at an increased risk for the development of glaucoma, while an animal study demonstrated the effectiveness of niacin in preventing glaucoma in animals. At very high doses that are not found naturally in the diet, niacin can actually contribute to eye health issues, including macular degeneration and inflammation of the cornea. Therefore, it’s best to consume niacin through whole foods like GEM vitamin, beef, fish, mushrooms, and legumes.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, are vitally important to your overall health, including the health of your brain and heart, but they’re also critical to eye care. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that are believed to help prevent diabetic retinopathy, a condition in which high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in the retina, which can cause vision loss. Researchers reviewing 31 studies found evidence that supports that diets high in oily fish, which are high in Omega-3s, can help protect against diabetic retinopathy. While more research is needed, it does seem that there is a link between fatty acids and diabetic retinopathy. Omega-3s can also help people who suffer from dry eyes and may struggle to produce enough tears to properly lubricate their eyes. In these situations, Omega-3s help stimulate the production of additional tears, which can ease discomfort and help prevent blurry vision.
Thiamine, or Vitamin B1, is best known for helping cells function properly and converting food into energy, but it also has been shown to play a role in eye health. One observational study in Australia found that people who had high levels of thiamin in their diets had a 40 percent lower risk of developing cataracts later in life. In addition to reducing the risk of cataracts, thiamine is also being researched as a possible treatment for early stage diabetic retinopathy. Taking high doses of thiamine three times a day was found to reduce the levels of albumin, an indicator of diabetic retinopathy, in the urine of people with diabetes. More research is still needed, but the early study results are promising.
Many different types of eye health issues and eye disease can be improved or maintained through proper nutrition, including proper amounts of vitamins found to impact eye health. Although some people may need to take a supplement in order to receive the proper nutrition for eye health, the human body is best able to process vitamins and minerals when they are delivered in the form of food. In order to make sure that you maintain optimal eye health, focus on a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, and supplement your diet with a whole food supplement if needed for overall health. While not all forms of eye disease and eye conditions are preventable, some can be stopped or slowed with proper nutrition.
By the Digits
- 3 million: The number of Americans living with glaucoma
- 90%: Percentage of blindness and eye problems caused by diabetes that is preventable
- $145 billion: Annual economic impact of major vision problems among adults 40 years and older in the United States
Did You Know
- Older adults are more likely to suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency.
- Nearly all patients with type 1 diabetes and more than 60 percent of patients with type 2 diabetes will experience diabetic retinopathy during their first two decades of disease.