You might call it visionary—literally. More and more people are focusing on eye health, and some are turning their sights toward alternative therapies. It’s a trend that’s growing, and omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA as well as other nutrients like lutein, zeaxanthin and astaxanthin are at the center of it.
Harry Rice, Ph. D., serves as vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED). It’s a not-for-profit association aiming to educate consumers about the health benefits of omega-3s. Concerning omega-3s and eye health, Rice says, “In the last year, the body of evidence continued to grow in the areas of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Dry-Eye Syndrome (DES)/Dry-Eye Disease (DED).”
It may be a good thing that the body of evidence continues to grow, too. AMD used to affect mostly those over 75, but now it affects one-third of adults over the age of 40. It may affect even younger eyes as they are subjected to stress and fatigue on a daily basis from computers, smart phones and other technology. The trend is that AMD is scaling younger and younger and, unfortunately, it can destroy sharp, central vision which is necessary for seeing objects clearly and for driving and reading. In fact, the American Optometric Association (AOA) reports that “computer-vision syndrome” affects more than 70 percent of the 143 million Americans who work on a computer daily.
Interestingly, a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology yielded positive results concerning fish, omega-3s and AMD. The study’s researchers concluded, “These prospective data from a large cohort of female health professionals without a diagnosis of AMD at baseline indicate that regular consumption of DHA, EPA and fish was associated with a significantly decreased risk of incident AMD [a 35 percent to 45 percent decreased risk] and may be of benefit in primary prevention of AMD.”
While the study’s authors aren’t definitively associating a reduced risk of AMD with increased omega-3 fatty acid intake, they do say the evidence may warrant a clinical study. Rice agrees. “While the results are promising, such findings need to be confirmed in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials. It’s interesting to note that in the last year, six reviews have been published in peer-reviewed journals on the ocular benefits of omega 3s for eye health. Clearly, this is an area of research that is receiving a great deal of attention. In the coming years, we will likely see the publication of many studies in this area,” he said.
With DES and DED, however, the tear glands produce fewer tears. The journal Cornea featured promising results from a pilot trial of dry eye patients taking a supplement blend of medical grade omega-3 oils, including EPA , DHA and flaxseed oil. Trial participants demonstrated a reduction in dry eye symptoms and an increase in tear volume and tear flow. Two other well-publicized clinical studies in early 2011 demonstrated similar results, according to Rice.
Natural means to eye health is taking hold, too. The Natural Marketing Institute’s Health & Wellness Trends Database (HWTD) says there’s a growing consumer interest in using natural solutions to support eye health. They say about 71 percent of consumers polled are concerned “a lot” about preventing vision/eye health problems. Likewise, 27 percent of consumers say that they or someone else in their household is actively managing eye health. Those numbers are playing out in the market, too. For example, retail sales of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (fish oil concentrate) supplements targeted at eye health totaled more than $64 million for the 52 weeks ending February 19, 2011—an increase of 8 percent over the same period a year ago.
Let’s not forget about the eye-healthy nutrient lutein. Lutein—an antioxidant carotenoid—supports healthy vision by neutralizing free radicals and increasing the density of eye pigment, which shields the eyes from sunlight’s damaging effects. The power seems to be in partnering these eye-healthy nutrients, though. For example, lutein and zeaxanthin—another antioxidant carotenoid—accumulate in the macula to filter out damaging blue light to protect visual receptors and improve visual performance. Lutein and DHA also pair up to function in the retina by preventing damage from light and oxidation by free radicals. And remember, the DHA, EPA and fish “trilogy” correlates to a 35 percent to 45 percent lower risk of AMA—as evidenced in the Archives of Ophthalmology study.
Likewise, the antioxidant carotenoid astaxanthin plays a role in eye health. It crosses the blood-brain/blood-retina barrier and settles into the macula to reduce light-induced oxidative stress—which is known to damage cells and cellular mechanisms. Astaxanthin also is known to benefit eye fatigue by supporting visual acuity, improved endurance and performance of the tiny muscles in the eye. You can find this powerful antioxidant carotenoid teaming up with other eye-healthy nutrients, too.
If you’re setting your sights on eye health, then keep your eyes peeled for these eye-healthy nutrients. They’re truly visionary!