Nutritional Supplements for Macular Degeneration

ipoh echo issue 140, Dr Lee Mun Wai, Lee Eye Centre, Stem Cells in Retinal Disease

Dr Lee Mun Wai

Eye Chat – From A Retinal Surgeon’s Perspective

Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in developed nations. A lot of research has been carried out to identify the cause and possible risk factors for AMD and as with many other diseases, the development of AMD is a consequence of the interplay between genetic and environmental factors.

There is of course little we can do to alter our genetic makeup (for now) but the identification of different genes associated with this disease only allows further development of therapeutic options in the future. Environmental influences such as smoking and diet have also been strongly linked with AMD, and unlike our genes, we can directly impact on the disease by changing our behaviour or habits.

The identification of specific nutrients which may be beneficial for AMD came from the Age Related Eye Diseases Study (AREDS). From this study, the importance of anti-oxidants and zinc in preventing the progression of AMD was discovered.

Dr Lee Mun WaiWhat are Anti-oxidants?

To understand how anti-oxidants are beneficial, one must first understand how our body works. Our body’s cells are constantly at work and particularly in our eyes (where the photo transduction process which converts light into electrical impulses uses large amounts of energy), a lot of free radicals are generated. These free radicals are reactive oxygen particles and can be damaging to our cells. Anti-oxidants in effect ‘neutralise’ these oxygen particles and prevent further damage.

Anti-oxidants which were found to be beneficial for AMD are Vitamins A (beta-carotene), C and E and zinc. The study showed beneficial effects of these anti-oxidants only in individuals at high risk of developing advanced AMD – there was a risk reduction of 25% in these individuals. In people with no AMD or early AMD however, there was no apparent benefit.

The AREDS Formulation

As a result of the findings of this study, there have been a flood of these ‘eye supplements’ into the market since 2001. The formulation used in the study was 500mg of Vitamin C, 400 IU of Vitamin E, 15mg of beta-carotene, 80mg of zinc and 2mg of copper (copper was added to prevent copper deficiency which could be associated with high doses of zinc supplementation). With aggressive marketing from the pharmaceutical companies, many consumers have started using these supplements ‘to protect their eyes’!

I’ve been asked by many of my patients about taking different varieties of supplements and my advice to them is always to look at the evidence. As a doctor, I can only base my recommendations on scientific evidence and strong scientific evidence can only be achieved by doing very large controlled trials. There are always claims by companies selling these supplements about the “proven” effects of their product. Even the scientific journals which I read can sometimes be misleading – it is therefore important that we be cautious about information we read or hear about.

As for the AREDS formulation, it is indeed an important addition to our armamentarium for the battle against AMD but we must be mindful that it is currently proven to be beneficial only to people at high risk of developing advanced AMD. Moreover, smokers who take the AREDS formulation may be at increased risk of lung cancer due to the interaction with beta-carotene so my advice would be to discuss with your physician before ‘popping more pills’.

Other Nutrients?

You may have read about other substances with potential benefits to the eye such as lutein or zeaxanthin and omega fatty acids. There is currently an ongoing AREDS 2 study which will investigate the impact of these other supplements on AMD and more definite information will be available in the next 1 to 2 years.I shall write more about lutein, zeaxanthin and omega fatty acids in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, “pop by” to read my blog at for the latest on eye diseases and eye care tips.

For more information about this topic or other eye health subjects, call Lee Eye Centre: 05-254 0095.

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