Cataract and Nutrition

Everyone knows that cataracts can be corrected by surgery, but how many know about cataract and nutrition?

The connection between cataract and nutrition is that the cells at the "equator" of the eye have to grow faster because they have to cover the greatest area of the eye. These cells in the lens of the eye are especially susceptible to injury by the ultraviolet rays of the sun, smoking, and antioxidant deficiencies.

By age 60, and sometimes even sooner, the cumulative effects of free radical damage can cause the proteins in the lens to coagulate into a pattern like the points of a star. Eventually the stars merge to form a cataract that interferes with sight.

Vitamins generally prevent cataracts, but one of the under appreciated facts about cataract and nutrition is that excessive consumption of vitamin D supplements actually accelerates the formation of cataracts.

The most frequent preventable predisposing factor to cataract formation is deficiency of the antioxidant vitamins C and E

The reason vitamins C and E are important for preventing cataracts is that the eye needs them to make its supply of the antioxidant glutathione. When the concentrations of glutathione in the lens fall below a critical level, the proteins of the lens are no longer able to heal themselves after exposure to UV radiation, and they form the previously mentioned star patterns.

There is a lot of evidence from medical research that taking vitamins C and E, preferably taking them together, prevents cataracts. If you take just vitamin E, you get protection against the formation of cortical cataracts (the cataracts causing trouble driving at night and distortion of color) but not against nuclear cataracts (the cataracts causing nearsightedness).

Taking vitamin C with your vitamin E reduces the risk of getting any cataracts at all by 70 per cent, but the effects of these protective vitamins are cumulative. The more years you take them, the more you are protected.

An important cofactor for C and E is selenium. People who develop cataracts have lower bloodstream concentrations of selenium than people who do not.

Also as easy as taking vitamins C and E is making the changes in diet that prevent cataracts. A European study of cataract and nutrition found that the people who ate the most cabbage, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and melon were the least likely to have to have cataract surgery.

An American study, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, found that men who eat the most broccoli and spinach have the fewest cataracts. The Nurses' Health Study found that women who consumed the greatest amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, found in tomatoes and sweet corn as well as egg yolk, had a 22 per cent lower risk of needing cataract surgery compared with the women who ate the least.

Certain other nutrients have specialized applications. The B-vitamin riboflavin seems to protect against nuclear cataracts, the kind of cataracts that causes nearsightedness before other symptoms. And while antioxidants like C, E, and selenium are useful in preventing cataracts, the herb bilberry may stop the progression of cataracts.

In a study of 50 patients with age-related cataracts, a daily supplement combining bilberry and vitamin E taken for 4 months stopped the progression of cataracts in 24 out of 25 patients.

Here are some other hints about cataract and nutrition

If you drink alcohol, drink moderately. One drink a day seems to lower the risk of developing cataracts by about 50 per cent, but drinking no alcohol at all, or drinking more than 2 drinks a day, seems to raise the risk of cataracts by nearly 100 per cent.

Most people in the US and Canada get riboflavin from fortified bread and bakery goods, but you should take 3 mg of riboflavin and 40 mg of niacin every day if you take any of the following prescription drugs:

  • Chemotherapy with doxyrubicin (Adriamycin)
  • Antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil) or imipramine (Tofranil)
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications such as:
  • Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • Cholestyramine or colestipol (LoCholest or Questran)
  • Lovastatin (Mevacor)
  • Pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • Simvastatin (Zocor)
  • Metoclopramide (Mexalon or Reglan) for nausea and vomiting, or
  • Oral contraceptives (the Pill) for any purpose
  • You should also avail yourself of supplemental riboflavin and niacin if you are over the age of 60 and you take Cholestin (red yeast rice) for high cholesterol, or if you take psyllium fiber products such as Metamucil for regularity.


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