Cataracts

Cataracts: Overview

A cataract is a clouding of the eye's natural lens, which lies behind the iris and the pupil.  It is the most common cause of vision loss in people over the age of 40, and the main cause of blindness.

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The lens is a clear tissue located behind the pupil, which is the dark circular opening in the middle of the iris (colored part of the eye).  The lens works with the transparent cornea, which covers the eye's surface, to focus light on the retina at the back of the eye.  When the lens becomes cloudy due to a cataract, light cannot pass to the retina properly, and vision is blurred and decreased.

Incidence; Causes and Development

More than half of people over age 65 have some degree of cataract development.

Although cataracts can result from many conditions, the most frequent cause is the natural aging process.  Other causes may include injury, chronic eye disease, and other system-wide diseases such as diabetes.

A normal eye lens and an eye lens with cataract focusing light
A normal lens (left) focuses all light accurately on back of eye; lens with cataract (right) focuses only some light, poorly

Cataracts can take from a few months to several years to develop.  Sometimes the cataract stops developing in its early stages, and vision is only slightly decreased.  If it continues to develop, vision is impaired and treatment is necessary.

During cataract formation the normal protective mechanisms are unable to prevent free radical damage.  The lens, like many other tissues of the body, is dependent on adequate levels and activities of superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, glutathione (GSH), and adequate levels of the accessory antioxidants vitamins E and C and selenium, to help prevent free radical damage.

Treatment and Prevention

Many holistic doctors believe that the progression of early cataracts can be stopped.  Antioxidant vitamins, minerals and herbs have been shown by clinical studies to be effective in preventing cataracts when detected early.  At least 30 nutrients are beneficial in strengthening the integrity of eye tissue.

Slight cloudiness of the lens is a normal part of aging, and for those with early symptoms of cataract, eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses can help.

For those with more advanced cataracts and vision that is significantly affected by cloudiness, everyday tasks become difficult to perform.  In such cases, surgery is the only effective treatment; cataract surgery is one of the most common operations performed.  The eye surgeon will make a tiny incision in the affected eye, remove the lens, and insert an intraocular implant (small plastic lens) in its place.  The operation normally takes 30 to 45 minutes and is carried out as an outpatient procedure under local anesthetic, meaning the patient can usually go home the same day.  An eye patch is worn for 24 hours after surgery to protect the eye as it heals.

Prognosis; Complications

Over 95% of those who have had cataract surgery report significant improvement in their vision.  Most people need to wear glasses for near and/or distance vision after cataract surgery because artificial lens implants cannot focus at a range of different distances.

Untreated cataracts can lead to permanent blindness.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Cataracts:

Symptoms - Head - Eyes/Ocular

Conditions that suggest Cataracts:

Eyes / Ocular

Night Blindness

Cataracts, characterized by cloudiness of the lens, can cause night blindness.

Symptoms - Head - Eyes/Ocular

Risk factors for Cataracts:

Aging

Musculo-Skeletal

Skin-Hair-Nails

Supplements, Medications, Drugs

Counter-indicators
Much/some B-complex supplementation

Several studies have found that long-term use of B vitamin supplements, along with vitamins A, C, and E, and carotenoids (particularly lutein and zeaxanthin), reduces the risk of developing cataracts.

Symptoms - Glandular

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Cataracts suggests the following may be present:

Aging

Recommendations for Cataracts:

Amino Acid / Protein

Carnosine

N-Acetyl-Carnosine (NAC) eye drops have been shown to delay vision senescence in humans, being effective in 100% of cases of primary senile cataract and 80% of cases of mature senile cataract.  [Biochemistry (Moscow).  2000; 65(7): pp.869-71]

These are remarkable results considering that the best that could normally be expected would be a slight improvement, a halt to the progression and under normal circumstances a worsening of the disease.  Importantly, it was also noted that there were no side-effects noted in any of the cases.

CAUTION: It is only N-acetylcarnosine that has been clinically proven as suitable for eye use.  Other forms of carnosine, such as L-carnosine should not be used topically in the eye.  L-Carnosine releases the toxic compound, histamine, which can severely promote oxidation reactions.  NAC appears to penetrate through the cornea more gradually, thus maintaining a longer active therapeutic concentration of L-Carnosine in the aqueous humor and the lens of the treated eye.

Botanical / Herbal

Senecio cineraria

Cineraria Maritima is FDA approved in cataracts and has approximately a 20% success rate.  One Naturopath, using other nutrients, claims to get a 50% response rate.

Drug

Conventional Drug Use

A Japanese drug, phenoxazine carboxylic acid (Catalin), has been shown to be effective in inhibiting, as well as reversing, cataract formation.

Invasive / Surgery

Surgery

It is a widely held belief that surgery to remove the diseased lens is the only effective treatment for cataracts.  In cases of marked vision impairment, cataract removal and lens implant may be the only alternative.  Cataract surgery is now a frequently performed operation in most parts of the world.  More than one million cataract procedures are performed every year, and in the majority of those cases, the diseased tissue is replaced with an artificial device known as an intraocular lens implant.

Supplements

Alpha Lipoic Acid

It has been reported that lipoic acid has been shown to be helpful for cataracts.  Some doctors caution that with a high body level for mercury, you risk moving mercury INTO the lens and brain rather than out, so lipoic acid should only be used if mercury levels are known to be low.

Preventive measures against Cataracts:

Diet

Plant-Based Nutrition

In a study of nurses who ate spinach or other leafy greens at least 5 times a week, it was found they had a 47-65% lower risk of cataracts.

Increased Fruit/Vegetable Consumption

People with low blood levels of antioxidants and those who eat few antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables have been reported to be at high risk for cataracts.

Some – but not all – studies have reported that eating more fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene was associated with a lower risk of cataracts.  It remains unclear whether natural beta-carotene from food or supplements would protect the eye or whether beta-carotene in food is merely a marker for other protective factors in fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene.

Mineral

Supplements

Antioxidants

The risk of cataracts may be reduced by long term use of a daily multivitamin, recent study findings suggest.  Researchers found that individuals who took a multivitamin or a supplement that contained vitamins C or E for more than 10 years had a 60% lower risk of developing a cataract, regardless of other risk factors.  [Archives of Ophthalmology November, 2000;118: pp.1556-1563]

Vitamins

Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)

Several experimental and epidemiologic studies have shown that long-term consumption of vitamin C supplements may substantially reduce the development of age-related lens opacities.  [Am J Clin Nutr, 1997 Oct, 66:4, pp.911-6]

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