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Correcting Oversights in Vision Health

Vision has traditionally been an area where little proactive measures are taken to ensure optimal health. The first sign of a visual impairment is most often to treat it with prescriptive lenses and as vision continues to decline the response is to then strengthen the prescription. While this does offer a temporary solution, it does not address the underlying causes of the condition, leaving the eyes to suffer the consequences of this neglect.

And unfortunately for us, our everyday living often presents numerous factors that can cause declining vision. According to Bradley West, ND research advisor with Nordic Naturals (Watsonville, CA), they include sun, pollution, genetics, smoking, a high body mass index and poor nutrient intake. “All of these factors—aside from genetics—are creators of free radicals,” said West. “Free radical damage occurs throughout the body and can also cause damage to the fragile cells in your eyes. Free radicals can contribute to the onset of vision problems i.e., cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).”

Our everyday living also contributes to this deterioration, as in many cases what we do out of necessity, such as driving, prolonged computer use and other tasks requiring a fixed focus for extended periods of time, are of great detriment to our eyes.

To counter this growing debilitation, supplements are continuing to emerge that not only provide much needed antioxidants, but also the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in the retina that are easily damaged by free radicals. “Nutritional factors play an enormous role in the prevention and treatment of the leading causes of impaired vision in North America,” said Michael T. Murray, ND, director of product development and education for Natural Factors (Everett, WA). “Special dietary supplements are essential in maintaining eye health, preventing diseases and improving visual function when the conditions develop.”

The recognition of supplements is beginning to grow not just with supplement manufacturers but the medical community as well. “Many general practitioners and eye care specialists are also embracing the research supporting supplemental ingredients for prevention of AMD and cataracts,” explained Marci Clow, senior director of product research for Rainbow Light (Santa Cruz, CA), manufacturer of the Vision One™ Multivitamin.

With eye health supplements now in place and science firmly supporting its usage, the next step is to break through to consumers, who, overall, are proving to be not as concerned about addressing vision health with supplementation. This was brought home by the findings of Euromonitor International that among US consumers, eye health did not rank higher than number eight out of the dietary supplement markets studied from 2006-2008, ending at under 3.5 percent of the total sales in 2008.

To help change this lack of mainstream awareness, an understanding of how the eye functions and its specific nutritional needs is key in explaining to consumers just what they stand to gain from incorporating vision health supplements into their daily regimen.

An Intricate Organ

For a process that seems instantaneous, there are actually several steps involved in bringing what we experience as sight to fruition. From the beginning, light passes through the cornea and the lens of the eye, and is further focused into the retina, which contains the macula that is responsible for giving us color and fine detail. Once striking the retina, many chemical and electrical events are initiated and ultimately trigger nerve impulses. These impulses are sent to various visual centers of the brain through the fibers of the optic nerve.

Each visual component is threatened by key debilitating conditions: corneal dystrophy and cataracts cloud the eye’s cornea and lens respectively; diabetic retinopathy damages the blood vessels in the retina; AMD affects the macula gradually destroying sharp, central vision; and glaucoma increases fluid pressure inside the eye and leads to optic nerve damage.

Added to that list, another condition currently wreacking havoc on vision health is eye fatigue. “[Eye fatigue] is virtually untapped by either OTC or nutritional remedies, but is a rapidly growing health concern resulting from the explosive use of computers, iPods, texting devices and the like,” said Charles DePrince, president of Fuji Health Science, Inc. (Burlington, NJ).

There are a number of nutrients that can offer our eyes just what they need to fend off disease causing free radicals. Two of the most important are the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. Found throughout the eye, but most abundantly in the macula, these two antioxidants are sometimes referred to as “nature’s sunglasses” since they shield up to 40 percent of UV rays to help maintain ocular health.

Other beneficial nutrients for our eyes include the antioxidant vitamins A (as beta-carotene), C and E, as well as the mineral zinc to help support macula and retinal health, the amino acid taurine to stabilize membranes and protects against free radicals, and the botanical bilberry to act as a potent antioxidant that may even improve blood flow to the eyes.

Also essential to eye health are polyunsaturated fatty acids, like DHA, which comprise the retina. “These fatty acids are unstable structures that when exposed to free radicals can be easily damaged,” said West. “Thus, [our eyes] need a constant supply of antioxidants with the carotenoids as the primary ones, and a base structure with adequate DHA.”

Supplements for Sore Eyes

Utilizing many of the nutrients essential for optimal vision is an assortment of supplements on the market that address the problems at their source. One such product is J.R. Carlson Laboratories, Inc.’s (Arlington Heights, IL) Able Eyes. While the company has created several eye care products that promote healthy vision, Able Eyes has been the most popular supplement according to Carilyn Anderson, sales and marketing executive. This comprehensive supplement contains vitamins A, C, D and E, the minerals magnesium and zinc, nutrients DHA, lutein, zeaxanthin and more. “Able Eyes is scientifically formulated for nutritional support and antioxidant protection for every part of your eye,” added Anderson. “Our customers are pleased that they are able to promote healthy vision in a natural way.”

Offering three key ingredients now being studied in the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) 2 is Nordic Naturals’ Ultimate DHA Eye. AREDS 2 is a major clinical trial sponsored by the National Eye Institute (NEI) and is designed to, among other purposes, evaluate the effect of high doses of antioxidants and zinc on the progression of AMD and cataracts. Ultimate DHA Eye consists of purified fish oil high in DHA combined with lutein and zeaxanthin.

Vicky Thompson, supplement manager with Sunny Bridge Natural Foods in McMurray, PA, has found Ultimate DHA to directly connect with the concerns of her customers. “People like Ultimate DHA because it has the ingredients they’re looking for: DHA, lutein and zeaxanthin,” she said. “They’re also beginning to understand that antioxidants and DHA are not only good for the heart, but that they affect other parts of the body as well.”

Another key antioxidant growing in the vision health category is astaxanthin, which Fuji Health Science utilizes in its AstaVision Tired Eye Relief. The AstaReal astaxanthin contained in the supplement has been shown in 10 human clinicals sponsored by Fuji Chemical to be effective in reducing the condition of eye fatigue. The astaxanthin is harvested from the deep red microalgae known as Haematococcus pluvialis, which is an alga that changes from green to red as a result of being exposed to intense sunlight. This bright red astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant that protects the algae from UV radiation, allowing it to survive harsh conditions.

When at work in the body, the basis behind the astaxanthin’s effectiveness, said DePrince, is its ability to scavenge singlet oxygen resulting from excess muscular activity protecting the cell wall, mitochondria and DNA from oxidative attack.

Staying Sharp

One of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of the widespread usage of vision supplements is that most consumers do not think to take supplements until they have a specific eye problem, when, in truth, these supplements are for prevention as well as for use when there is a chronic or deteriorating eye health problem, said West.

“Retailers should encourage staff to bring up eye health as a part of overall health and wellness,” he continued. “Inquiring about familial history of eye health issues and recent changes is a way to increase awareness and educate the customer about the importance of this topic. Most eye disorders are preventable with a good diet and lifestyle choices as well as by taking additional supplementation to ensure antioxidant and DHA levels are adequate.”

One way for retailers to get the word out is to host an Eye Health Day in their stores to promote natural treatments in place of OTC and prescription medications. These in-store occasions could coincide with a number of recognized months for eye health, including Healthy Vision Month (May), Eye Injury Prevention Month (October), as well Eye Health and Safety Month for Women (April) and Children (August), in order to help bring the message home.

For retailer Thompson, a challenge for this market will be bringing the category from one that is primarily supported by the elderly population to a much wider audience. “Right now, older generations are far more concerned about their eye health due to conditions like AMD and cataracts. They come in on their own asking because they are more aware there are things they can do to prevent these conditions,” she said. “But we need to get more interest in younger age groups so they realize how important supplements are for eye health.”

Thompson recommended retailers make sure their staff explains to consumers of all ages, particularly those they spot wearing glasses, that eye health problems start when they are younger and should be addressed as soon as possible. “We need to let them know that supplements can help prevent further damage,” she said. “Overall, consumers are starting to pick up on it.”

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