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The Role of Nutrition in Macular Degeneration

May 2004

By Dennis L. Gierhard, PhD

LE Magazine May 2004
The Role of Nutrition in Macular Degeneration
By Dennis L. Gierhard, PhD

Summary and Prediction
Zeaxanthin is one of the newest antioxidants and has always been a naturally occurring component of the human diet.

A plausible theory is put forward to support others’ speculation that zeaxanthin may be a “critically essential nutrient” for proper eye function and protection.3 This theory suggests a need to change behaviors and increase dietary consumption of fruits and vegetables to decrease age-related degeneration of the eye. Some evidence suggests it may be more difficult to obtain higher levels of zeaxanthin from the diet than of lutein, indicating that supplementation may be desirable. There is good evidence that zeaxanthin is preferred by ocular tissues because it has unique properties and subtle structural differences compared to lutein that make it a better lipophilic antioxidant and photoprotectant.

Dietary supplementation with 3-6 mg/day of zeaxanthin may reduce the risk of contracting degenerative eye diseases. Significantly higher dietary intake of zeaxanthin (not the isomer meso-zeaxanthin) may be important for individuals with high risks for or advanced symptoms of macular degeneration and cataracts. Other health benefits associated with zeaxanthin also have been noted.

In the near future, we can expect more basic research, animal studies, and objective double-blind clinical trials attempting to clearly define zeaxanthin’s importance in degenerative eye diseases. It is likely that high intake of dietary antioxidants and zeaxanthin will be shown to be a factor in reducing the risk and slowing the progression of degenerative eye diseases. Other important phytonutrients are also likely to act synergistically with zeaxanthin in slowing the aging effects in the eye. As science elucidates the most important degenerative mechanisms and genetics shines its light on inheritance issues and mechanisms, supplements will be on the market to address these needs. Looking out a little further in the future, it is likely that cataract prevalence and progression will benefit from combined research on zeaxanthin and advances in the nutritional biochemistry of the eye.33 This advance could have a positive economic impact on growing Medicare expenditures tied to degenerative eye disease. Perhaps the same impact will be seen concerning diabetic complications of the eye and macular degeneration. With nearly 15 million dry macular degeneration sufferers in the US today and more on the way, a decreased incidence and progression rate would be welcome.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are developing cold laser and angiogenesis inhibitors for treating the ravaging effects of wet macular degeneration.35 Almost all these treatments target single molecules or single pathways to prevent or destroy unwanted blood vessels. While zeaxanthin may be the single most critical nutrient for the eye, its value will most likely be in conjunction with high dietary intake of multiple nutrients. Eventually there will be a convergence of nutritional intervention (to prevent and modulate early insults and stresses of the eye) and sophisticated medical treatments (for very late and aggressive blood vessel growth of wet macular degeneration).

Future generations will be able to see those important things in life. In the meantime, you can eat healthy (lots of fruits and vegetables, decreased fats, and increased fish oil), increase your dietary intake of zeaxanthin and other antioxidants, stop smoking, lose those extra pounds, watch your risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and protect your eyes when in the sun.

About the Author
Dr. Gierhart received his BS and MS degrees from Ohio State University in 1973 and 1974, and earned his PhD in Food and Industrial Microbiology from Cornell University in 1978. Before founding ZeaVision, Dr. Gierhart was founder and president of Applied Food Biotechnology, Inc., a food/feed ingredient company. Before founding Applied Food Biotechnology, Dr. Gierhart directed corporate research programs for two Fortune 500 food companies.


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