Many vitamins have important roles in treating or preventing various medical conditions. Just as in science, where a combination of substances can produce a different or stronger effect by working together, so too a combination of vitamins can be more powerful and effective when they work together. This exponential benefit, when the combined effect of two or more substances is greater than their separate effects, is called "synergy".
What are Cataracts?
Cataracts are a clouding condition in the lens of the eye that gradually reduces vision. Cataracts are usually age-related and by the age of 80, half of all adults will either have cataracts or will have had surgery to remove them.
Cataracts usually affect one eye more than the other but they do not spread and cannot be "caught" like an infection. Instead they gradually develop and require the lens to be replaced with an artificial intraocular lens under a simple surgical procedure.
The risk of developing cataracts is higher if you smoke, expose your eyes to bright sunlight or are diabetic. Some of these risks can be controlled or prevented but studies show you can also lessen your chance of getting a cataract by eating certain vitamins.
C is for Cataract!
Vitamin C has been shown to prevent or slow the progression of cataracts, along with vitamin E. As our levels of these vitamins decline with age, it’s important to take them either through diet or supplements. Research has shown that people with a diet high both in these vitamins have a lower risk of cataracts and other vision problems, suggesting these vitamins work synergistically together for good eye health.
Vitamin C is found in many fruits including oranges, blueberries, papaya, guava, strawberries, sweet peppers and spinach. Good sources of vitamin E are almonds, sunflower seeds, broccoli, peanuts, tomatoes and similarly in spinach and blueberries. Both these vitamins are high in antioxidants that neutralize free radicals in the body and help reduce oxidative stress.
Other vitamins that have been found to be effective against cataracts include thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3). What is most interesting is that it is a combination of these vitamins that appear to be most effective in preventing or slowing the rate of cataracts, suggesting they work in synergy for maximum effect.
Studies on Cataracts and Vitamin Intake
A study by Professor Paul Jacques at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University was held on 112 older patients. The study found that 77 of them had cataracts while 35 did not. However, those with low levels of vitamin C were 11 times more likely to have a cataract than those with higher levels. In fact, the highest concentration of vitamin C in the body is found in the eye and it appears to be a protective agent on eye health. Jacques' study also found that those who ate less than 3.5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day were 13 times more likely to develop cataracts.
A Nurses Health Study in the U.S. found that women who regularly ate vegetables, fresh fruit and whole grains (i.e. a diet high in antioxidants including vitamins C and E) were half as likely to develop cataracts as those who ate less healthily. However, when the study gave patients vitamin supplements, they did not appear to have the same beneficial effect on arresting cataract development. This may be because getting vitamins from your diet means they can act in synergy with other vitamins and nutrients, making them more effective.
Although no single vitamin is a magic "cure" for cataracts, one thing is for sure, getting a range of vitamins B, C and E from your 5-portions-a-day diet appears to reduce the quantity and severity of cataracts, and it certainly won't do you any harm at all!