Cataracts: inevitable or avoidable?

By Robert Abel, Jr., M.D.

The lens of the eye focuses light from objects onto the retina. The lens pushes the old focusing fibers into the center, causing haziness or a film. Because the lens has neither nerves nor blood vessels, it depends on the internal flow of fluid inside the eye (aqueous humor) to provide oxygen and nutrients, and to remove toxic products.

The lens focuses light constantly, from distant objects to near objects. Some of the light wavelengths, such as ultraviolet light, are especially toxic. UV light creates more free radicals, which will accelerate the clouding of the lens over the years. Any clouding of the lens is a cataract (not cataracts). A cataract may be central (called nuclear); peripheral (on younger fibers near the outer edge of the lens); or sub-capsular (at the very front or very back of the lens).

The number one cause of blindness in the world is cataracts, and it is preventable, as well as treatable.

Symptoms of cataracts include hazy vision, glare, difficulty focusing on the printed page, rapid eye fatigue, even double vision. Some people will develop second sight, meaning, that as they grow older, they may see better without their glasses, because the cataract is actually changing the prescription of the eye. Always check to see if your glasses can be improved.

We're led to believe that everyone will develop cataracts. That is not true. We also are told that once you have them they get worse. That is usually true, but only because people continue the same lifestyle and habits which lead to the formation of cataracts in the first place. However, you can use nutrition and lifestyle changes to stop and even reverse cataracts.

Ask your eye doctor if he or she has ever seen a patient whose cataracts have stopped. I know they have. Yet doctors often tell people nothing will stop cataracts. This is often not true.

Let's take a look at the causes and treatment of cataracts.

  • Sunlight, especially UV light, is a major cause, especially if your body has a low antioxidant bank account. So ask for UV blockers in your sunglasses but also in your glasses.

  • Dehydration can hasten the development of cataracts. Drink six to eight glasses of water per day to combat this. Sodas, iced tea and coffee do not fulfill this requirement.

  • Keep alcohol use to moderate amounts of red or white wine.

  • Heredity and age are also factors, but ones that we cannot do much about, except to focus on other lifestyle changes.

  • Smoking and second-hand smoke are known factors of many ailments. This is beyond argument. STOP smoking, and avoid smoky environments.

  • Obesity has been identified in recent studies as a factor in the development of cataracts. Develop a diet and exercise program to combat obesity. Limit sugar intake, eat lots of raw vegetables and salads, and drink lots of water to satisfy your hunger.

  • Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis (and the medications that go with them) can contribute to the formation of cataracts. For example, cholesterol-lowering drugs frequently speed up the formation of cataracts by virtue of their effect on the liver. Cortisone, used in arthritis and lung disease treatment, will also create cataracts with longterm use. Ask your doctor if your dose can be decreased or eliminated, or if there are any other natural means of controlling or treating these conditions.

  • There are more than 300 commonly prescribed medications that speed up cataract formation when coupled with sunlight exposure. Ask your pharmacist about your medication. Wear your sunglasses to eliminate this possibility so you don't have to discontinue necessary medications.

  • Estrogen apparently has a protective effect. Studies show women are almost twice as likely as men to develop cataracts after the age of 50. We are still waiting for a better designer estrogen that can give us the good effects without increasing the chance of breast or uterine cancer.

  • Protect against injuries, at home, play or in the workplace. Remember children's safety, and select their toys wisely.

Symptoms should determine whether cataract surgery is necessary and not just the physician's judgment alone. You need a good examination with a refraction. Remember that the refraction is not paid for under many medical insurance policies, but a refraction is the only way to learn if glasses will improve your vision. I have found nine out of 10 people can be improved at distance or near. Sometimes that is not enough and surgery is necessary.

If you do have to have surgery, modern cataract surgical procedures are excellent. Eyedrops are used as anesthetics, and rarely are any stitches needed. It is performed with high-speed sound. We do not do surgery yet with a laser, but we do use a laser to open an after-cataract membrane. In 20 to 30 percent of cases this membrane will develop over the years.

Surgery, however, is not the only remedy, especially if your only problem is glare around headlights at night. Some of these other items I have found very useful:

  • Diet and exercise: All new adventures in health start with diet and exercise. Drink plenty of water, have 30 minutes of exercise a day. Reduce the bad fats, alcohol, smoking, refined sugars and antacids.

  • Supplements: I recommend a multivitamin with lutein twice daily, and a B complex (such as B 50) is useful. Also useful is an essential fatty acid, such as DHA 500 mg taken twice daily with meals, unless you are on blood thinners. Vitamin A is probably in your multivitamin, but additional vitamin E may be necessary to bring you up to 400 to 800 IU a day. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant in the lens, and should be supplemented by at least 1000 mg a day.

  • Sulfur: Glutathione is a major antioxidant in the lens. It can be augmented by taking sulfur-containing foods such as onions, avocados, eggs, asparagus or garlic. N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) contains sulfur. NAC can be used as a supplement, but occurs naturally in red meat (organic, preferably.) Six hundred mg of NAC once or twice a day is an excellent glutathione booster, as is Alpha-Lipioc Acid, MSM (methanylsulfonylmethane). Even wine has sulfur, which is used as a natural control of fermentation. It may soon be shown that wine decreases the incidence of cataracts as well as macular degeneration.

  • Quercitin: A bioflavinoid, found in red onions and other fruits and vegetables. It is able to stop cataracts induced by diabetes, cortisone or radiation in laboratory animals. Therefore, it should be added to your diet. Tumeric, a common kitchen spice, has been used in Asia to prevent cataracts.

  • Drug inventory: Check your medications and go over them with your pharmacist to see if any of them are photosensitizing drugs.

  • Get enough sleep: Nighttime (darkness) is when your eyes get a chance to rest and to heal. They have een bombarded by light and the formation of free radicals all day, and this is the opportunity for the liver and other parts of the body to send the necessary antioxidants and minerals to replenish the tissues of the eyes.

A number of experimental options are being evaluated because the cataract epidemic is global. Pyruvate, a substance produced by the breakdown of glucose, and several Indian herbs are receiving much interest. As soon as there is clinical information about safety and usefulness for cataract treatment, it will appear on this site.

Find a way to check your own vision, in your house, or in your yard, or by reading, and then check it periodically. Do not take medications if not necessary. If your only problem is a decrease in night vision, try bilberry, 100 mg in the evening, before dark. Or, if you are not diabetic, eat fresh or frozen blueberries. And by the way, keep using your eyes.

Eye Advisory, Inc.
3501 Silverside Road, Wilmington, DE 19810

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