Got cataracts? You’re in good company. Half of all 75-year-olds have developed this vision-obscuring clouding of the lens in one or both eyes…and by age 85, that percentage jumps to 70%.
Conventional cataract treatment involves surgically replacing the lens of the eye. About four million cataract removals and replacements are performed annually in the US. The success rate is impressive—about 90% of patients see their vision improve.
But not everyone is a candidate for the procedure. Some patients have to wait until other medical conditions have been treated. Co-occurring eye diseases such as macular edema or retinal detachment, heart disease or a history of retinal bleeding may render some people poor surgical candidates. Sometimes medication, including alpha-blockers such as tamsulosin (Flomax) and terazosin (Hytrin) used to treat symptoms of an enlarged prostate, makes someone a poor surgical candidate. And in some cases, the patient just has to wait for the right insurance to come into effect.
Even though complications are rare, risks associated with cataract surgery include swelling, bleeding, light sensitivity, retinal detachment and dry eyes.
Fortunately, there are nutritional and lifestyle changes to help prevent—and possibly reverse—early-stage cataracts. (Surgery is the only treatment for significantly developed cataracts.)
Bottom Line Personal asked holistic eye doctor Marc Grossman, OD, LAc, for his recommendations to improve your cataracts and your surgical outcome…
Strategy #1: Eat an antioxidant-rich diet. After age 40, proteins in the lens begin to break down through a process called oxidation, causing the lens to get cloudy and obscuring vision. Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that slow cellular damage throughout the body, including
in the eyes. This, in turn, may reduce the risk for cataracts.
It’s best to obtain antioxidants from food, not supplements, because produce and other antioxidant-rich items contain healthful substances that work synergistically to boost the antioxidant effect. Caution: Studies have failed to show that antioxidant supplementation prevents cataracts…and there are health risks to overdosing on certain vitamins and minerals. The best eye-friendly nutrients…
Vitamin C. The eyes contain more vitamin C than nearly any other organ in the body—there’s 50 times more vitamin C in the fluid in the eye than in blood. A 2020 study by researchers at The University of Auckland published in Nutrients went so far as to compare the vitamin to sunscreen for the eyes, thanks to its ability to help absorb ultraviolet light—a known cause of cataracts. Best sources: Citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries and tomatoes.
Vitamin E. Some studies show that sufficient vitamin E levels reduce cataract risk…others do not. But we know that a diet with adequate amounts of vitamin E seems to protect cells in the eyes from cellular damage, which may ultimately slow or prevent cataract development. Best sources: Olive oil, avocados, almonds and sunflower seeds.
Zinc. This mineral aids in the production of melanin, a protective pigment in the eyes. (Melanin also is responsible for skin and hair color.) Best sources: Beans, lentils, seeds, eggs, seafood, red meat and dairy.
Lutein and zeaxanthin. This dynamic duo has been well-studied for its potential to lower risk for several chronic eye diseases. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in the retina, particularly in the macula, which is critical for vision. They protect against cellular damage and UV light. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found together in many foods. Best sources: Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, swiss chard), asparagus, broccoli, raspberries, mangoes, peaches and papaya.
Strategy #2: Try a glutathione supplement. Most cataract patients are deficient in the nutrient glutathione, a crucial-for-vision antioxidant that not only protects against oxidation but also helps prevent sugar and protein molecules from binding together in the eye—a contributing factor to cataract formation. A 2017 chemical analysis of both cataract and clear lenses done by researchers at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, and published in International Journal of Ophthalmology, found that cataract lenses contained far less glutathione than healthy lenses. Onions, garlic, leafy greens and cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower can increase glutathione levels, but to reach a level necessary for protection from cataracts, a supplement usually is necessary.
Glutathione is not well-absorbed when taken in capsule or tablet form, so I recommend an oral spray such as ACG Glutathione Extra Strength by Results RNA ($39.99 for two ounces, BlueSkyVitamin.com). Try six sprays in the mouth, twice a day.
In addition, you can take two supplements that, once ingested, act as building blocks for glutathione—N-acetyl cysteine and alpha lipoic acid. Take 600 mg to 1,200 mg of N-acetyl cysteine and 300 mg to 600 mg of alpha lipoic acid a day to gradually build glutathione levels.
Strategy #3: Wear sunglasses. Sunlight’s UVA and UVB rays can have damaging effects on eye health, thinning out the protective pigments and increasing risk for cataracts and other vision disorders. More than 60% of UVA rays and more than 90% of UVB rays are absorbed by the cornea, according to a 2021 Translational Research in Anatomy study.
UV-blocking sunglasses help immensely. Wear them whenever you’re outdoors, even on gray days—UV rays still sneak through the clouds. You may think that darker sunglass lenses offer more protection, but that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, make sure the lenses are labeled “UV 400,” which means they provide close to 100% protection from harmful UV rays. (The 400 refers to the wavelengths of light included.) Best: When trying on sunglasses, ask if you can walk outside the store to see how effective they are in sunlight. Wraparound styles are ideal, considering that about one-third of UV rays sneak in through the tops and sides of standard shades.
Strategy #4: Use cataract-fighting eyedrops. For more than a century, people in India, Europe and South America have used a homeopathic formula incorporating a flowering plant called cineraria to help treat cataracts. Cineraria eyedrops, which contain compounds that help clear and heal the lens, work best in the early stages of cataract formation, though they may help in more moderate stages, too. In my practice, I’ve seen them reverse early cataracts about 25% of the time. Everybody over age 70 could consider using these drops as a preventive—one drop per day. Cineraria is considered safe, but signs of an allergic reaction include itching or hives, swelling in face or hands, swelling or tingling in the mouth or throat and trouble breathing.
N-acetyl carnosine eyedrops are another potent cataract treatment. N-acetyl carnosine is an anti-glycation agent, meaning that it helps break up clumps of protein that collect in the lens, creating cloudy cataracts. Everybody over age 70 could consider using these drops as a preventive—one drop per day.
My protocol below uses cineraria and N-acetyl carnosine drops, plus an anti-inflammatory eyedrop pretreatment called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), which softens eye tissues, making it easier for drugs and nutrients to be absorbed. These products all are available over the counter. (Note: If you are concerned about a sensitivity to sulfur, check with your health-care practitioner before using this protocol.) You can try this on your own or under a doctor’s supervision…
- One to two drops of MSM
- Two drops of cineraria
- Wait 15 minutes or longer
- One to two drops of MSM
- One to two drops of N-acetyl carnosine
Repeat this sequence two or three times a day. You may notice your eyeglass prescription starts to feel off. If your eyesight improves, that is good—it means the cataract is breaking up and more light is coming through your lens, allowing you to see better. If your eyesight gets worse or you don’t notice an improvement in three months, this protocol likely is not going to work for you. As with anything that you put into your eyes, side effects can include stinging/redness, widened pupils and blurred vision, which warrant a call to a doctor or pharmacist.
Strategy #5: Quit smoking. Add cataracts to the long list of ways smoking damages your health. Each cigarette robs the body of 25 mg of vision-protective vitamin C. Smokers also tend to have elevated cholesterol levels and higher body fat levels, both of which increase the risk for severe cardiovascular disease. That, in turn, causes blood vessels in the eye to narrow, starving the eye of vital nutrients. Smokers are two to three times as likely to develop cataracts as nonsmokers.