Herbs and Supplements Often Recommended for Eye Health: Do They Work?

  • BY Lainie Petersen

If you’ve ever hung out in a health food store or in the vitamin section of your local drugstore, you’ve probably vitamin or herbal supplements marketed as good for “eye health,” and you may wonder if they are worth buying. Unfortunately, many of these supplements haven’t been proven to actually benefit your eyes or vision, although they may contain antioxidants or nutrients that benefit your general health.
(If you still want to try eye supplements, try an all-in-one eye care supplements that include multiple ingredients. It’ll save you money and the hassle of popping a dozen pills each day.)

Here are a few common ingredients in eye care supplements:

Vitamin A and Beta Carotene: For many years, people touted eating carrots as a way to improve eyesight, noting that nobody every sees carrot-loving rabbits wearing glasses. Joking aside, vitamin A and beta Carotene (a “provitamin” that converts to vitamin A), do contribute to overall eye health, though ingesting large quantities of vitamin A does not actually improve eyesight. Instead, it is a lack of vitamin A (rare in developed nations) that is likely to cause vision issues.

The evidence that beta carotene supplementation treats or mitigates eye conditions is limited, at best. A synthetic form of beta carotene, known as  Lumitene®, is approved by the FDA to provide relief from photosensitivity in those who suffer from erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare genetic disease.

Incidentally, it is possible to overdose on vitamin A and cause yourself liver damage, so be careful about your consumption. (Symptoms of a vitamin A overdose includes dizziness, nausea and, oddly enough, “vision changes.”)

(Ingesting too much beta carotene doesn’t pose the same dangers, but can turn your skin orange, giving you a most unfortunate “fake tan” look.)

Lutein: Like beta carotene, lutein is a carotenoid and related to vitamin A and is found in deep green, yellow and orange vegetables, such as kale, carrots, squash and spinach, as well as egg yolks. While there is some evidence that lutein may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration, it is by no means conclusive. There is also evidence taking lutein supplements may not be as effective as eating a diet rich in lutein for protecting eye health.

Bilberry: Bilberry is a tasty, dark purple fruit that is rich in anthocyanosides, pigments that act as antioxidants. Legend has it that the UK’s Royal Air Force pilots ate bilberries before nighttime missions to improve their night vision. (Some historians question this story entirely while others claim that there is no evidence that the bilberry actually improved the pilot’s vision.) While there may certainly be some advantages to consuming bilberries or bilberry supplements, the evidence does not support the idea that bilberry improves eyesight.

Eyebright: Euphrasia officinalis, better known as “eyebright,” is a flowering plant traditionally used to treat eye redness and irritation. Some people use an infusion of the plant to make an eye wash, or they might make a poultice with the herb. Unfortunately, there are no studies that support the efficacy of eyebright as a treatment for eye irritation and some natural medicine advocates advise using only commercially prepared eyebright eyewashes, as homemade versions are not sterile.

Words of warning: The fact that a company bills its supplements as “natural” does not meant that the ingredients are benign. (Keep in mind that poison ivy is perfectly natural!) While commercially sold supplements  are generally safe, herbs can trigger allergies in some people and it is possible to overdose on vitamins. If you take any medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about potential drug interactions.