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Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration is the degeneration of the macula retinae, also called the macula lutea, an oval disc on the retina in the back of the eye. 

Degeneration of the macula retinae is the leading cause of blindness in elderly Americans.1

Rating Nutritional Supplements Herbs
Lutein and zeaxanthin
Ginkgo biloba

Carotenes (prevention) (lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene)
Vitamin C
Vitamin E


Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.

Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.

For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.
What are the symptoms of macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration is typically painless and includes symptoms of dark or blurry areas in the center of vision, seeing distortions of straight lines, and difficulty doing activities that require sharp vision (e.g., driving and reading). Peripheral (side) vision may remain clear.


Dietary changes that may be helpful for macular degeneration

In a preliminary study, high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol was associated with an increased risk of developing macular degeneration.2

According to preliminary research, people who eat fish more than once per week have half the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration compared with people who eat fish less than once per month.3

Total alcohol consumption has not been linked to macular degeneration in most studies.4 5 However, one research group has linked beer consumption to macular degeneration,6 7 and in one of two trials, wine drinkers were found to have a significantly lower risk of macular degeneration compared with people not drinking wine.8 9 Most doctors consider these reports too preliminary to suggest either avoiding beer or increasing wine consumption.


 Lifestyle changes that may be helpful for macular degeneration

Smoking has been linked to macular degeneration. Quitting smoking may reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration.

Nutritional supplements that may be helpful for macular degeneration

Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidants in the carotenoid family. These carotenoids, found in high concentrations in spinach, collard greens, and kale, have an affinity for the part of the retina where macular degeneration occurs. Once there, they protect the retina from damage caused by sunlight.10

Harvard researchers reported that people eating the most lutein and zeaxanthin—an average of 5.8 mg per day—had a 57% decreased risk of macular degeneration, compared with people eating the least.11 While spinach and kale eaters have a lower risk of macular degeneration, blood levels of lutein did not correlate with risk of macular degeneration in one trial.12 13 Lutein and zeaxanthin can be taken as supplements; 6 mg per day of lutein may be a useful amount.

Sunlight triggers oxidative damage in the eye, which in turn can cause macular degeneration.14 Animals given antioxidants—which protect against oxidative damage—have a lower risk of this vision problem.15 People with high blood levels of antioxidants also have a lower risk.16 Those with the highest levels (top 20th percentile) of the antioxidants selenium, vitamin C, and vitamin E may have a 70% lower risk of developing macular degeneration, compared with people with the lowest levels of these nutrients (bottom 20th percentile).17 People who eat fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene, another antioxidant, are also at low risk.18 Some doctors recommend antioxidant supplements to reduce the risk of macular degeneration; reasonable adult levels include 200 mcg of selenium, 1,000 mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, and 25,000 IU of natural beta-carotene per day. However, a preliminary study found no association between age-related macular degeneration and intake of antioxidants, either from the diet, from supplements, or from both combined.19 Moreover, in a double-blind study of male cigarette smokers, supplementing with vitamin E (50 IU per day), synthetic beta-carotene (about 33,000 IU per day), or both did not reduce the incidence of age-related macular degeneration.20

Two important enzymes in the retina that are needed for vision require zinc. In a double-blind trial, supplementation with 45 mg of zinc per day for one to two years significantly reduced the rate of visual loss in people with macular degeneration.21 However, in another double-blind trial, supplementation with the same amount of zinc did not prevent vision loss among people with a particular type of macular degeneration (the exudative form).22

In a blinded six-month study of people with macular degeneration, vision was the same or better in 88% people who took a nutritional supplement, compared with 59% of those who refused to take the supplement (a statistically significant difference). The supplement used in this study contained beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and riboflavin.23 People wishing to take all of these nutrients may supplement with a multivitamin-multimineral formula.


Are there any side effects or interactions with macular degeneration?

Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.

Herbs that may be helpful for macular degeneration

Ginkgo biloba may help treat early-stage macular degeneration, according to small, preliminary clinical trials.24 Many healthcare professionals recommend 120 to 240 mg of standardized extract (24% ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones) in capsules or tablets per day.

Bilberry’s active flavonoid compounds, anthocyanosides, act as antioxidants in the retina of the eye. Therefore, supplementing with bilberry would theoretically be of value for the prevention or treatment of early-stage macular degeneration.25 Bilberry has also been shown to strengthen capillaries and to reduce bleeding in the retina.26 A typical amount of bilberry used in studies was 480–600 mg per day of an extract standardized to contain 25% anthocyanosides, taken in capsules or tablets.

Are there any side effects or interactions with macular degeneration?

Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.