Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss for U.S. adults aged 65 and older. Up to 11 million Americans are afflicted with it.
The retina lines the inside of the eyeball. Our best vision comes from the central part called the macula. As we age the retina loses tissues that are important for seeing well and focusing. This is why it gets harder to read in dim light or why driving at night is harder as people age.
Macular degeneration is when you loose central vision, leaving a blind spot in the center of the vision field. One kind is called neovascular, or “wet type”. Neovascular means you have abnormal new blood vessels that may lead to bleeding and an acute loss of vision. This type is treated with injections into the eye of drugs that counteract vascular endothelial growth factor.
The dry type is called geographic atrophy, which is a slow withering away of normal cells and structures of the retina. People who start out with the wet type are likely to end up with geographic atrophy and there is no treatment for this type of macular degeneration, according to Emily Chew, the director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications at the National Eye Institute.
Risk factors for age-related macular degeneration include:
- Family history
- Tobacco use
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Sun exposure
- Diet low in dark green leafy vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids
According to studies, the risk of progressing to intermediate levels of macular degeneration is about 20 percent lower in people who eat a healthy mediterranean diet – that is, a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, a moderate level of alcohol, and more unsaturated than saturated fat.
Scientists have identified plant pigments that accumulate in the eyes and protect macular density. Lutein, zeaxanthin, meso-zeaxanthin and astaxanthin can help protect against age-related macular degeneration. Kale, spinach, broccoli, squash and other vegetables have high levels of antioxidants, including lutein and zeaxanthin, which may benefit people with macular degeneration.
People with the highest intake of lutein and zeaxanthin have a 41% lower risk of advanced macular degeneration. Lutein and zeaxanthin are dietary carotenoids found in dark green leafy vegetables and colorful fruits.
For people already afflicted, extracts of saffron, a spice derived from the crocus flower, have been shown to improve visual function. One study in patients with early macular degeneration showed that 80% of those taking saffron daily for three months improved visual acuity on the Snellen eye chart (by one line) compared to baseline. An improvement by one line on the Snellen chart means someone whose visual acuity at a distance was 20/40 would be able to see with 20/30 vision after just three months of daily saffron use.
Saffron may provide these benefits thanks to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties, along with its ability to help prevent cell death. In one clinical study, 20 mg of saffron enhanced visual function in patients with mild to moderate age-related macular degeneration, including those already taking lutein and zeaxanthin.
To test longer-term benefits, scientists gave 20 mg of saffron daily to patients with early macular degeneration for an average of 14 months. Retinal sensitivity was improved for the entire period, and average visual acuity improved by an astounding two lines on an eye chart. This showed that longer saffron use produces greater improvement.
Several other compounds have been shown to help prevent and even partially restore the vision loss that occurs with age-related macular degeneration. These compounds absorb blue and ultraviolet light, preventing retina damage. They also quench free radicals, inhibiting their destructive impact on the cells of the retina.
In one study of adults with age-related macular degeneration, taking 10 mg of lutein daily for one year increased macular pigment density by almost 40%, compared to baseline. Increased macular pigment ocular density means increased protection against ultraviolet and blue light.
Scientists demonstrated that 48 weeks of taking daily lutein alone or lutein combined with zeaxanthin produced significant increases in electroretinogram signals. This is a measure of the power of light-sensitive cells to produce electrical impulses after stimulation by light.
In a series of large clinical studies, researchers documented that oral intake of lutein and/or zeaxanthin can:
- Improve retinal function,
- Increase the ability to see contrasting colors and shapes, and
- Improve visual acuity (the ability to see sharply at a distance).
One study of over 102,000 people aged 50 and older took more than 20 years to complete. It found that those with the highest intake of lutein and zeaxanthin had a remarkable 41% lower risk of advanced macular degeneration.
Meso-zeaxanthin is a yellow carotenoid derived from lutein. It is known to be produced in the eye itself, and a small amount may occur in certain foods. Most patients with Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) have 30% less meso-zeaxanthin in their macula and show an inability to convert lutein into meso-zeaxanthin. Leafy green and yellow vegetables provide the best source of miso-zeaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is a reddish carotenoid found in marine algae. Astaxanthin may protect eye cells from UV-induced, free-radical damage by suppressing activation of an inflammatory protein, nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB). In experimental studies, astaxanthin prevented the vision-damaging effects of wet macular degeneration. Astaxanthin’s eye-protecting ability may be especially beneficial for people with diabetes.
Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high levels of blood sugar damage the retina over time, leading to vision problems. Among those who have had diabetes for over a decade, 80% suffer from this condition. In animal studies, astaxanthin targets the retina and prevents the early nerve-cell death that is caused by excess blood sugar.
Alpha-carotene, a carotenoid and vitamin A precursor found in pumpkins and carrots, protects retinal cells from light-induced oxidative damage. One study analyzed 63,443 women and 38,603 men, aged 50 and older. It found that those with the highest dietary intake of alpha-carotene had a 31% reduced risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration, compared to those with the lowest consumption.
Cyanidin-3-glucoside (C3G) is a flavonoid found in many dark-colored berries. Recent research on human cells suggests that cyanidin-3-glucoside may protect epithelial (surface) cells in the cornea (the eye’s protective outer layer) against damaging effects of bacterial activity and inflammation. C3G may also reduce oxidative damage from light and free radicals in retinal pigment epithelium cells.
The retina’s rod cells are the eye’s most sensitive cells, allowing us to see in very dim light. Loss of rod cells is associated with night blindness or reduced vision in low light. Cyanidin-3-glucoside has been shown to enhance the quality and function of rhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein found in the rod cells of the retina. It also boosts the ability of rhodopsin to regenerate.
One study of healthy volunteers showed that a berry extract containing cyanidin-3-glucoside improved night vision, allowing aging individuals to see better in darkness. This improvement was noticeable after just 30 minutes.
Taken in combination, C3G and other eye-protecting nutrients may provide the most complete range of benefits for preventing age-related vision loss.
Ginkgo biloba, or maidenhair, is a tree native to China that has been grown for thousands of years for a variety of uses. Because it’s the only surviving member of an ancient order of plants, it’s sometimes referred to as a living fossil.
While its leaves and seeds are often used in traditional Chinese medicine, modern research primarily focuses on ginkgo extract, which is made from the leaves. Ginkgo supplements are associated with several health claims and uses, most of which focus on brain function and blood circulation.
Ginkgo’s antioxidant content may be the reason behind many of its health claims. Ginkgo contains high levels of flavonoids and terpenoids, which are compounds known for their strong antioxidant effects.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or invasion by a foreign substance. Some chronic diseases trigger an inflammatory response even when there is no illness or injury present. Over time, this excessive inflammation can cause permanent damage to the body’s tissues and DNA. Years of animal and test-tube research shows that ginkgo extract can reduce markers of inflammation in both human and animal cells in a variety of disease states.
Some specific conditions in which ginkgo extract has shown to reduce inflammation include:
- Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
- Heart disease
Ginkgo biloba is known for its ability to improve blood circulation, which is excellent for heart health. It can also lower blood pressure and prevent the formation of clots in your blood vessels, which keeps your cardiovascular system running smoothly.
One study in people with heart disease who supplemented with ginkgo revealed an immediate increase in blood flow to multiple parts of the body. This was attributed to a 12% increase in levels of circulating nitric oxide, a compound responsible for dilating blood vessels.
Some studies show a marked reduction in the rate of cognitive decline in people with dementia using ginkgo. A review of 21 studies revealed that when used in conjunction with conventional medicine, ginkgo extract may increase functional capabilities in those with mild Alzheimer’s. Another review evaluated four studies and found a significant reduction in a spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia when ginkgo was used for 22–24 weeks.
These positive results could be related to the role that ginkgo may play in improving blood flow to the brain, especially as it relates to vascular types of dementia. In one study, 170 people with generalized anxiety were treated with either 240 mg or 480 mg of ginkgo or a placebo. The group treated with the highest dose of ginkgo reported a 45% greater reduction in symptoms of anxiety, compared to the placebo group.
Along with helping with memory, focus and cognitive function, ginkgo biloba leaf extract has been shown to reduce mental health problems both on its own and as part of an overall treatment.
Ginkgo supplementation has helped with conditions such as:
- General and chronic low mood
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
A 2015 meta-analysis study published in the CNS and Neurological Disorders Journal found that ginkgo biloba extract was a potential viable treatment for several mental health problems including anxiety, depression, dementia and schizophrenia.
This makes ginkgo biloba a promising herb for mental health, but do not replace your current mental health care plan with this herb. Speak with your healthcare provider about adding ginkgo biloba extract to your mental health care plan.
Some early research shows that supplementing with ginkgo may increase blood flow to the eye. According to the Mayo Clinic there is some scientific evidence suggesting that ginkgo biloba may be helpful in preventing worsening in age related macular degeneration which can lead to central vision loss.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginkgo is a very popular treatment for headaches and migraines. If a headache or migraine is caused by excessive stress, ginkgo may be useful. Or, if a headache is related to reduced blood flow or constricted blood vessels, ginkgo’s ability to dilate blood vessels may improve symptoms. On the contrary, some migraines are caused by the excessive dilation of blood vessels. In this situation, ginkgo may have little to no effect.
Some research indicates that ginkgo may improve symptoms of asthma and other inflammatory respiratory diseases like COPD. Probably due to the anti-inflammatory compounds in ginkgo, which may reduce inflammation of the airways and increase lung capacity. One study in 75 people evaluated the use of ginkgo extract alongside glucocorticosteroid medication therapy for managing asthma symptoms. The levels of inflammatory compounds in the saliva of those who received ginkgo were significantly lower than those who received traditional medication alone.
Ginkgo may improve symptoms of sexual dysfunction due to its impact on blood flow.
Ginkgo biloba leaf extract comes with very few safety precautions or concerns. Due to its powerful blood flow-boosting effects, it is not recommended for people who are on blood thinning medications or have medical conditions that result in poor ability to clot blood.
How to Buy
When shopping for a ginkgo biloba supplement, follow these tips:
- Make sure the dosage is at least 100 mg per serving.
- Make sure the extract comes from the leaves and no other part of the ginkgo tree. While the bark and seeds have shown potential health benefits, the leaves are the most beneficial and most researched.
- Check the ingredient list and avoid any products that have unnecessary fillers and sweeteners.
Drink gingko biloba tea to relax. Look for the dried leaves without any fillers.
How to Store
To store your ginkgo, keep it at room temperature or slightly below and out of direct sunlight.
How to Cook
It is safe to use ginkgo biloba in doses up to 240mg.
Healing Curry Butternut Squash Lentil Soup
- ½ tablespoon coconut oil or olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 large carrot, thinly sliced or diced
- 1 medium (2 pound) butternut squash, peeled and cubed (about 5-6 cups diced)
- 1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated turmeric (or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric)
- 1 (15 ounce) can coconut milk
- 3 cups organic vegetable broth
- 1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed and sorted
- 2 tablespoons all natural creamy peanut butter or cashew butter
- ¾ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups organic spinach
Add coconut oil to a large pot or dutch oven and place over medium high heat. Add onion and sauté for 3-5 minutes until onion begin to soften. Add garlic and ginger and continue to sauté for another 2 minutes.
Add carrot and butternut squash cubes; sauté for a few more minutes then add in the yellow curry powder and turmeric. Allow spices to cook together for 30 seconds then immediately stir in coconut milk, vegetarian broth, lentils and peanut butter. Season with salt and pepper.
Bring soup to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and allow soup to simmer for 20 minutes until lentils soften.
After 20 minutes, transfer approximately half of the soup (about 3 cups) to a blender. Protect your hands from steam and a potential heat explosion by placing a clean dish towel over the lid and puree the soup until smooth.
Pour the puree back into the pot with the rest of the soup and stir to combine. Finally stir the fresh spinach until just wilted.
Taste and adjust the seasoning of the soup as necessary. If you like more of a umami flavor try adding another tablespoon of peanut butter, or a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Serve mine with cilantro and a handful of peanuts – it’s also great with a little hot sauce!