6 Vitamins (and Minerals) That May Help Macular Degeneration

A supplement of vitamins and minerals may help save your sight if you have macular degeneration.

Macular degeneration vitamins and minerals

Macular degeneration is a potentially blinding disease. While there are no good medical treatments for the most common form of the disease (dry macular degeneration), a simple regimen of vitamins and minerals can forestall vision loss.

“Research shows that combination of vitamins all taken together over five years reduced vision loss about 25 percent,” says Jacque Duncan, MD, a professor of clinical ophthalmology and academic director of the Retina Service at the University of California San Francisco.

Learn about how vitamins and minerals can protect your vision if you have age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

What is age-related macular degeneration?

close up of senior man's eyes looking out to the oceanwilpunt/Getty Images

No one knows exactly what causes AMD, but the risk tends to increase if you have a family history of the disease and as you age, says Emily Y. Chew, MD, the director of the division of epidemiology and clinical applications at the National Eye Institute (NEI).

“The older you are, the more likely you are to get it,” she says.

The condition develops when yellowish waste materials from the eye, called drusen, build up under the central (macular) part of the retina, explains Abdhish R. Bhavsar, MD, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

Two forms of AMD

This leads to two major forms of macular degeneration, the most common being dry AMD. This affects about 80 percent of people who have AMD, according to the AAO.

With wet AMD, extra blood vessels develop under the retina. If they leak, they can scar the macula and impair vision. “That loss of vision can be fairly quick and abrupt in some patients,” Dr. Bhavsar says.

In fact, though it represents the minority of AMD cases, wet AMD is responsible for the vast majority of severe vision loss from the disease, he notes.

Symptoms of macular degeneration

In the beginning and intermediate stages, AMD often has no symptoms. “You could have 20/20 vision yet still have AMD,” Dr. Chew says.

As the disease progresses, some people report problems seeing in the dark and transitioning from light environments to dark environments. Vision can also become blurry and distorted or wavy.

Wet AMD involves sudden, severe, and dangerous eye symptoms, including pain and nausea.

Vitamins and minerals for AMD

There’s no one vitamin or mineral that helps slow the progression of AMD. Instead, it’s a specific combination called AREDS2, named after the Age Related Eye Disease Study, which demonstrated their potential benefit. AREDS2 consists of high doses of:

  • vitamin C (ascorbic acid) 500 mg
  • vitamin E 400 international units (IU)
  • lutein 10 mg
  • zeaxanthin 2 mg
  • zinc (as zinc oxide) 80 mg
  • copper (as cupric oxide) 2 mg

They are available as over-the-counter pills and are usually taken twice a day.

daily pills and vitamins boxvioletphoto/Getty Images

The first AREDS formula

Before AREDS2, the NEA tested the effectiveness of a slightly different AREDS formula, now known as AREDS1.

Unlike AREDS2, AREDS1 also contained beta-carotene. But the beta-carotene corresponded with an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers, Dr. Duncan says. (Smoking is also a major risk factor for AMD, Dr. Bhavsar notes.)

For AREDS2, researchers left out the beta-carotene and added the lutein and zeaxanthin. This is the version used today.

What do the vitamins and minerals do?

Vitamins C and E, zinc, lutein, and zeaxanthin are antioxidants, meaning they protect your cells from damage.

“There has been a lot of research showing how those vitamins slow down oxidative damage in the eye and retina,” Dr. Bhavsar says. “That’s how they were picked.”

Copper was added to counteract any copper deficiency caused by the zinc, Dr. Chew explains.

Individual components may have benefits, but it’s the combination that seems to have the most effect.

“Together they protect the retina in a certain way,” says Dr. Bhavsar, who is also director of the Retina Center in Minneapolis.

Who benefits from AREDS?

AREDS2 doesn’t seem to prevent AMD from developing in the first place, Dr. Chew says. That suggests the supplement won’t help if you don’t already have drusen.

It also may not help if you have early AMD. In that case, your doctor should be monitoring you with dilated eye exams at least once a year to catch any deterioration in the condition. The same holds if you already have advanced AMD.

But AREDS2 can slow the progression of intermediate dry or wet AMD in both eyes, or those with advanced disease in just one eye, according to the NEI.

Risks and side effects

“We have very extensive data and very extensive reviews of the data, and it looks like [AREDS2] is a very safe ‘medicine’ to take,” Dr. Bhavsar says.

Although you can get the supplement over the counter, you shouldn’t be taking it unless your doctor has diagnosed AMD and recommended it.

You should always consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplements, as they can have side effects and interact with other medications.

(Here are the supplements and medications to never mix.)

How to buy AREDS2

The pills are available in most pharmacies, Dr. Duncan says.

But that doesn’t mean you should buy the first one you see.

There are many different brands, so always check the label to make sure it says “AREDS” and check the ingredient list to make sure all the components are there.

It’s a good idea to be vigilant when buying supplements in general, because they do not always contain what they say they contain. Even better, ask your doctor for a recommendation.

Other treatments

Although dry AMD has no other treatments, wet AMD does. These come in the form of anti-VEGF drugs, which hinder the development of those extra blood vessels by controlling a protein known as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). One example is Avastin, a drug for treating colorectal, lung, and other types of cancer.

Others are specifically for AMD, Dr. Bhavsar says.

Meanwhile, clinical trials are underway to find new treatments for both types of AMD and to see if existing drugs, like metformin (for diabetes), could be useful, Dr. Duncan says.

(Here’s how to improve your vision.)

Detecting AMD

In order to know if you have AMD, you need to get your eyes checked regularly.

The AAO recommends eye exams for all adults over the age of 40, and earlier if you have risk factors like smoking or a family history.

“That’s the age at which some of these conditions start becoming more prevalent, not just AMD but cataracts and glaucoma start increasing,” Dr. Bhavsar says.

At home, use an Amsler grid every day to pick up early changes in vision. This is just a simple grid (straight horizontal and vertical lines) with a dot in the middle.

Cover one eye and use the other to look at the center dot at a distance of about 12 to 15 inches from your face. If any areas look darker or blank or are distorted (wavy or blurry), see an eye doctor. Repeat the procedure with the other eye.

Preventing AMD

A healthy lifestyle can not only help slow the progression of AMD, but may help prevent it.

“The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet reduces progression 40 percent in some cases,” Dr. Chew says.

Pay particular attention to dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, colorful foods (they have antioxidants), and fatty fish like salmon, which are some of the best foods to improve your eyesight.

Exercise and UV-blocking sunglasses can also help, Dr. Bhavsar says.

Now that you know about macular degeneration vitamins, check out these vitamin secrets from doctors.


Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.