Is There A Natural Remedy For Cataracts? A Holistic Eye Doctor Explains
People diagnosed with eye conditions, like cataracts, are often told that the disease will only get worse over time and cannot be reversed. While there are pharmaceutical or surgical options to help slow the progression, there are currently no confirmed treatments for these conditions.
However, there is a growing body of research showing promising treatment options. As a functional medicine doctor of optometry, these are the natural management tools I'm most hopeful about.
Neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain) can occur in the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and influences emotional behavior and cognition.
Researchers have also found that patients with higher brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels have a decreased risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. This was attributed to the critical role that BDNF plays in stimulating the growth neurons in the central nervous system (CNS).
So, what exactly does the brain have to do with eye health? Well, by expanding on the findings from the brain, researchers began to explore where else neurogenesis could take place. Since the eyes are also part of the central nervous system, it just made sense to look there.
Turns out, the eyes have cells that can regenerate, too. In a study conducted by the National Eye Institute (NEI), they found that cells in the eyes—specifically retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are responsible for transmitting information from the eyes to the brain—are capable of regeneration.
Promising eye health treatment options.
Empowered with the knowledge that retinal cells play a critical role in communicating information from the eye to the brain, researchers have begun to develop a suite of potential treatments and therapies.
Ocular regenerative therapies are therapies which look to regenerate and stimulate the growth of RGCs. In particular, the three unique methods receiving attention from researchers today are:
1. Stem cell therapy
Some animals stem cell therapy studies have shown promising results for preserving and potentially improving eye health. More research is needed to test the results on humans, but the idea is that the lab-grown cells would be transplanted into the patient's retina. However, this approach is easier said than done.
It can take weeks to produce adequate quantities of stem cells, and the storage of stem cells is difficult because you do not know when the patient will need them—and timing is everything.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against unregulated stem cell treatments, saying they can be "illegal and potentially harmful." In order to verify their safety, make sure any stem cell treatments you plan to receive are either FDA-approved or being studied under an Investigational New Drug Application (IND).
2. Reprogramming therapies
The second strategy involves recruiting other retinal cells for reprogramming into RGCs. A study published in Natural Regeneration Research journal explains that zebrafish Müller cells (cells in the retina) go back into the cell cycle to generate new neurons after injury, but mammalian cells do not.
"Recently, transcription factors and microRNAs have been identified to control the formation of new neurons derived from zebrafish and mammalian Müller cells, indicating that cellular reprogramming can be an efficient strategy to regenerate human retinal neurons," the study states.
This approach is being explored by researchers to treat a number of eye conditions, such as macular degeneration and even genetically inherited retinal disorders, but more research is needed to verify its efficacy.
3. Preservation therapies
Preservation therapies aim to keep people's eyes healthy by utilizing therapies that maintain the retina’s structure so that transplanted or regenerated RGCs can better integrate and restore vision. Preservation therapies are particularly exciting for those who have a family history of eye disease or a genetic predisposition to eye disease.
How to support eye health at home.
The future of regenerating eye tissue looks promising. There has been great progress in developing therapies, but more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of the findings, and it may be a awhile before the therapies are widely available.
Just like in the brain, BDNF is important for the neurons in the eye. One study assessed the effectiveness of boosting BDNF levels in the eye after the test subject had suffered an optic nerve crush. Researchers found that applying BDNF to the eye significantly improved RGC survival in cats. One week later, RGC survival was improved by 17% and two weeks later, RGC survival was increased to 55 %.
While this is an animal study, researchers cited no reasons that the human eye would respond differently. Given what we know about BDNF’s role in facilitating regeneration of neurons in the brain, the research is promising. In the meantime, there are a number of ways to support overall eye health via lifestyle and nutrition.
While I can't confirm whether any of these measures would be effective, here's what I'd recommend trying:
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids.
- Add prebiotic fiber to your diet. Gut bacteria converts prebiotics into butyrate, a substance that has been shown to increase BDNF.
- Eat curcumin to enhance mood and cognition and improve BDNF production.
- Add resveratrol and other polyphenols to your diet for their neuroprotective properties.
- Reduce your stress levels. Irregular cortisol levels can disrupt BDNF production.
- Add zinc to your diet. This trace mineral supports immune functioning and can increase BDNF levels in the brain.
- Add eye-healthy nutrients to your diet with these RD-approved foods.
Regularly monitoring eye health is critical for identifying eye disease at an early stage. While it's possible to slow the progression of some eye diseases, there are no confirmed therapies for reversing them. Because more than 50 million Americans suffer from vision problems, researchers are working diligently to find new and promising scientific solutions. In the meantime, adding certain nutrients to the diet and protecting your eyes overall may help.
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