Alternative medicine and supplements

Our physicians are big fans of evidence-based medicine – medicine supported by science-based, peer-reviewed research – so you won’t see us jumping on the alternative medicine bandwagon any time soon.  While it is true that medicinal herbs are some of our oldest medicines and promising pharmaceuticals are being derived from plant extracts, this doesn’t give validity to the entire herbal medicine industry.

According to the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are approximately 1,500 botanicals now being sold as dietary supplements or ethnic traditional medicines in the United States.  The Food and Drug Administration does not test herbal medicines to assure their safety or effectiveness, nor does it monitor whether the marketing materials or product labels for an herbal medicine are accurate.

In our review of scientific literature, we were unable to find any controlled research studies that support the therapeutic benefits of herbal medicines for eyes or eye conditions.  We were disappointed to find that several reputable websites lists a number of herbs that ‘can be useful in treating eye disorders,’ but the ‘supporting research’ cited by the website does not include any controlled scientific studies.

The NTP has identified approximately twenty common herbal medicines on which to focus future research, and research continues in other areas as well. For example, the National Eye Institute has found that vitamin therapy may be successful in delaying the progression of some forms of macular degeneration (see Vitamin Therapy under Macular Degeneration).  Your regular eye doctor will be well informed regarding vitamin therapy as well as treatment with pharmaceuticals and surgery, so stick with his or her advice when it comes to treating your eye problems.

Lutein has often been promoted by supplement manufacturers as a way to improve eye health, and the NIH-supported AREDS studies have supported Lutein’s benefits.  Lutein is produced by the body but is also available as a nutritional supplement.  Naturally-produced lutein appears to be concentrated in the retina (the structure responsible for sharp vision) and the clear lens of the eye (which clouds later in life and becomes a cataract).  Lutein is presumed to be an antioxidant (carotenoid) that can contribute to the body’s ability to maintain overall eye health.  Some observers theorize that lutein supplements, by increasing lutein concentrations in the retina and lens, can decrease the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.  Unfortunately, there have been no science-based clinical studies that support this theory, but the AREDS evidence has shown the benefits of Lutein for non-smokers.

Because the alternative medicine industry is so lightly regulated, we recommend that you disclose the names and doses of all supplements you are taking to each of your doctors.