We ask a lot of our eyes, especially if we spend hours staring at a screen. There are ways to limit daily damage to our eyes: taking regular breaks, staying hydrated and looking out of the window from time to time, to name just a few.
There are also supplements which claim to help our eyes cope with the strain of screen time, but what’s in these eye health supplements and do they actually help? We had the opportunity to speak to Professor Dawn Sim, one of the co-founders of eye health brand MTHK (opens in new tab) which sells a multivitamin for eye health, to find out more about eye health supplements and the science behind them.
Professor Dawn Sim is a consulting ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital (opens in new tab) and a professor at UCL. She trained at St George’s Hospital (opens in new tab) and Moorfields, where she did her PhD. Moorfields is the largest specialist eye hospital in Europe and the US combined, with over 300 eye specialists working in one place. As well as treating patients, there’s a focus on education and research. Sim’s specialist subjects include general retina health, eye nutrition and ageing.
What scientific evidence is there for the use of supplements for eye health? Have there been many studies?
There’s been one really important study called the AREDS2 study (opens in new tab). It was conducted over five years in the US and was funded by the National Eye Institute (opens in new tab), one of the National Institutes of Health in the US. It cost tens of millions of dollars. It was a randomised control, comparative trial, using various formulations of vitamins and they found a certain formulation that was ideal for maintaining eye health, containing lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc.
You’ve launched a supplement to support eye health. How does it differ from other vitamin supplements?
It's based on the successful formulation from the AREDS2 study. We took that and adapted it – myself and the other members of my team [opthalmic surgeon Alex Ionides and Marcus Fruttiger, professor of ophthalmology]. And we added biological plausible components to the vitamin formula, like maqui berry extract.
Biological plausible components – what are those?
Well, the problem is that you can’t test everything with major clinical trials, but there are some molecules and components, like maqui berry extracts, that have been the subject of pre-clinical studies, non-human studies and some smaller human studies that don’t cost tens of millions, but which conclude that they are probably really good for eye health and for the maintenance of eye health.
What’s so special about the maqui berry?
This berry, which grows in Patagonian forests, has antioxidant properties that are beneficial not just for the eye, but also for the rest of the body. And the research that has been conducted around maqui berry extract has been much more convincing than [that covering] other potential candidates.
There’s good evidence that it prevents oxidative stress, which occurs when the back of our eyes get a lot of stress from light. In order to form a picture in our brain, the cells have to fire off hundreds of thousands of times per minute, and that creates waste products. If you don’t nourish the eye well enough throughout your life, then damage will happen.
At the back of our eyes there's a layer of cells that’s almost like the rubbish cleaner of the eye, but you're born with a finite number of those rubbish cleaning cells – that’s why when you get older, you don’t see as well. If you can keep these cells as healthy as possible, your eyes have a better chance.
Are there other supplements that contain maqui berry?
Ours is the only daily eye health multivitamin that contains maqui berry extract. I believe you can buy maqui berry extract, but it doesn’t come with all the other eye-specific components, so you’d have to buy that separately. Maqui berry shouldn’t be taken in isolation – there is good trial evidence that it works better combined with certain more traditional vitamins like the other B vitamins, E and C.
Who would benefit from taking eye vitamins? Are they for everyone or would they benefit a certain group of people in particular?
Our vitamins are particularly aimed at people with eye discomfort, dry eyes, and getting tired while using screens. And also at people who have a family history of eye problems, like age-related macular degeneration. If you’re in your 30s, 40s or 50s and want to maintain your eye health in later life, it’s a good idea to take eye vitamins as a preventative measure. Many of us take a multivitamin, and our vision is so important, so it’s definitely a good idea to take a targeted multivitamin for eye health.
If you have a known condition, then this is not for you. It won’t replace the specific treatments for many pathologies. But if you have discomfort from dry eyes, and a lot of people do, this is something that you can take as an adjunct to your daily routine, since there’s pretty good evidence that maqui berry helps relieve dry eyes.
There are other, less expensive eye health vitamin supplements available to buy. Do these perform the same function as MTHK eye vitamins?
Eye vitamins tend to be a little bit more expensive, because of the lutein and zeaxanthin as well as minerals. It’s not just your off-the-shelf £2 multivitamin you get from Tesco – it has a lot more than that.
I would recommend people read the label and look for vitamins based on the AREDS2 formulation, which has been proven for macular health – that’s the important bit that helps you see well at the back of the eye. These will be priced at the same level as our vitamins. And then we designed our vitamins for people who use a lot of digital devices, with the added benefit of the maqui berry which helps with both eye health and dry eye symptoms.
Do you think some people might see vitamins as an easy fix instead of changing the damaging habits that can cause eye problems?
Vitamins are not the be-all and end-all for your eye health. The number one thing that damages your eyes is smoking. If you look at a chain smoker, age 40, their eyes look like a 70- or 80-year-old’s. There are many good practices for eye health. If you climb a mountain, for example, or go to the equator or to Australia, make sure you wear UV protective sunglasses, especially if you live there for long periods of time.
But the most relevant to all of us these days is how we use our eyes in front of a screen. I have so many people come to me with dry eyes, tiredness, blurry vision after a few hours, waking up with pain. I think vitamins are just one step in giving your body the best chance to take care of things, but you also have to take breaks and make sure you blink sufficiently.
Practise the 20-20-20 rule – look away from your screen every 20 minutes, at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. This helps to reduce strain and fatigue on your eye muscles. The vitamins are just one component in the general maintenance of eye health.
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