Cataracts: Causes, Symptoms & Natural Support Strategies
Cataracts are a common eye condition that typically develops after the age of 55, however, they may affect people younger than that, including some infants. More than 25 million people or nearly 20 percent of Americans age 40 or over have cataracts in one or both eyes. Cataracts develop and progress in stages, and may be increased by a variety of dietary, lifestyle, and health factors, including nutrient deficiencies, smoking, environmental toxicity, and diabetes.
Cataracts may become serious and may require surgery. However, cataracts may be prevented or slowed down with the help of some natural strategies (1, 2, 3). In this article, you will learn what cataracts are. You will understand their forms, stages, symptoms, and causes. Most importantly, I will share some simple yet powerful natural support strategies to improve your eye health.
What Are Cataracts
A cataract is an eye condition that is characterized by a clouding of the normally clear lens of your eyes. The lens of your eyes refracts light rays in order to help you to see. If your eyes are healthy, the lens is clear and the image you see is clear as well. However, if you have cataracts, it may feel like you are looking through a foggy window or dusty windshield. Things may seem hazy, blurry, or less colorful. Driving, reading, or seeing people’s faces may become difficult.
Cataracts tend to develop slowly. At first, they may not disturb your vision much, but with time, they become a problem. In the early stages, eyeglasses and stronger lighting may do the trick, but eventually, cataract surgery may become necessary.
The good news is that if you follow some natural strategies, you can protect your eyes and your vision, prevent cataracts, reduce the progression of the disease, and avoid surgery. We will discuss these natural strategies for cataracts soon, but first, let’s learn more about the stages, symptoms, and causes of cataracts (4, 5, 6).
4 Stages of Cataracts
Cataracts progress through different stages. It is important to understand these stages and to diagnose cataracts early to avoid progression and more serious issues.
First, you have to understand that there are different types of cataracts depending on their location and other characteristics.
The various types of cataracts include (7):
- Subcapsular cataracts: This form is located at the back of your lens. It is more common in people with diabetes and those who are taking high doses of steroid medication.
- Nuclear cataracts: This form is located in the nucleus or center zone of your lens. They are generally associated with aging.
- Cortical cataracts: This form is characterized by white and wedge-like opacities that tend to start in the side, or periphery of your lens making their way to the center of your lens cortex that surrounds the central nucleus.
- Posterior capsular cataracts: This form is located in the back and outer layer of your lens.
Cataracts may also be categorized by their cause:
- Age-related cataracts: This form is believed to be the result of aging. This is the most common form.
- Congenital cataracts: This form occurs in babies or children. Babies may be born with it due to an injury, infection, or poor development inside the womb. Some children may develop it during childhood.
- Secondary cataracts: This form is a result of non-eye-related medical conditions, including diabetes, or because of certain medications, including corticosteroids or diuretics, ultraviolet lights, radiation, or exposure to toxic substances.
- Traumatic cataracts: This form develops as a result of an injury to the eye.
For each type of cataract, symptoms worsen as the cataract increases in each stage. The four stages of cataracts include (8):
- Early cataract: This stage is the beginning of cataract development. Your lenses are still clear. For the most part, you may see very well, however, you may notice that your ability to change focus from near to far or vice versa has started to decrease. You may notice some cloudiness or blurring. You may feel a bit of an eye strain and the lights may start to bother you.
- Immature cataract: In this stage, you will notice more cloudiness or an opaque vision as proteins have started to cloud your lens. Your eye doctor may recommend anti-glare glasses and to avoid bright sunlight or too much light that may bother you. In most cases, it takes several years to progress to this stage.
- Mature cataract: This is a more serious stage where things may start to turn opaque, white, milky, or amber. You will likely notice serious vision changes as cataracts have started to spread to the edges of your lens. Mature cataracts may interfere with your daily activities and quality of life. At this stage, your eye doctor may recommend cataract-removal surgery.
- Hypermature cataract: This is the most serious stage where the cataract is already very dense, seriously impairs your vision, and interferes with your life. It may increase the risk of inflammation, pressure within the eye, and glaucoma.
Major Symptoms of Cataracts
The major symptoms of cataracts include:
- Cloudy, fuzzy, or blurry vision
- Deteriorating night vision
- Noticing a glare from bright sunlight, headlights, or lamps
- Seeing a halo around lights
- Noticing that colors seem faded or not being able to notice changes in color brightness
- Double or multiple vision
- A frequent need to change your prescription for glasses or contacts
These symptoms may not be present at the early stage of cataract, which is mainly characterized by slight blurriness or difficulty changing focus from near to far. Existing symptoms progress and new symptoms develop at each stage. By the time you develop mature cataracts, you will notice significant blurriness and vision changes. It is important that you understand these symptoms, so you can catch cataracts or other vision problems early.
Causes of Cataracts
Cataracts are often caused and worsened by certain dietary, lifestyle, and health factors. Understanding these potential root causes of cataracts may help you to reduce your risk of the disease or delay its progression.
Poor Diet & Lifestyle
You may not realize how much your diet and lifestyle may affect your eye health. An anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense and mineral-rich diet, regular exercise, stress management, reducing chemical exposure, and other healthy lifestyle choices are all critical for maintaining health and preventing disease.
A 10-year study on over 2,400 older adults supported this finding that antioxidants may reduce the risk of cataracts. Another study on the dietary habits and eye health of 1,600 adults has found that a diet high in carbohydrates may increase the risk of cataracts. Further research discovered that a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin may delay the development of cataracts (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).
Eating a poor diet loaded with refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, refined oil, processed foods, and junk food, while not eating enough greens, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and clean protein, puts your body at risk of inflammation. One study on 30,000 women age 49 and over has found a link between having enough antioxidants in one’s diet and cataracts.
Chronic stress, a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep, and exposure to chemicals may also increase your risk of chronic inflammation. Since cigarette smoke contains 4,700 chemicals, it is incredibly toxic to your body, increase oxidation and inflammation in your body, and may increase your risk of cataracts (15, 16).
Chronic Inflammation and Cataracts
Chronic inflammation may develop as a result of chronic poor dietary and lifestyle habits, too much stress, and chemical exposure. Chronic inflammation may lead to inflammatory and other health conditions, in fact, it is one of the root causes of most modern-day diseases and age-related conditions.
It leads to oxidative tissue damage, decreased cellular and mitochondrial renewal, compromised repair and rejuvenation, and increased inflammatory activities. Chronic inflammation puts too much stress on your eyes, may compromise your vision, and may increase your chance of cataracts or accelerate the progress of the condition (17).
Hypertension and Cataracts
Hypertension is another word for abnormally high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure puts extra strain on your arteries as well as your heart and puts your body at risk of health issues in the future. Hypertension may put too much pressure on your heart and cause damage to your retina, swelling of the macula, black eye, and cataracts.
According to a study on 812 patients undergoing unilateral, uneventful cataract surgery, hypertension was the most prominent risk factor for their cataracts. Roughly, 43.8 percent of participants had subcapsular cataracts, 24.3 percent had nuclear cataracts and 28.6 percent had cortical cataracts, and 27.6 percent with mixed type cataracts had high blood pressure. A meta-analysis of 9 cohort, 5 case-control, and 11 cross-sectional studies has found that hypertension may significantly increase the risk of cataracts (18, 19, 20).
Diabetes and Cataracts
Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects about 30 million people or over 9 percent of the population in the United States. It affects your body’s ability to use or produce insulin effectively in order to control your glucose (blood sugar) levels. The problem with untreated diabetes is that too much glucose in your blood for a long time can affect many parts of your body and your overall health. Diabetes may actually damage your eyes and the small blood vessels in your eye (19).
Research has found that cataracts are one of the main complications of diabetes as well as the leading cause of blindness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 90 percent of vision loss due to diabetes can be prevented with the help of early detection and annual eye exams.
However, research has found that 60 percent of people with diabetes don’t visit their eye doctors for eye exams regularly. Research has further found that aldose-reductase inhibitors and antioxidants may also help those with diabetes to prevent cataracts (21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26).
Too Much Screen Time on Devices
One of the main concerns of our modern society is too much screen time. Don’t get me wrong, technology has its benefits. I love sharing health information with you online and learn from online sources myself. However, too much screen time can be damaging. It is important that you protect your eyes and only use technology when necessary.
Sunlight has a variety of lights, including blue, indigo, violet, red, orange, yellow, and green, that are actually different wavelengths and energy that turn into the white light we see. Red light has less energy and longer wavelengths. Blue light, on the other hand, has more energy and shorter wavelengths and is more harmful to your eyes.
Different sources of blue light include computer monitors, tablet screens, smartphones, fluorescent light, LED light, and flat screen LED televisions. Spending too much time on the screens of your devices is incredibly tiring for your eyes. However, research has shown that blue light may also have long-term negative effects, including premature aging of your eyes (27, 28).
Nutrient deficiencies are one of the main factors behind premature aging, age-related disease, macular degeneration and cataracts. There are several specific nutrients that have been linked to cataracts and other eye conditions. Let’s look at them one by one.
Research has found that antioxidants and certain vitamins are crucial for your eyes. Vitamin A is one of the most critical vitamins when it comes to your eye health. Research has linked vitamin A and β-carotene to the reduction of eye issues and cataracts (29, 30).
Vitamin D is essential for your overall health. The American Optometric Association recommends vitamin D for eye health. Research has found that vitamin D may help to lower the risk of age-related nuclear cataracts and dry-eye syndrome, which is often a factor in the development of cataracts (31, 32, 33).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in fish, seafood, algae, chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds. They are incredibly anti-inflammatory and may help to prevent a variety of health issues.
The omega 3 fats that are most beneficial are the long-chain EPA and DHA which are found in fish and seafood. A prospective study on 71,083 women has found that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids helped to lower the risk of cataract extraction by 12 percent (34).
Research has shown that Carotenoids are a powerful antioxidant that may prevent eye problems. Lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids, are some of the most common nutrients known for eye health. They are both full of anti-inflammatory properties. Scientists have found that lutein and zeaxanthin may help to prevent cataracts, while other carotenoids may not (35, 36).
Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant chemicals or phytonutrients that are responsible for the vivid colors in fruits and vegetables and are also critical for your health and well-being. A population-based case-control study (249 cases and 66 controls) has found that the intake of flavonoids, in particular, quercetin and isorhamnetin may reduce the risk of age-related cataracts (37).
Zinc is essential for reducing the risk of inflammation and age-related diseases. It may also be critical to your eye health. One rat study has found that a zinc-enriched diet for 6 weeks has helped to reduce the progression and maturation of diabetes-induced cataract. This suggests that supplementing with zinc may be beneficial for cataract prevention (38).
Your liver is one of your most important organs that is responsible for detoxification. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a practice based on thousands of years of experience, that eye diseases, including cataracts, mainly stems from blood deficiency. According to TCM, your liver stores blood. This means that liver toxicity may lead to premature aging of the eyes and cataracts (39).
Modern science has also connected eye health to liver toxicity and liver problems. One study on 5963 participants has found a link between retinopathy and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This suggests that your liver health is crucial when it comes to eye health and the prevention of cataracts and macular degeneration (40).
Natural Support Strategies for Cataracts
If you are worried about developing cataracts or have been showing the early signs of the disease, then I have good news. There are a variety of natural support strategies you can apply to improve your eye health.
These strategies are not FDA approved to prevent, mitigate, treat or cure cataracts but they can be very helpful for overall eye health. Here is what I recommend:
Anti-Inflammatory Diet & Lifestyle
Eating an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet is a non-negotiable for your overall health. It is also absolutely critical when it comes to your eye health and the prevention of cataracts. First, you need to remove all inflammatory foods, including refined sugar and grains, gluten, refined oils, deep-fried and processed foods, grain-fed meat and eggs, conventional dairy, soda and sugary drinks, and foods that you are sensitive to. Instead, eat an anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet with plenty of greens, veggies, low glycemic index foods, herbs, grass-fed meat, and wild-caught fish. To learn more about an anti-inflammatory diet, read this article as well.
Diet is not enough. You also need to lead an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Focus on stress reduction, good sleep, increased movement, and time outdoors. Read on to learn more about some healthy lifestyle strategies.
Regular Movement & Exercise
Regular movement and exercise are the basis for a healthy lifestyle. They help to reduce chronic stress and chronic inflammation, promote sleep, improve relaxation, and enhance your overall health. Hence, they may help to reduce some major risk factors of cataracts and other eye conditions. I recommend that you exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes minimally 5 times a week.
Try a combination of cardiovascular exercise, strength and resistance training, and low-impact exercise. Stay active and move regularly throughout the day by taking a walk at lunch, stretching regularly, taking the stairs, playing with your kids, walking your dog, gardening, playing outdoors, and dancing to your favorite song.
Reduce Stress & Optimize Sleep
Reducing your stress levels is incredibly important for your eye health and the prevention of cataracts. Regular meditation, breathwork, daily gratitude, prayer, journaling, yoga, regular exercise, relaxation recordings, and nature walks are all excellent stress reduction strategies that I recommend.
Learn to shift your thoughts through reframing, positive self-talk, and mindset shifts. Working with a health coach, life coach, or therapist may be beneficial for you to help you to deal with different areas of stress in your life more effectively with the help of stress-reduction strategies.
Poor sleep is another contributing factor to stress and inflammation, which may lead to eye health issues, including cataracts. Getting quality sleep is necessary for your body to repair and rest after each day. I recommend that you develop a regular relaxing nighttime routine.
Turn off electronics. Avoid sugar, caffeine, or heavy meals in the evening. Engage in relaxing activities. Meditation, journaling, reading, prayer, and daily gratitude are great options to help you relax and put you in a good mood before bed.
Limit Screen Time & Optimize Time Outdoors
Blue light exposure is straining to your eyes and may lead to long-term eye damage and cataracts. It is important that you limit your screen time to only the necessary amount of time. Turn off your phone, tablet, and laptop unless you need it. Avoid all electronics at least two hours before bedtime.
Spending more time outdoors not only helps you to get away from technology but also helps you to obtain fresh air, to move your body, to relax, and to reduce inflammation. Go for a walk in the park, go for a hike, do some gardening, go for a run or a bike ride, or play in the snow.
Use Eye Protection
Protecting your eyes is critical for cataract prevention. It is important that you wear blue light blocking glasses such as Swanwick’s when you are using your electronics at night or under artificial lighting.
Use a full-spectrum lamp during the day and bedside light bulb for nighttime eye protection. Wear anti-glare sunglasses outside midday during times of peak UV intensity. This is important even in the winter if it’s sunny outside.
Optimize Vitamin D Levels
One of the best ways to improve your vitamin D levels is to increase your exposure to the sun. Chances are, you are spending most of your time indoors, hence, you won’t be able to optimize your vitamin D levels with the help of the sun alone.
Eating vitamin D-rich foods, such as fatty fish, beef liver, and eggs, and supplementation with vitamin D is critical for your eye health. You should also consider supplementing with vitamin D to get your levels up to the optimal range of 50-100 ng/ml. Typically supplementing with around 1,000 IU’s per 25 lbs of body weight will get you into that range, however, some people absorb vitamin D better than others and so it is important to test every 6 months or so to see where your levels are.
Use Cod Liver Oil
Improving your omega-3 levels is very important for cataract prevention. Cod Liver oil is one of the world’s best sources of the omega 3 fatty acids rich in both EPA and DHA. DHA is the most important essential fat for good eye health and EPA also plays a helpful role.
In addition, Cod Liver oil is a fantastic source of retinol which is the vital fat soluble form of vitamin A that is so helpful for good vision. On top of that, it also supplies us with vitamin D. Many brands have it in either a capsule form or a lemon flavored oil so it dosn’t taste bad at all and is easy to swallow.
Optimize Zinc, Lutein & Glutathione Levels
Zinc, lutein, and antioxidants, such as glutathione are essential for your eye health. To protect your eyes if you are at risk for eye degeneration or are experiencing it, I recommend supplementing with these ingredients.
Other good nutrients to look for include bilberry extract, N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), alpha lipoic acid and lycopene which all work to support healthy eye structure and function, reduce inflammation, and protects the macula, retina, and lens from oxidative damage.
Consider High Dose Resveratrol & Quercetin
A population-based control study has found that flavonoids may help to decrease the risk of age-related cataracts. Resveratrol and quercetin are two potent flavonoids that may help to prevent cataracts. According to research, resveratrol may delay cataract formation and may have anti-cataracts effects on those with diabetes.
This is why I recommend you consider getting more resveratrol and quercetin. They work together to help to support your eye health, improve the inflammatory response, support mitochondrial function, and support your overall health (41, 42, 43).
Final Thoughts on Cataracts
A cataract is an eye condition that is characterized by the clouding of the normally clear lens of your eyes. Cataracts affect nearly 20 percent of Americans over the age of 40. The good news is that with the natural support strategies in this article you can help to improve your overall eye health.
If you want to work with a functional health coach, I recommend this article with tips on how to find a great coach. At my clinic, we offer long-distance functional health coaching programs to help you achieve your health goals.