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Can DHA Save Your Vision?

A fish dishIt’s hard to miss the media hubbub about the potential health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research has suggested that DHA in your diet is good for preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases, neurological conditions, depression and a slew of other conditions and maladies, including those that affect the retina.

You can get DHA from eating coldwater oceanic fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring and sardines, as well as from vegetarian sources, including walnuts and flax seed. Fish-oil and vegetarian DHA supplements are also available at most supermarkets and drug stores.

DHA’s Role in Health
So why is DHA thought to be such a powerful nutrient? Before birth and during infancy, DHA plays an essential role in the development of the entire nervous system, including the brain and retinas. Early in life, we get DHA while in the womb, and later from breast milk. (Infant formula is often supplemented with DHA.)

As we develop and mature, we get DHA from our diet. It continues to be critical to the structure, function and health of all cells of the body — especially cells called neurons, which transmit electrical information to and from the brain.

So can DHA help save vision for people affected by retinal diseases? While much of the research is ongoing, there is evidence that it can for some conditions. In another year or two, we are likely to know more about its potential for doing so.

We do know that DHA is prevalent in the retina. In fact, our photoreceptors, the neuronal cells that make vision possible, have more DHA than any other cells in our body. We also know that healthy levels of DHA in photoreceptors maximize retinal function and protect against damage from bright light exposure and oxidative stress. The latter is increased in people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and virtually all other retinal degenerative diseases.

DHA for Retinitis Pigmentosa
Dr. Eliot Berson, of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, was one of the first clinical researchers to prescribe DHA for a retinal disease. In 1993, he reported that vitamin A palmitate supplementation slowed vision loss in people with RP.

In subsequent studies, he found that eating coldwater fish rich in DHA boosted the vision-preserving effect of vitamin A palmitate. Information on Dr. Berson’s recommended treatment regimen, which also includes lutein supplementation, is available in a newly updated informational document posted on the Foundation’s website.

Drs. David Birch and Dennis Hoffman, clinical researchers at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, are wrapping up a five-year clinical trial of DHA supplementation for people with X-linked RP. Results from that study should be available in 2013.

DHA for AMD and Autosomal Dominant Stargardt Disease
There is also preliminary evidence that DHA may reduce the risk of vision loss from AMD. In the first age-related eye disease study (AREDS) conducted by the National Eye Institute, researchers saw a correlation in fish consumption with reduced risk of advanced AMD.

The second AREDS (AREDS2) is evaluating the effects of DHA — and a related omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA (also abundant in coldwater fish) — on advanced AMD risk. Many scientists believe that the combination of DHA and EPA is more effective than DHA alone. Results from AREDS2 are expected in 2013. (Antioxidants were also part of the first AREDS and are being evaluated in AREDS2, but I will save that discussion for another blog post.)

And, last, Dr. Paul Bernstein, at the University of Utah, is conducting a clinical trial of DHA and EPA supplementation for people with autosomal dominant Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration caused by mutations in the gene ELOVL4. He plans to report results in 2013.

Consulting a Physician
I’ve covered the major retina-related clinical studies and findings on DHA and EPA, but it isn’t an exhaustive list. Regardless of the disease, or other research reports out there, I urge anyone with a retinal disease to talk to his or her eye doctor before taking DHA and EPA supplements. The doctor can suggest optimal doses and, at the same time, ensure that they don’t interact with other medications a patient is taking.


15 Responses to 'Can DHA Save Your Vision?'

  1. J.K. Sargent says:

    “Regardless of the disease, or other research reports out there, I urge anyone with a retinal disease to talk to his or her eye doctor before taking DHA and EPA supplements. The doctor can suggest optimal doses and, at the same time, ensure that they don’t interact with other medications a patient is taking.”

    Neither an eye doctor, nor medical doctor is capable of doing what you just described. They were never trained in any of those disciplines. Their opinion on something they have done no study or research into, holds less weight than a feather. Go to someone who actually has … holostic, natropath, homeopath, medical researcher, etc. You can look up more on the internet in clinical studies/trials than your eye doc or regular doc knows. If you just want a prescription/surgery – they can do that….it’s currently all they can do in the U.S. The pharmaceutical reps train them in what to say. They are puppets. That’s why they call what they do a “practice.”

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Thanks for your comment J.K.

      Finding a physician or an eye doctor that is familiar with inherited retinal diseases and related treatments such as DHA or vitamin A palmitate may not always be easy, especially for those people not living in a major metropolitan area. With that said, doctors with knowledge of retinal diseases are out there, and we can help you find them. We fund several outstanding clinical researchers at major academic institutions around the country, and we also maintain a list of physicians who are interested in treating people with inherited retinal diseases. Contact the Foundation at 1-800-683-5555 or and state your needs or interests. We will try to help.

    • Ray says:

      I agree with J.K. Sargent on this matter regarding the qualifications of physcians who practice mainstream medicine. I have extensive experience in using DHA to treat depression. In addition, it appears that I have Usher Syndrome.

      In March, 2002 I was diagnosed with a virus in my eyes. That was a warning for me to find a way to improve my immune system. We all know that there is no pill available to improve our immune system, thus I turned to alternative, integrative, holistic medicine. I’ve not had the flu or cold since the winter of 2010. Yes, I spend a lot of money on dietary supplements, but I feel better now than I did years ago.

      I am currenly taking four grams of fish oil daily of which 1,600 mg is DHA. This is the bare minimum that will help with my depression. I do much better taking 2,000 mg DHA daily, however DHA is expensive. I’m a big guy, so this may not be the best dosage for someone else as we are ALL unique individuals. I came to this conclusion by experimentation over a long period of time and without the minimum dosage of DHA, I can feel the surge of rage coming forth within me when I get angry. DHA keeps me mellow.

    • Holly says:

      Yep, last place for nutritional adviice is a medical doctor.

    • D.P.Sarbagya says:

      Mr. J.K.Sargent I do agree with your thought about modern doctors .They neither have an interst nor time to impart holistic treatments to suffers.

  2. Rwida says:

    I am rwida 30yers I have reatinaites peagmentosa I am from lebya

  3. Ruth R says:

    I obtained the DHA from the Alfa Team in California. Their DHA is 70%+ concentrated. After 2 months of using it, it helped me to reduced my eye prescription from 380 to 250/ Hardly need my eye glasses. I think they sell it around the world. Not FDA approved though.
    But it is amazing, also helped me with my varicose veins.

  4. my son has stargardts disease I am trying to help him improve his vision. are there any clinical trials in florida??your web page is very informative thank you for the information

  5. Kevin Day says:

    I have gone from reading glasses 3.5 to 2 and didn’t realize why my eyesight had been improving until I found I could actually read standard print size without glasses albeit with a bit of a struggle something I’ve not been able to do for many years I’m 60 years old.
    I have been taking 6 caps of fish oil a day for the last 4 months to help me with arthritis but my eyesight has also improved substantially.

  6. EyeOnTheCure says:

    “To the surprise of many, there was no effect of Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EPA/DHA). There are speculations why this occurred, ranging from a “well-nourished” study population who took fish oil on their own to those reaching a saturation point of serum levels of these acids. Considering that the highest levels of fatty acids in the retina are DHA, more evaluation of these results are warranted.”

  1. […] DHA is already naturally occurring and prevalent in the retina. Preliminary evidence from the National Eye Institute suggests that there is a correlation between DHA and reduced risk of age-related macular […]

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