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Beta-carotene (vitamin A)
Beta-carotene is a precursor for vitamin A and is a red-orange pigment found in many plants and fruit. It is the substance that gives carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes their characteristic orange colour.
Beta-carotene is thought to be good for the eye because of its anti-oxidant effects and ability to remove damaging 'free-radicals'. It has also been approved by the European Food Standards Agency for the claim 'Vitamin A contributes to the maintenance of normal vision'.
High doses of beta-carotene have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smoker and ex-smokers. This is why Viteyes 2 contains an alternative that is as effective, but can still be taken by smokers.
Bilberries, blueberries and blackberries
Bilberries, blueberries and blackberries contain high amounts of pigments called flavonoids, including anthocyanin, that give these fruits their red, purple and blue colours. These are protective antioxidants which reduce the damage to the blood vessels in the eye caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are harmful oxidisers formed when oxygen reacts with pollutants, smoke, and chemicals in food. They bind to the delicate vessels at the back of the eye and damage or destroy cells, changing the way they work and stopping their renewal. They may be particularly concentrated at the back of the eye, because the macula uses a high amount of oxygen. As well as damaging the blood vessels, free radicals can also damage the rods and cones, these are the cells in the eye that perceive light and colour.
Antioxidants work by allowing free radicals to bind to them instead of our cells, this stops them from causing permanent damage to these blood vessels and cells.
The reason that bilberry extract is included in eye health supplements is because it has the highest concentration of anti-oxidant flavonoids. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant, some studies have shown the extract to improve blood circulation, vision and even prevent blood clots as it can dilate blood vessels.
The anti-oxidant ingredients in the berries are thought to strengthen the walls of the blood vessels and reduce damage to these vessels. This is particularly relevant to macular degeneration where in addition to drusen (small, fatty deposits) there is a breakdown of light-sensitive cells and supporting tissue in the centre of the retina.
The studies are encouraging, however more research in a wider group is needed to clarify the optimum dose and investigate possible side effects.