An introduction to cataracts
Cataracts are a common condition affecting 1 in 3 people over 65 in the UK.
Cataracts affect the lens of the eye which, much like the lens of a camera, focuses light onto the back of the eye, adjusting as we look at objects at different distances. As the lens naturally changes or becomes damaged, this causes vision to become misty or cloudy. If untreated cataracts can cause blindness – in fact, they are the leading cause of blindness across the world. This is because although surgery for cataracts is fairly simple and effective, many developing countries do not have access to this kind oftreatment.
There are three types of cataracts, and these are defined by the part of the lens that is affected:
- Subcapsular cataract: this is when the cataract develops on the back of the lens
- Nuclear: this is when the centre of lens becomes hardened and causes a cataract
- Cortical: this is when the cataract begins at outer edge of the lens (cortex) and grows inwards.
What are the symptoms of cataracts?
The common symptoms of cataracts are:
- Cloudy/misty vision – this can sometimes be mistaken for blurry vision
- Dull colours
- Difficulty seeing in very dim or very bright light
- Glare from bright lights can feel uncomfortable or painful
- Bright rings of light called halos can sometimes appear around sources of light
- Double vision.
What are the causes of cataracts?
Cataracts are usually caused by damaged proteins in the lens. These proteins may unfold, clump together or crystallise – all of these reduce the transparency of the lens, scatteringlight as it enters the eye. The exact reason why this occurs is not fully understood but it is thought that oxidation plays a role.
Oxidation is the process by which chemicals or molecules present in our bodies react with oxygen. During this process, some atoms lose an electron, creating what is called a ‘free radical’, which is an atom with one unpaired electron.This causes the atom to either quickly bond with another atom, or ‘steal’ an electron from another atom, which then itself becomes a free radical, setting off a chain reaction. This can destabilise cells and interfere with normal cell function.
Risk factors with cataracts
Researchers have identified a number of risk factors that appear to be involved with the development of cataracts, including:
- Age – this is the most common factor involved with cataracts. Some people develop cataracts in their 40s and 50s, but most commonly it is the over 60s who develop this condition
- Eye injury– this is known as traumatic cataract
- Some medications, such as steroids
- Eye surgery for other eye conditions – this is known as a secondary cataract
- Exposure to UV rays – it is thought that UV rays contribute to oxidation in the eye
- Having a family history of cataracts
- Poor diet lacking in antioxidants
- Consuming alcohol heavily
Cataracts in children
Cataracts can sometimes develop in children. Some babies are born with cataracts,known as a congenital cataract. It is important to identify and remove this as early as possible because during this early stage of life, the brain and eyes need to learn to see together. If the cataract is removed too late, the brain may never learn to see even if the eyes themselves are working fine.
Some children develop cataracts later in life, and this is known as developmental, infantile or juvenile cataracts. It is important to remove these to prevent any long-term damage.
Cataracts in children are often caused by a genetic fault during foetal development, contracting certain infections such as rubella or chicken pox during birth, or an injury to the eye.
Natural treatment and self-help
There aren’t really any reliable natural treatment options for cataracts: in this instance we recommend sticking with conventional treatment. There are, however, some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing them in the first place.
Firstly, you should try to reduce the number of risk factors that apply to you if you can. For example you should stop smoking, cut back on alcohol intake, lose weight and protect your eyes from UV rays by wearing sunglasses.
Since oxidation is seen to play a role in the development of cataracts, you should increase the amount of antioxidants in your diet. These nutrients donate an electron to a free radical but remain stable themselves, ending the chain reaction. Antioxidants are often found in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables and leafy greens. Read our full guide on what foods to eat for healthy eyes.
Are there any herbal remedies that might help?
If you feel that you are struggling to incorporate all the necessary nutrients for eye health into your diet, you can supplement this by taking our Vision Complex. This contains naturally sourced lutein, zinc, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene. These nutrients are essential for healthy eyes and vision, but they also help to metabolise other essential nutrients such as vitamin A and fatty acids.
This should not be used to replace a healthy, balanced diet.
The conventional treatment for cataracts is to remove the lens altogether and replace it with a small synthetic lens. This procedure usually takes place under local anaesthetic and you are normally able to go home the same day.