St. John’s Wort and the Cataract Connection

News is beginning to emerge in the popular media that the plant, St. John’s wort may, while being a cure for mild depression, not be good for our eyesight.

Research out of Fordham University finds that in the lab, hypericin, which is the active ingredient in St. John’s wort, may also make the eye susceptible to sunburn, even in visible light, which can cause a cloudy lens, leading to cataracts, and a damaged retina, which can mean irreversible macular degeneration which can lead to blindness.

In other words, the herb is phototoxic to the ocular lens.

If that is true we would expect to see the effects in a large population…and that is exactly what we are seeing.

Using data from the 2002 National Health Interview survey, epidemiologists from the University of Alabama cross-compared St. John’s wort use and cataracts and came away with a statistically significant result – participants with cataracts were 59 percent more likely to report SJW use for at least a year.

This is intriguing at the very least and should serve as a red flag for anyone turning to “Nature’s Prozac.”

Unlike medications, the FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) allows dietary supplements to be regulated like food and requires the manufacturers to be responsible for ensuring the product is safe before it’s marketed.

The FDA’s role is to monitor any adverse events that may crop up AFTER the supplement is on the market.

It seems a little like the tail wagging the dog, but the alternative is for the FDA to take on even more regulation over any products, including aspirin and alcohol which can present dangers if used irresponsibly.

In other words, it is a slippery slope to have government regulation over dietary supplements, because the outstanding question would be where to draw the line at regulation.

The best thing we can do is get the word out on Web sites that provide consumer information such as Farah and Farah and Injury Board, so that anyone who relies on St. John’s wort is an informed consumer.

In the meantime, if you take St. John’s wort, please have your eyesight examined regularly, and consider changing it out with other supplements that are also known to elevate mood but not damage the eye.