The Mintel report, “Patent insights: gut health for holistic wellbeing”, outlined the product development opportunities that are emerging as consumers became more aware of the influence of the gut microbiome on overall health. One of the opportunities highlighted was foods that improve eye health via a healthy gut microbiome.
The context to this opportunity was the focus on eye health that has ensued from growing concerns around screen time and blue light exposure, according to the report.
“Consumers of all age groups are spending more time at screens, which has increased the importance of maintaining healthy vision,” wrote the author, Neha Srivastava, patent analyst at Mintel.
The report also cited an internet study in which 40% of US consumers agreed that they were worried about age-related eye health degeneration.
Scientific advancement is also paving the way for eye health-related product development – particularly in the gut-eye axis realm.
“Emerging research suggests the existence of the gut-eye axis, wherein gut microbiota imbalance may influence the onset or progression of eye health-related issues such as uveitis, dry eye, and macular degeneration,” wrote Srivastava.
Is the gut-eye axis real?
A 2021 review of research in this area affirmed scientists’ belief in the presence of a gut-eye axis, whereby imbalances in the intestinal microbiota may influence the onset and progression of eye diseases such as uveitis, dry eye, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.
“Intestinal microbiota appears to be essential in propagating inflammatory diseases of the eye and could represent a potential target for further approaches in the treatment of severe and chronic ocular conditions, as manipulation of the gut microbiome has been shown to influence the course of ocular diseases,” wrote the researchers in Annals of Medicine.
They said supplementation with pre- and probiotics appeared to be “the most feasible and cost-effective approach to restore the gut microbiota to a eubiotic state and prevent eye pathologies”.
However, they cautioned that the mechanisms involved in the regulation of the gut-eye axis had not yet been completely clarified.
Microbes on the move
One theory is that microbes may migrate from one part of the body to another area or areas, due to leaky intestinal membranes, or other circulatory/lymphatic routes, as explained by Mike Bowen, director of research at The College of Optometrists, in an article on the correlation between gut health and eye health.
“Research in mice has found that autoimmune uveitis can be caused by T cells (a type of lymphocyte which develops in the thymus that plays a central role in the immune response) that have been activated by gut bacteria to target retinal proteins. Once activated these T cells travel through the circulatory system to the eye, where they cause the autoimmune response leading to uveitis,” he wrote.
He added that other research has shown that the surface of our eyes has its own bacterial ecosystem, and that this required further investigation.
“It seems likely that we will see more research in the areas of the ocular microbial ecosystem, and the interactions between eye health, our microbial flora and fauna systemically,” he concluded.
Patent activity focuses on probiotics and prebiotics
While the science for influencing eye health via the gut is still at an early stage, the number of patents that have been filed recently suggest that it is one for nutraceutical industry innovators to watch.
Via its partnership with Cipher - an AI-assisted patent analysis system - Mintel has identified the key patents that have been filed and granted for ingredient solutions in this area.
A granted patent filed by Korean inventors covered a method of analysing intestinal microbiota that helps predict metabolic and eye diseases, and then recommended customised prebiotics or probiotics for the prevention of these conditions. The method predicted these conditions based on the production of short-chain fatty acids by gut microbes.
A Japanese company claimed to have developed a method to improve eye health using Lactobacillus paracasei strain KW3110. The pending patent claimed the probiotic exerts an effect on immune cells present in the intestinal tract and thereby suppresses retinal inflammation and eye discomfort caused by exposure to blue light.
Beyond biotics: Lutein and carotenoids
Whilst pro- and prebiotics are the obvious candidates for inclusion in product concepts designed to improve eye health via the gut-eye axis, there may also be opportunities for combining more established gut health ingredients with non-biotic nutrients that have well-researched eye health benefits.
“A healthy gut microbiome is vital for a healthy immune system and for the absorption of nutrients and compounds like lutein or carotenoids that support eye health. There are opportunities for foods that improve immune and eye health via a healthy gut microbiome,” wrote Srivastava.