Omega-3s: Can Omega-3 Fats Alleviate Dry Eye Syndrome?

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 2:16pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

I have dry eye syndrome—this is my story. Although this ailment may seem trivial compared to life-threatening health problems, for the estimated 10 million people in the United States with severe dry eye symptoms, it’s not a joking matter. Numerous research articles describe adverse effects, from ocular pain to impaired vision and a lowered quality of life. The condition is most common in women, especially women over 50. Natural tear production plummets for unknown reasons. Eyes can be chronically red, inflamed, scratchy and burning. The only relief might come from constant use of artificial tear eye drops. One intervention involves placing tiny plugs into the eye ducts which drain tears, in an attempt to preserve any tears that form.

Omega-3s help inflammation

When I went to a doctor for this problem, a tear production test showed that my eyes didn’t make any tears. Eventually, my condition got so bad my doctor advised me to consider eye surgery that would remove areas of severe inflammation. But then, my optometrist said something that changed everything for me—he mentioned some patients taking flax for their general health noticed their eyes improved as well. Right away, I understood that flax meant omega-3 fats. And because of my training, I also knew there was a connection between inflammation and low intake of omega-3 fats.

Omega-3s lipids are distinctly different from omega-6 fats, which are more abundant in our diets. The human body uses lipids to make a variety of inflammation modulators. Omega-3 lipids are the preferred source, if they are lacking, omega-6s are substituted. Because the average diet today tends to lack omega-3 fats, our bodies manufacture the more inflammatory omega-6 versions of these modulators. As a registered dietitian, I knew all about this issue, but had never bothered to take omega-3 supplements. Now I had a reason.

Buying omega-3 supplements

I went for the most potent source—fish oil capsules. One of the problems with omega-3 supplements is that they are not regulated. A label may claim the capsules contain a certain amount of omega-3, but they’re no guarantee they actually do. When I started taking them, I was pretty certain I had real fish oil because I experienced a common side effect of taking them—fishy burps. (Keeping the capsules in the freezer helps eliminate this minor annoyance.)

My eyes were making tears again within 24 hours of taking my first capsules. A fishy taste was a very small price to pay. Subsequent follow-up exams with my optometrist confirmed my eyes were producing tears again. I have now been taking fish oil for more than 2 years, and my symptoms remain much improved.

Research on dry eyes and omega-3s

Many eye doctors know about this effect and recommend fish oil to their patients. However, until recently there was no research to prove the effect. In October, 2005, a study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers at the Shepens Eye Research Institute analyzed data from an ongoing women’s health study. Women who ate the highest amounts of omega-3 fats in their diet (primarily from tuna) had the lowest rate of dry eye syndrome. There are two possible reasons: omega-3 fats tend to suppress inflammation, and tear glands use omega-3 fats to make tears. Both effects could be true. More research is needed.

Dry eye problems: talk to your doctor

If you suspect you have dry eye syndrome, talk to an optometrist; after all, other eye conditions exhibit similar symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with dry eye syndrome, discuss taking omega-3 supplements with your doctor. Based on experience with other patients, he may have a recommended dose. Also, inform your doctor if you are taking prescriptions for other medical conditions.

How much omega-3 should you take for dry eyes?

There are no official recommendations. If your eye doctor does not have a recommendation, look for a product that provides 2-3 grams of fish oil in a daily dose. A portion of the total is EPA and DHA, the two most important omega-3 fats. Be sure those are listed on the label. And be absolutely sure to follow up with your eye doctor to evaluate progress.

For more information on the health benefits of omega-3 see the following article from TheDietChannel: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: General Info.