Our eyes are most happy when they are full of tears. Not so full that the tears are running down our cheeks — just enough that they are adequately lubricated. When the tear ducts do not produce enough fluid to keep the eyes comfortably moist, the result is a burning, irritating sensation referred to as dry eye syndrome (DES).

About 14% of adults over the age of 40 have DES. The condition is more common in women than in men, partly because hormonal changes during menopause increase the risk. Other risk factors include having diabetes, wearing contact lenses, exposure to cigarette smoke, and normal aging (our bodies produce 60% less oil at age 65 than at age 18). DES is also a hallmark symptom of Sjögren’s syndrome, an immune system disease. Certain medications, including thyroid drugs, beta-blockers and antidepressants, also may cause DES.

While standard treatments, including the use of artificial tears and blocking the “tear drains” in the bottom eyelid, may offer temporarily relief for DES sufferers, they don’t address the fact that the body is not producing adequate tears on its own.

Diet and dry eyes

Recently, a few studies have looked at links between nutrition and DES. In one of these studies, a researcher pointed to the fact that malnutrition can produce DES and suggested that “sufficient dietary protein, vitamins A, B6 and C, potassium, and zinc may be necessary for normal tear function.”

Of these, vitamin A may be the most important to vision health in general. A deficiency in vitamin A is a known risk factor for night blindness and has also been linked to cataracts. It is the number one treatment for DES in impoverished populations where the condition is due to malnutrition. However, some researchers advocate vitamin A supplementation in all cases of DES, as a variety of nutritional deficiencies may occur even in “healthy” populations, especially in the aged.

Vital omega-3

Recently, a study of 32,470 women participating in the Women’s Health Study revealed that women with a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids are at decreased risk of developing DES. The findings make sense, since omega-3 fats are vital to proper tear film production. Lawrence Minardi, MD, a West Virginia ophthalmologist, says he has treated hundreds of patients with omega-3 supplements in the last several years. “The overwhelming majority have seen significant improvement in their ocular symptoms and dry eyes,” he said. “I have dry eye syndrome myself, and I’ve been taking it for two years. My dry eyes are immensely better.”

Sources: Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Oct;82(4):887-93; Optom Vis Sci. 1991 Jan;68(1):58-72; Opthalmology Times, May 15, 2003; Prescription for Nutritional Healing by J & P Balch, Avery:1997