More than 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with a chronic dry eye condition. Many more experience discomfort that may not be severe enough to see a practitioner. Proper nutrition can help support and condition the eyes.
Dry eyes can be temporary, in extreme weather, or in a dry environment such as an airplane. Or, the problem may be linked to long periods of looking at a digital screen. Although the condition is more common in older people, especially women, its incidence is growing among young adults.
In both chronic and temporary cases, certain nutrients may help to relieve occasional dry eye symptoms. While these nutrients can be obtained from a nutritious diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish, few people eat an ideal diet today. Supplements are a practical and beneficial addition.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, have been studied for helping to keep the eye lubricated and are often recommended by eye doctors.2
The moisture that lubricates eyes, called “tears,” consists of three layers: an inner mucus layer, a watery layer in the middle, and an oily outer layer.3 The oily layer is made by glands along the eyelash line, called meibomian glands.4 Omega-3 fatty acids seem to improve the function of these glands, increasing production of the outer layer of tears.5
The Women’s Health Study looked at more than 32,000 women between the ages of 39 and 90. It found that those who ate 5 to 6 servings weekly of fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, were 68-percent less likely to suffer from dry eyes, compared to women who ate such fish only once per week.6
Other studies have found that taking fish oil supplements enhanced eye lubrication7 and helped to maintain moisture in the eyes.8 These mechanisms contribute to healthy tear production and eye comfort.
Omega-3 supplements have also brought relief from occasional dry eyes that are a common side effect of laser surgery to correct vision in healthy people. A study of such surgery patients found that the supplements speeded healing, enhanced vision, and helped to maintain eye lubrication.9
Several studies have found that where individuals have dry eye symptoms, or have been diagnosed with dry eye disease, low blood levels of vitamin D may be contributing to the problem.10 In these cases, supplementing with vitamin D to increase blood levels has produced relief.11 In the case of dry eye disease, supplements were used in conjunction with other treatment, such as artificial tears.12
A national survey of more than 75,000 people, aged 18 and older, found that among those who were diagnosed with dry eye disease, the most common symptom was itching. The next most common was a gritty sensation, followed by the feeling of a foreign body in the eye, blurred vision, redness, light sensitivity, and pain.13 Other symptoms may include watery eyes, in response to irritation, or difficulty driving or wearing contact lenses.
Avoiding tobacco smoke and dry air blowing on the eyes, from air conditioners, heaters, fans, or hair dryers, helps to prevent dry eyes. Many people don’t blink enough when staring at a computer or other digital screen, but blinking more often also helps, as does taking breaks. In addition, it’s best to position computer or other digital screens at or slightly below eye level. When a screen is above your eye level, having to open your eyes wider than usual can contribute to breakdown of eye lubrication.14
2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. https://www.aao.org/eyenet/article/nutrition-in-fight-against-eye-disease
5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/does-fish-oil-help-dry-eye
11. (This study also referenced above) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5048427/