If you have dry eyes, there may be a simple way for you to treat the problem and get a number of other health benefits, too — start taking a daily fish oil supplement.
Fish oils and fatty fish — such as salmon, tuna and sardines — are excellent sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) that are important to health.
Fatty acids are important for the normal production and functioning of cells, muscles, nerves and organs throughout the body. Fatty acids also are required for the production of hormone-like compounds that help regulate blood pressure, heart rate and blood clotting.
Essential fatty acids, like those found in fish oil, are called “essential” because our bodies can’t produce them; to stay healthy, we have to get them from our diet.
Fish oil contains two important “long chain” omega-3s called eicoapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Our bodies need EPA and DHA for many vital functions, including producing tears to keep the eyes moist and healthy.
Other health benefits of EPA and DHA include reduced risk of heart disease and a reduction of chronic inflammation that can lead to a variety of serious diseases, including osteoarthritis, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Daily supplements of fish oil, when used alone or in tandem with lubricating eye drops, appear to reduce dry eye symptoms, including burning, stinging, redness and intermittent visual disturbances.
For example, a recent study published in Ophthalmology demonstrated that adults with dry eye symptoms who took daily oral supplements of omega-3 fatty acids totaling 360 mg EPA and 240 mg DHA for 30 days experienced an increase in tear secretion, a decrease in the rate of tear evaporation and a reduction in dry eye symptoms, compared with controls.
Based on these results and findings from other studies, many eye doctors are recommending fish oil supplements for their patients who suffer from dry eyes.
Some research suggests these same omega-3 fatty acids may also reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
If you don’t like the idea of taking fish oil supplements every day, it appears you may obtain the same benefits by eating grilled cold-water fish at least three times a week. Good sources of EPA and DHA omega-3s include salmon, sablefish, tuna and halibut.
Is There a Vegetarian Alternative?
If you are a vegetarian, you can use freshly ground flax seeds or liquid flaxseed oil as an alternative to fish oil for the treatment of dry eyes.
But there’s a catch: Instead of containing EPA and DHA, flax seeds and flaxseed oil contain a “short chain” omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that must be converted to EPA and DHA during digestion. And this conversion process isn’t very efficient. Our bodies convert only about 5 percent of dietary ALA into EPA and DHA.
You can purchase whole flax seeds in bulk at most health food stores. To get the greatest nutritional benefit, grind the seeds with an automatic coffee grinder right before you use them. Sprinkle the freshly ground seeds over salads, add them to a smoothie or mix them in fruit juice.
Flaxseed oil supplements are available in capsules or as a liquid. The capsules may seem more convenient, but you have to take a large number of them to achieve the daily dose of EPA and DHA many eye doctors recommend to treat dry eyes.
Also, the nutritional value of flaxseed oil is easily destroyed by light, heat and oxygen. So when purchasing flaxseed oil, look for a cold-pressed variety and keep it refrigerated to prolong its potency.
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish are classified as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, fish oil can cause stomach upset and/or diarrhea in some individuals, especially if taken in high doses.
Other possible side effects include increased burping, acid reflux, heartburn and abdominal bloating or pain. Risk of these side effects can be minimized if you take fish oils with meals and if you start with low doses.
Also, some fish oil supplements have a fishy aftertaste. This can be reduced by refrigerating the capsules or liquid, or by purchasing brands that promise no such problems.
Concerns about mercury poisoning from fish oils generally are unfounded. When present in waterways, methylmercury accumulates in fish meat more than in fish oil, and testing of fish oil supplements show they generally contain little or no mercury. Still, if this is a concern, using flaxseed oil as an alternative eliminates this issue.
As with any nutritional supplement, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor before taking significant quantities of fish oil or flaxseed oil for dry eyes to avoid unwanted side effects or interactions with any prescription or over-the-counter medicines you may be taking.
For example, fish oil and flaxseed oil can increase the risk of bleeding if you are taking blood thinners (even aspirin).
Also, long-term use of fish oil may cause a vitamin E deficiency in some individuals. If you begin taking a daily fish oil supplement for dry eyes, consider taking a vitamin E supplement as well. For safety, discuss your plans with your physician or eye doctor before taking any nutritional supplements.