Omega-3s and your eyes

nutrition is critical for healthy eyes

Thanks to media headlines and food marketing efforts, you probably associate omega-3 fats, or fish oil, with heart health or inflammation.  But eye health could be one of the more important benefits that few people have heard about.  With more people developing age-related eye diseases, it’s worth paying attention to this key nutrient.

Actually, the most critical time for adequate omega-3 intake for eye health might be during pregnancy.  DHA* in particular, concentrates in the developing retina from late pregnancy into early infancy, as the eye and brain continue to develop.  DHA concentration is higher in the retina than any other body tissue, and even when infant DHA intake is low, retinal DHA levels are maintained, presumably at the expense of other tissues. Some studies have shown that visual acuity is lower in infants and toddlers with low intake of DHA.  Where do infants get DHA?  From breast milk, if mom consumes sufficient omega-3 fats, or from formula that’s been fortified with it.

Because omega-3 fats, particularly DHA, play such an important role in retinal structure and function, research is focusing more on connections to chronic eye diseases.  A 2005 review from the National Institute of Health compiled data from several studies and concluded that omega-3 fat intake could be related to diseases like macular degeneration, but that better studies were needed.  More recent studies (and here) linked risk for advanced macular degeneration to omega-3 intake.  Higher intake from diet decreased risk.  However, these only looked at typical omega-3 intake from food, which is usually low in the US.  The researchers didn’t give subjects supplements for a prolonged period of time, to determine of omega-3 intake could prevent disease.  That is the type of study that is needed to clarify any preventive benefits.

Dry eye syndrome is a bothersome problem common to older women.  Tear production decreases, and the eyes become scratchy, dry and inflamed.  While the causes can vary – age, environment, underlying disease – the discomfort is the same.  Medical intervention involves expensive prescription drugs, artificial tear drops and in some cases, surgery.  Some eye doctors are aware that omega-3 supplements help, as these fats are present in the lipid layer of tears.  The American Optometric Association notes (scroll waaaaayy down the page, past all the information about prescription drugs and artificial tears–nutrition is always an afterthought) that patients with dry eye should ask their provider whether supplements might help.   So yes, if you’ve been diagnosed with dry eye, you should ask your eye doctor.  Some artificial tear solutions actually contain omega-3 fats now, which you drop into your eyes.  But frankly, given all the other health benefits of omega-3 fats, I’d rather consume them than drop them onto the surface of my eyes.

*Docosahexaenoic Acid, a 22-carbon fatty acid chain

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