About 33 million Americans in all age groups experience varying degrees of dry eye symptoms. The symptoms may include dryness, grittiness, irritation, burning and even the seeming contradiction of excessive watering or tearing. Untreated dry eye symptoms can also lead to more serious issues like night blindness, corneal ulcers and even blindness. So here’s the lowdown on dry eyes.
Symptoms & Causes:
The symptoms of dry eye are more noticeable to the patient than to casual observers or family members. The person may frequently rub the eyes or complain of a burning, scratchy feeling or stinging in the eyes. Stringy mucus may form around or in the eyes. The eyes may be red. Vision could become blurred or the eyes could become fatigued easily. Also, driving at night or wearing contact lenses may become difficult. Ironically, the eyes may overreact and produce too many tears due to irritation from dry eye. The condition usually affects both eyes. Many people with dry eye symptoms start using over-the-counter eye drops. However, these drops can be counter-productive, particularly if they just are used to “get the red out” and/or contain preservatives which can make symptoms worse.
Consult an eye doctor, who will perform a full eye exam. The eye doctor will use painless tools to observe the tear film. The tear film consists of the mucous membrane, the watery layer made by tear glands, an oily layer made by the meibomian glands and a layer of salty water. Blinking restores the tear film. Staring too long at a computer screen disrupts the tear film and can cause dry eyes. Research has shown that people blink less when they use a computer. Also, incomplete blinking contributes to dry eye.
Dry eyes are a condition of the entire body, not just the eyes. Women approaching or in menopause commonly suffer from dry eyes due to hormonal changes, which also contribute to internal drying. The tiny tear ducts and delicate tear film require many bodily systems to be working correctly. Therefore, those who suffer from dry eye should consider making changes to their diet and introducing nutritional supplements.
One of the most important aspects for people who suffer from dry eyes is avoiding sugar and artificial sweeteners. Sugar increases the risk of dry eyes.
Potential Risk Factors:
- A malfunctioning of the oily secretions of the lacrimal gland or blocked ducts on the lid margin. These problems make the tear film evaporate too quickly.
- Excessive screen time. Computer workers have low amounts of mucin 5AC, an important component of the mucus layer.
- Changes in the tear film. Any disruption of the tear film can lead to dry eye. The tear film needs to have a specific composition and be distributed properly. For example, an eyelid problem can impact tear film distribution.
- Hormone fluctuations, especially in women. Dry eye is common in women who are going through major hormonal changes (pregnancy, birth control pill users, peri-menopause, menopause, and post-menopause).
- Age. Seniors naturally produce about 40% less lubrication than younger people. Free radical damage over time may be partly to blame.
- Pollution. Smoking, windy conditions, air conditioning and allergies can contribute to dry eye.
- Contact lenses worn long-term can reduce corneal sensitivity, resulting in dry or watery eyes.
- Medications can cause dry eye as a side effect. Examples include decongestants, diuretics, antihistamines and codeine.
- Eye surgery.
- Nerve damage from diabetes. About half of diabetes patients have dry eyes.
- Arthritis or other auto-immune conditions. Sjogren’s Syndrome in particular.
Whole Body Conditions Associated with Dry Eye
Dry eye often reflects the health of the entire body. A condition that affects mucous membranes may result in dry eyes, mouth, lips, nasal passages, etc.
Auto-immune Disorders: Sjogren’s Syndrome, Lupus Erythematosus, Graves’ Disease (hyperthyroidism) and rheumatoid arthritis trick the immune system into attacking secretion and tear production cells. Corneal issues can result in dry eyes or overproduction of tears such as corneal erosion or trauma, resulting in a scratch to the cornea. Dry spots on the eye may result from damaged eye cells.
Chronic, Systemic Inflammation: Current research points to chronic, systemic inflammation as a contributor to many diseases. Heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma and even neurodegenerative disease are linked to chronic inflammation. Dry eye is a symptom of chronic inflammation. C reactive protein in the blood is a marker for inflammation. Inflammation is part of the normal healing process, but chronic inflammation is unhealthy.
Things You Can Do:
If you have chronic dry eye, there are some approaches that can make you more comfortable.
Buy over-the-counter, preservative-free artificial tears for comfort. They may come in single-dose packaging. Avoid eye drops that contain preservatives, as they may cause irritation. Also, avoid medicated eye drops unless prescribed or recommended by your eye doctor.
- Your eye doctor may offer thorough lid margin (edge) cleaning to unblock ducts temporarily.
- The eye doctor may try inserting a tiny plug into a drainage duct in the eye. Similar to plugging a bathtub, the procedure might increase eye moisture.
- Use a lid wipe to remove debris and excess oils from the lid and lid margins.
- Eye exercises specifically helpful for dry eye include palming, near and far and eye massage on acupressure points.
- Regular acupuncture treatments can decrease inflammation and improve lubrication.
Since dry eye is often a symptom of inflammation, reducing chronic inflammation can help. The unhealthy chronic inflammatory response may be linked to the gut microbiome. Gut bacteria balance is strongly affected by what you eat. Refined sugar, white bread, pastries, junk food, fried foods, and processed meats may increase inflammation.
Instead, eat a diet rich in dark leafy green vegetables, brightly colored produce, lean protein, nuts, beans, lentils, fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), olive oil, and whole grains. The Mediterranean Diet foots this bill. Avoid crash diets and fad diets.
You may not be able to get therapeutic amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from your diet. Supplement with a high-quality, no-mercury fish oil that combines omega-3, 6, and 9 to support the health of the tear film and relieve dry eye symptoms.
A newly discovered essential fatty acid is called Omega-7 or palmitoleic acid. Omega-7 appears to lower C-reactive protein. A study found that adults with high levels of C-reactive protein who took 210 mg a day of omega-7 had a 73% decrease of the blood marker for inflammation.
If you suffer with gritty, sore, itchy eyes, they need to be examined by an eye doctor. If you are diagnosed with dry eye syndrome, work with your doctor to narrow down the cause. Try targeted nutrients for dry eye. Also, consider reducing any chronic inflammation by improving your diet and taking supplements.
Dry eye reflects the whole body’s health. Therefore, address any underlying conditions and improve your nutrition. If your dry eye is chalked up to the natural aging process, watch your diet and get regular exercise. Seniors have less efficient digestion and thus may need additional supplementation.
And if you need assistance with any of this, consider adding regular acupuncture treatments into your routine. Acupuncture has been proven to be effective at helping with dry eye, as well as chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.