Eyes and nutrition
A healthy diet is an important component of eye health according to The National Eye Institute.1 Visual decline and the risk of developing eye diseases, increases with age. Some common types of disorders include cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and dry eye disease. Genetics and age play a large role in the development and progression of these diseases but much is still in our control, namely diet and lifestyle.
Types of omega-3s linked to eye health
Omega-3s exist in three forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The DHA and EPA forms are the most important for visual development and retinal function.3 The retina is the part of the eye that receives images and sends signals to the brain about what it has seen.
EPA and DHA are largely found in fatty fish including salmon, tuna, halibut and mackerel. ALA is found in plant foods like walnuts and flaxseeds, but requires conversion to DHA in the body to be active. Since this conversion is largely inefficient, it is best not to rely on it as the primary source of omega-3s.
DHA and EPA for eye health
DHA is found in a high concentration in the retina, which supports the hypothesis that DHA and EPA are important for visual development and retinal function.2 Studies suggest that the retina can degrade over time if there is not enough DHA in the diet.2
Additionally, it is possible that omega-3s exert an anti-inflammatory effect in the retina.2 This may help to relieve inflammation that characterizes many eye disorders.
Dry eye syndrome and omega-3 fats
Dry eye syndrome, in particular, has been linked to low or deficient levels of DHA and EPA.1 Dry eye develops commonly as we age when our eyes cannot maintain production of tears needed for health. This can be brought on by a several different reasons including exposure to a dry environment or sunlight, smoking, allergies and menopause.1 Omega-3s appear to improve function in the eye’s Meibomian glands.4 These glands are responsible for secreting oil that coats the surface of the eye and affects how clearly we see. The National Eye Institute states that some patients with dry eye have experienced decreased irritation when supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids or dietary sources like fish.1
What this means for us
Eating omega-3-rich foods, particularly fish, or supplementing responsibly, may help to support overall eye health. There is no official recommendation established by the government for how much omega-3 fatty acids we should consume. As a dietitian, I follow the American Heart Association’s recommendation, which is two servings per week with one serving being equivalent to three and a half ounces of cooked fish.