Does Fish Oil Help Dry Eyes? A Look at the Science

Does Fish Oil Help Dry Eyes?

For those of us who sit at the computer most of the day, dry eyes can be a major problem. At the same time, there is a health condition called dry eye syndrome, where people produce fewer or less effective tears.

Regardless of the cause, dry eyes can be frustrating and uncomfortable. In the long term, there is also the risk of damage to your eyesight.

In most cases, solutions for dry eyes target the symptoms, like using eye drops to create artificial tears or relying on special contacts. But, in this post, we’re considering an approach that targets the problem itself.

Specifically, does fish oil help dry eyes?

Now, fish oil is one of the most common supplements and has long been associated with health benefits (1,2,3), including for mental health and heart disease risk.

In fact, fish oil is a key source of omega-3 fatty acids, especially for people that don’t eat fish regularly. So, for overall health, fish oil is powerful.

But, what is the connection between fish oil and your eyes?

This article has been updated to include the conclusions of recent research studies.

Fish Oil and Eye Health

Omega-3 fatty acids are key compounds in the structure of the eye. As such, not getting enough of them can increase the risk of eye disease (4,5).

At the same time, fish oil is critical for fighting inflammation in the body, and helps to protect you from a range of diseases by doing so (6,7). Indeed, supplementing with fish oil has been shown to decrease pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis (8,9), which is an inflammation-based disease.

Dry eye itself is a complex condition but treating inflammation may play a significant role in improving symptoms (10). Indeed, inflammation can make dry eye worse and fish oil would help in that area.

Does Fish Oil Help Dry Eyes?

Research studies have confirmed the effects of fish oil on dry eyes. 

In particular, one 2017 pilot study looked at the effects of fish oil or a placebo on the symptoms of dry eye – across a 3-month period. Here, the authors found that the omega-3 supplementation improved tear osmolarity, which is a key symptom associated with dry eyes.

Tear osmolarity is considered the ‘gold standard’ for diagnosing dry eye because symptoms can vary from one person to the next (11). As such, anything that improves tear osmolarity is going to reduce the symptoms of dry eye.

Similar outcomes have been found in other cases too.

  • One example is dry eyes associated with computer use (13), where omega-3 supplements decreased dry eye symptoms.
  • A meta-analysis of research also confirmed that omega-3 supplementation does have therapeutic benefits for dry eye (15). As the previous studies have shown, this seems to be the case regardless of the underlying cause.
  •  Studies have also varied in length, with some positive outcomes being reported after just a month (14)

Another study looked at omega-3 supplementation for people with contact lens-associated dry eye. In this case, the supplementation resulted in significant symptom improvement and more comfort in wearing contact lenses (12).

A second such study aimed to determine whether contact lens discomfort could be decreased by using anti-inflammatory techniques. The study had four different experimental groups:

  • Olive oil supplements (placebo)
  • Fish oil supplements (900 mg/day EPA + 600 mg/day DHA)
  • Fish and flax oil supplements (900 mg/day EPA + 600 mg/day DHA + 900 mg/day AHA)
  • Omega-3 eye drops (0.025% EPA + 0.0025% DHA four times per day)

The authors found that fish oil supplementation for 12 weeks significantly reduced contact lens discomfort among participants. There were also indications that the supplementation reduced inflammation. 

Contradictory Research

As is often the case, not all research agrees. One large-scale study failed to find any improvement in dry eye symptoms among participants.

The reason for the lack of relationship isn't clear. 

  • However, the study did allow participants to continue any other treatments that they were already using, such as anti-inflammatory eye drops. That approach might mask some of the effects of the omega-3.
  • Additionally, the study considered moderate to severe dry eye disease. Many of the studies that showed benefit were for less significant issues, such as dry eye from computer use and contact lens discomfort.

These patterns suggest that fish oil may be most powerful for people with mild dry eye symptoms and anyone who wears contact lenses regularly.

Omega-3 Supplementation

Fish oil on a spoon

In this discussion, I’ve used the terms omega-3 supplements and fish oil interchangeably. This is because most omega-3 supplements are fish oil. In fact, the main alternative is krill oil, which has many of the same benefits (16).

However, the topic is a little more complex than that. Specifically, there are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids. These are:

  • EPA
  • DHA
  • ALA

EPA and DHA are the forms that are commonly found in fish (and krill), along with some fortified foods. The supplements in the studies above typically used a combination of EPA and DHA – although the amounts varied from one study to the next.

In contrast, ALA is the type of omega-3 commonly found in nuts and vegetable oils. However, the body has to convert ALA to DHA and EPA, as those are the active forms.

It can only do this in small amounts. As a result, ALA doesn’t offer the same health benefits that the other types of omega-3 fatty acids have.

The site Beautiful Minds offers additional details about how these three compounds differ.

You can, of course, get the benefits of fish oil from including fish regularly in your diet.

Indeed, if you eat enough fish, supplementing omega-3 may not be needed. But, if you don’t, then this type of supplement is likely to be beneficial. That’s not just true for dry eyes, but also for your health overall.

For example, the site Mom Junction talks about how omega-3 fatty acids are relevant to kids. Likewise, Healthline highlights the many benefits of getting enough omega-3.

Using Fish Oil

When it comes to fish oil, most recommendations suggest that you use this as well as eye drops, rather than instead of them. Basically, the fish oil helps with the underlying problem, while the eye drops provide a more immediate solution.

Over time, you may find that the fish oil reduces your symptoms enough that you can stop with the eye drops entirely. But, even if it doesn’t, the fish oil is likely to make your symptoms less significant and easier to manage.

This leaves us with two questions – how much fish oil and what type should you use?

There is no definitive answer for either area. Realistically, the research is still ongoing. Additionally, studies tend to use different amounts.

But, a good general starting point is around 1,000 mg daily, a dose that was found to have significant impacts in some research (18). In that case, participants took two 500 mg supplements per day. Each contained 325 mg of EPA and 175 mg of DHA.

You can increase this dose over time if you don’t see benefits – and many supplements are higher.

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