In a preliminary study, 12 people who worked themselves up to taking 9,000 milligrams per day of flaxseed oil reported substantially less itching, dryness, burning, and eye fatigue after three months.
Also, oily secretions from meibomian glands in their eyelids increased. Failure of these glands to produce or secrete oil produces dry eye symptoms.
The findings were presented here at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Softens Secretions
Dry eye syndrome affects about 12 million Americans.
Tears are a combination of water, for moisture; oils, for lubrication; mucus, for even spreading; and antibodies and special proteins, for resistance to infection.
People in the study all had a problem with oil secretions from their meibomian glands.
Study researcher Jack Greiner, DO, PhD, of Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, believes the average American's high-fat diet is to blame, at least in part. "Fats get thick and can't move out of the oil glands. We believe that due to their high omega-3 fat content, flaxseed oils soften the secretions, so they can flow."
Previous research has linked a diet rich in omega-3 containing fish to a lower risk of dry eyes in women.
Flaxseed Oil Dose Gradually Increased
Not everyone can tolerate 9,000 milligrams a day of flaxseed oil. Some people develop diarrhea and intestinal distress when taking just 1,000 milligrams a day. It would be virtually impossible to get that much flaxseed oil from the diet without supplementation.
In the study, people started out taking three 1,000-milligram capsules per day for two weeks. The dose was gradually increased.
"I think they're on to something here, but not everyone will respond the same way," says Samuel Amstutz, MD, an ophthalmologist at Grene Vision in Wichita, Kan.
Greiner says it was simply because he wanted to better control the experiment. It's difficult to know how much fish oil each person is eating in their diet, he says.
"Omega-3 supplements should work," Greiner says. In fact, his team is currently testing them.
If you're considering taking omega-3 supplements -- or any other supplement -- talk to your health care providers about it, so that they can check on the chance of any side effects.
Other options for people whose dry eyes are caused by poor oil secretion are warm compresses and blinking therapy, though they don't work for everyone, he says.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.