Omega-3s: What They Are and How They Can Help Your Eyes

Omega 3 foodsIt seems like Omega-3s are everywhere now. In the grocery store you can find cereals, crackers, nutrition bars, eggs, and beverages all fortified with Omega-3s. The supplement aisle is lined with assorted brands, types, and strengths of these essential fatty acids.

You’ve read about their health benefits in newspapers, magazines, and online. The myriad of products and information can be overwhelming. Should you incorporate omega-3s into your diet? If so, which way is best and how much should you consume? Here’s an overview of the health and ocular benefits of Omega-3s and some ways you can include them as part of your healthy lifestyle. 

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that are a key component of your body’s cellular structure. They are necessary for your body to function properly and for normal growth and development. Your body cannot produce these essential nutrients so you must obtain them from your diet. The majority of Americans are deficient in these essential fatty acids. There are three main types:  alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which comes primarily from plant sources, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in fatty fish. Your body can convert small amounts of ALA into EPA and DHA.

These essential fatty acids have been most studied for their significant impact on heart disease and heart function. They have also been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Newer studies indicate that they may improve ocular health as well, including conditions such as dry eye, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts. Many of our PROSE patients report that they use Omega-3 supplements to complement their treatment plans.

A 2011 study published in Acta Ophthalmologica illustrated that the incorporation of omega-3 supplements reduced the expression of a key inflammatory marker in patients with dry eye disease. This reduction can lead to symptom improvement in patients with dry eye. Another study from the journal Cornea looked more closely at lipid composition of meibum (Meibomian gland secretion), tear evaporation, and tear volume in dry eye patients. Their results yielded no significant effect in meibum lipid composition or tear evaporation rate but showed increases in both tear production and tear volume. In fact, of 36 patients with dry eye who completed the study, 70% were asymptomatic at the study’s conclusion.

To add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, consider eating several servings of fatty fish per week. Fish high in omega-3s include: salmon, anchovy, sardines, tuna, and rainbow trout. Be aware that some fish may contain high levels of mercury and their consumption should be limited in order to decrease risk. Good plant-based sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and tofu. Consuming 1.2-2 grams per day from dietary sources seems to be associated with the greatest benefit from these ALA sources.

If you choose supplements to increase your omega-3 intake, look for brands of fish oil that are rich in both EPA and DHA. You’ll want to check labels for high concentrations of omega-3s and testing that notes the supplements are free from contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. Vegetarians will want to use flaxseed oil or microalgae supplements instead of fish oil. Ask your health-care provider or pharmacist if you need help choosing a quality brand of either source.

Please note that you should always consult your health-care provider before beginning any supplement regime. Supplements may cause side effects or combine in harmful ways with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Fish oil, for instance, may cause increased bleeding risk, especially in combination with blood-thinning medications.