The “Eyes” Have It: Fish Oil for Eye Health 0
These days, you can’t pick up a health magazine or nutrition book and not find someone singing the praises of fish oil. From supporting cardiovascular health and a normal inflammatory response, to supporting healthy brain function and keeping the skin supple and hydrated, there’s certainly no shortage of feathers in fish oil’s cap. Eating oily fish as a whole food is a great option, since it comes with complete protein and other helpful nutrients, but many of the benefits that come from eating fish are primarily due to the omega-3 fatty acids found in the fat – specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, EPA and DHA for short.
Fish oil is well known for helping conditions associated with the body’s natural inflammatory process. (Think of good quality fats as oil being added to rusty machine parts to help them work more smoothly.) One of the lesser-known properties of fish oil is that it may be good for eye health. Occasional inflammation in the eyes may interfere with the production of tears and other eye lubricants, both in quantity and chemical composition. Tears aren’t just water and salt; they contain an oily layer, which prevents them from evaporating too quickly and leaving someone with excessively dry eyes.
Dry eye syndrome, or “dry eyes,” has been the unfortunate victim of somewhat comical ads for prescription and over-the-counter eye drops and artificial tear products. To people living with the condition, however, it’s no laughing matter. It can cause mild to moderate discomfort, and more severe cases may interfere with work and reduce overall quality of life. Studies support a role for EPA and DHA in aiding this condition.
The incidence of dry eyes is lower in populations consuming large amounts of omega-3 fats, and is higher in populations with a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. In one trial that investigated the effects of fish oil supplementation in individuals with dry eyes, compared to placebo, subjects taking fish oil (1245mg EPA and 540mg DHA per day) for 12 weeks experienced small but notable improvements in subjective eye pain and dry sensation. Aside from dietary supplementation, topical application of omega-3 fatty acids via eye drops may be another way to introduce these helpful compounds into the eyes. Experiments employing mouse models of dry eye indicate that eye drops containing a mixture of omega-3s and hyaluronic acid improved corneal function and decreased inflammation and oxidative stress markers on the surface of the eyes.
Another eye health concern for which fatty fish consumption or fish oil supplementation may be beneficial is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Compared to healthy controls without AMD, AMD patients consume significantly lower amounts of oily fish. Amounts of EPA and DHA measured in blood and the cell membranes of red blood cells (a good way to assess body levels of these fats) showed that higher amounts of these fats in the blood and cell membranes were associated with significantly lower risk for AMD, independent of potentially confounding factors, such as high triglycerides, hypertension, and family history of AMD.
Okay, sounds great! But what if you don’t like fish? Are you doomed to the adult equivalent of when you were forced to choke down soggy, overcooked Brussels sprouts at the dinner table as a kid? Do you have to eat fish to get these benefits? No: fish oil capsules to the rescue! But what about those “fishy burps” that scare people away from taking fish oil supplements? Fortunately, many high-quality fish oils are now available that are designed to reduce the risk of the fishy flavor “repeating” on you.
For vegetarians and vegans, who may find it difficult to get adequate EPA and DHA from the selection of foods available to them, the omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, found in flax, chia, and walnuts) has also been shown to be beneficial in animal models of dry eye. However, because many people do not efficiently convert ALA into the more potent EPA and DHA, it may be best to prefer eating fish or taking fish oil, but if those are not options, plant-based omega-3s are still a good choice.
- Liu A, Ji J. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids Therapy for Dry Eye Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Studies. Medical Science Monitor: International Medical Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research. 2014;20:1583-1589.
- Miljanović B, Trivedi KA, Reza Dana M, Gilbard JP, Buring JE, Schaumberg DA. The relationship between dietary n-3 and n-6 fatty acids and clinically diagnosed dry eye syndrome in women. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2005;82(4):887-893.
- Kawakita T, Kawabata F, Tsuji T, et al. Effects of dietary supplementation with fish oil on dry eye syndrome subjects: randomized controlled trial. Biomed Res. 2013;34(5):215-20.
- Merle BM, Benlian P, Puche N, et al. Circulating omega-3 Fatty acids and neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2014 Mar 28;55(3):2010-9.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Hearing Loss 0
The sense of hearing is certainly a wonderful gift, yet it is one that is widely taken for granted – that is, until noticeable changes start to occur. For many, hearing loss is simply accepted as part of the aging process. However, age-related hearing loss leads to difficulties and frustrations with everyday communication and can greatly contribute to the loneliness and depression that is so pervasive among the elderly.
The inescapable reality exists that aging elicits some degree of hearing loss in most individuals. It is, quite simply (and unfortunately), part of getting older. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), “…18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing loss.” While some of these cases can be attributed to long hours spent in a loud factory, listening to loud music or frequent exposure to high pitch sounds (all of which may produce irreparable hearing loss), it is also hopeful to note that there are dietary measures that can be taken to support auditory health and help preserve this important sensory tool, in spite of aging.
An important and often lacking dietary fat, known as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), may play an important role in the ability to hear sounds adequately, especially as we age and normal auditory function starts to decline. This fat is found abundantly in fish and seafood – a category of protein that is not considered an American staple. An interest in the relationship between omega-3 PUFAs and auditory health was spawned by a recent study that discovered a correlation between fish intake and age-related hearing loss. In this study, individuals over 50 years of age who ate fish two or more times each week were less likely to develop age-related hearing loss compared to those who did not consume fish on a regular basis. Therefore, it was concluded that adequate intake of omega-3 PUFAs may protect the ear from age-related decline and subsequent hearing loss – a promising outcome indeed.
The ability of this amazing fat to protect hearing is not completely understood; however, omega-3 fats are known to accomplish many beneficial tasks in the body, which may indirectly influence auditory health. For example, omega-3s are known to support healthy blood flow and a healthy cardiovascular system. The most important part of the ear – the cochlea – contains many small, fine hairs that help us distinguish tones. The cochlea and these important hairs are fed by one main blood vessel that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the ear. As we age, blood flow may slow down as a result of high cholesterol, plaque development, hardening of the arteries and other similar conditions. The cochlea is sensitive to changes in blood flow and may not be fed adequately, leading to degeneration. Therefore, by helping to support a healthy cardiovascular system and healthy blood flow, omega-3 PUFAs may support the overall wellness of the inner ear, helping to hinder age-related deterioration that may lead to hearing loss.
It is a wise idea, at virtually any age, to safeguard the delicate structures of our ears as best we can. We should all be cognizant of limiting our exposure to a barrage of loud noises (i.e., firecrackers, power tools, high decibel concerts, even extended periods of time using personal listening devices that require earbuds). Yet, it is encouraging to know that nutritional support from omega-3 fats, through adequate fish consumption and additional supplementation, can be beneficial in helping to protect the gift of hearing.