Dry eyes affect from 5 to 34 percent of people in the United States, and the problem increases significantly with age. It is estimated that currently 3.23 million women and 1.68 million men, a total of almost 5 million Americans over age 50, are affected by this condition.
Symptoms can include stinging, burning, or itching, with mucus in or around the eyes and increased sensitivity to wind and dry conditions, as well as reading fatigue.
Dry eyes have become a major problem for a number of reasons. Aging is a contributor for both sexes, but especially for postmenopausal women due to a loss of the hormone estrogen.
We also spend a lot more time indoors, where the air is often dryer due to air conditioning. In addition, we are increasingly being affected by hundreds of chemicals in our food and water, and in the air. (To learn more about chemicals in water, read my report Is Your Drinking Water Fit to Drink?)
My own theory as to why the problem has increased on such a huge scale over the past 40 years has to do with contact lenses. I have long been amazed when I watched my wife or sons put contact lenses in their eyes because the lens could touch their corneas without them having a fit.
Some time ago, I hypothesized that contacts must, over time, destroy the corneal nerve endings. New research has found that dry eyes appear to be secondary to a loss of very fine nerve fibers in the outer layers of the cornea. Tissues around the eyes, such as the conjunctiva, can be a source of inflammatory chemicals, including cytokines.
The corneal nerves have several functions, the most important of which is regulating our tears and healing of the cornea.When the nerves are damaged, the amount of tears released from our tear glands is reduced.
Surgeries on the eyes — such as the popular LASIK and PKR for correcting vision — are another common cause for dry eyes, and can occur in as many as 50 percent of patients immediately after surgery. Most recover after six months, but some continue to have problems even two years after surgery.
Until recently, the only solution was to put artificial tears in the eyes every hour or so. However, two researchers at the Departmentof Opthalmology and Neuroscience Center of Excellence at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans recently found that combining a nerve growth factor (NGF) and the oil docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) significantly stimulated repair of these nerves and reversed the dryness, according to an article in the journal “Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids.”
Another corneal growth factor, pigmented epithelial derived factor (PEDF), was 10 times more effective than NGF. Using either alone was much less effective.
Fish oil capsules and GLA also improve the dryness. (To learn more about fish oil, go here.) I have also had at least one patient who noticed a significant improvement taking CLA oil orally.
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