You know how when you have digestive issues or you're sick, certain foods make the problem worse?

Dry eyes can be the same.

And while you're not experiencing things like gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, or whatever else these conditions cause, it's more likely things like itching, burning, stinging, blurry vision, and light sensitivity.

But while there's generally a pretty quick reaction when you have an upset stomach or food intolerance, the effects of food on dry eyes can be a bit more delayed.

Continue reading to find out the worst foods to consume if you struggle with dry eyes and more beneficial alternatives that you can sub in their place.

What Causes Dry Eyes?

First, let's stake a second to revisit the causes of dry eyes so you can understand why there are certain foods you should avoid.

While you'd think the most common causes of dry eyes is lack of hydration, that's only a small part.

Most frequently they're caused by age and dysfunctional glands that secrete lubricating fluids, but dry eyes can also result from inflammation and oxidative stress, hormonal changes, nutrient deficiencies, and more.

Oxidative Stress and Inflammation

Chronic dry eyes can result from a number of things, but one of the most well-known causes is inflammation and increased oxidative stress.

There's a fair bit of evidence to suggest that inflammation and oxidative stress are two underlying mechanisms behind the development of dry eye disease.

If you're in a state of low antioxidant status, it means there aren't enough molecules to neutralize free radicals. As a result, they cause damage to not only your eyes, but other biological systems.

Specifically, they attack the cell membranes, which results in damage and even death. This can also damage the conjunctiva's epithelial tissues, the lacrimal glands, and tear-secreting tissues 1.

Increasing your intake of antioxidants may help to improve antioxidant status and reduce damage to ocular tissues.

There's also ample research to suggest that people with low antioxidant status are more at risk for various diseases, including heart disease, cancer, eye diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions 2.

Most Common Culprits of Dry Eyes

When it comes to food and dry eyes, we're going to focus on the link between food and inflammation, and break it down into the most inflammatory foods that can contribute to the development and progression of dry eyes.

Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

It may taste good, but sugar, especially if it's refined, is one of the worst things you can feed your body. Not just for your eyes, but practically every system in your body.

Overeating sugar can lead to a state of chronic low-grade inflammation, which can contribute to the development of things like heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, obesity, and yes, even dry eye disease 3-5.

As we mentioned, higher levels of inflammation cause damage to ocular structures. Dry eyes are a symptom of chronic inflammation, so if you want to heal it, cut back on sugar—or better yet, cut it out completely.

This includes processed baked goods, breads, pastries, candy, soda pop, fruit juices, sweetened dairy products, cereal, and other foods containing added sugar.

But be forewarned that sugar can be labeled as more than just 'sugar' on an ingredient list. Watch out for any of these:

  • Sugar/sucrose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Cane sugar
  • Agave
  • Beet sugar
  • Golden syrup
  • Invert sugar
  • Rapadura
  • Sorghum syrup
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Rice syrup

This list is far from inclusive (actually, there are 64 different names for sugar), but generally, anything ending in -ose denotes a sugar of some kind.

Industrial Plant/Seed Oils

At first thought, you may think plant oils are good for you, but they're one of the worst things you can put in your body.

Not just because of what they come from, but because of the processing. These oils are extracted from plants using either a chemical solvent or oil mill, where they are then purified, refined, and sometimes even chemically altered.

It's also a combination of improper omega-3:omega-6 ratios (plant oils favor omega-6s), leading to greater inflammation levels.

Rodent studies suggest that a diet high in omega-6 fats, approximately 20:1, elicits substantially higher levels of inflammatory markers 6.

And what's more, trans fats are the worst of the worst. Unlike trans-fats that are naturally found in some meat and dairy products, artificially produced trans-fats are highly inflammatory and have been linked to all sorts of diseases.

In fact, one study showed that CRP, a marker of inflammation, was 78% higher in participants consuming a diet high in trans-fat 7.

Stay away from:

  • Canola oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower oil

Refined Carbohydrates

Carbs have gotten a pretty bad rep in the nutrition community, but the truth is that not all carbs are bad. However, refined ones deserve the title.

Refined carbohydrates are things like pizza, pasta, bread, pastries, and any other goodies we love to snack on.

Unfortunately for them, most of the benefits have been removed (fiber and nutrients) during processing, which leaves a product that spikes blood sugar and drives inflammation, which also causes disease 8-10.

Foods to Help Dry Eyes

We know that it seems like there are many off-limit foods if you're experiencing dry eyes, but there are also loads of foods you can eat that will help combat dry eyes and maintain proper vision.

The best way to maintain lubricated eyes is to consume the proper nutrients required to maintain the tear film, as well as protect the eyes from damage.

Fruit & Vegetables

Colorful fruits and vegetables are among the most potent sources of antioxidants you can find (aside from Vision). Generally speaking, the more color, the more phytochemicals and associated health benefits.

In terms of eye health and antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, anthocyanins, and sulphur compounds are all incredibly beneficial in supporting eye lubrication and vision.

Some of your best options include:

  • Leafy greens (kale, spinach, cress, arugula)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy)
  • Berries
  • Blackcurrants
  • Root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash)

Not to mention they're also full of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, all of which are components of lacrimal fluid 11.

Fish and Seafood

Fish are loaded with not just heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but they're also great for keeping your eyes lubricated.

That's because omega-3s are beneficial for the glands in your eye called Meibomian glands, which produce the oily component of your tears. This oily substance helps to prevent tears from evaporating and retains moisture.

Aside from being a concentrated source of EPA and DHA, fish and seafood are also loaded with zinc, selenium, potassium, and other essential nutrients for eye health.

To maximize omega-3 intake, your best options are cold-water fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and herring.

If you're not a fan of fish and you still want to maximize your omega-3 intake, Performance Lab Omega 3 is the cleanest, purest, most effective omega-3 supplement on the market derived from algae—the original source of EPA and DHA.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are a great source of a ton of nutrients, but they're especially rich in omega-3s and vitamin E, both of which contribute to a healthy tear film and protection to the eyes.

However, the omega-3 in plant-based foods comes in the form of ALA, which is poorly converted to EPA and DHA.

But despite this, ALA has been shown to be anti-inflammatory on the ocular surface 12, so consuming a diet rich in nuts and seeds may help improve dry eyes.

Herbs & Spices

Herbs and spices are loaded with nutrients and phytochemicals that can protect the eyes and improve symptoms of dry eyes.

Turmeric, chamomile, and ginger are all great anti-inflammatories that can easily be added to teas, soups, or capsulated for a more potent dose.

BONUS: Stay Hydrated!

Proper hydration is required for every single cell in your body, and just like your skin, gets dry when you're poorly hydrated (as well as not consuming enough fat), your eyes do, too.

Aim to consume a minimum of 2-3L of water daily, adding more to compensate for physical activity. If you aren't a fan of plain jane water, add some citrus, berries, or herbs to spice it up and add flavor!

References

  1. JY Huang, PT Yeh, YC Hou. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of oral antioxidant supplement therapy in patients with dry eye syndrome. Clin Ophthalmol. 2016;10:813-820.
  2. RA Jacob, G Sotoudeh. Vitamin C function and status in chronic disease. Nutr Clin Care. 2002;5(2):66-74.
  3. Y Hu, KH Costenbader, X Gao, et al. Sugar-sweetened soda consumption and risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(3):959-967.
  4. Y Jiang, Y Pan, PR Rhea, et al. A Sucrose-Enriched Diet Promotes Tumorigenesis in Mammary Gland in Part through the 12-Lipoxygenase Pathway. Cancer Res. 2016;76(1):24-29.
  5. T Ma, B Liaset, Q Hao, et al. Sucrose counteracts the anti-inflammatory effect of fish oil in adipose tissue and increases obesity development in mice. PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e21647.
  6. LG Yang, ZX Song, H Yin, et al. Low n-6/n-3 PUFA Ratio Improves Lipid Metabolism, Inflammation, Oxidative Stress and Endothelial Function in Rats Using Plant Oils as n-3 Fatty Acid Source. Lipids. 2016;51(1):49-59.
  7. E Lopez-Garcia, MB Schulze, JB Meigs, et al. Consumption of trans fatty acids is related to plasma biomarkers of inflammation and endothelial dysfunction. J Nutr. 2005;135(3):562-566.
  8. I Spreadbury. Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2012;5:175-189.
  9. LJ Dixon, A Kabi, KP Nickerson, C McDonald. Combinatorial effects of diet and genetics on inflammatory bowel disease pathogenesis. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2015;21(4):912-922.
  10. S Dickinson, DP Hancock, P Petocz, A Ceriello, J Brand-Miller. High-glycemic index carbohydrate increases nuclear factor-kappaB activation in mononuclear cells of young, lean healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(5):1188-1193.
  11. MC Edman, et al. "Lacrimal Gland Overview." Encyclopedia of the Eye, Academic Press, 12 July 2010, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012374203200049X.
  12. N Erdinest, O Shmueli, Y Grossman, H Ovadia, A Solomon. Anti-inflammatory effects of alpha linolenic acid on human corneal epithelial cells. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2012;53(8):4396-4406. Published 2012 Jul 3.