How to Treat Dry Eye Disease Naturally with Diet

One of the most common eye disorders, dry eye disease, causes irritation or discomfort, and can decrease functional vision, sometimes causing a dramatic deterioration in the quality of life. About five million Americans over age 50 suffer from moderate-to-severe dry eyes, and tens of millions more have mild or episodic manifestations of the disease, at a cost of more than $50 billion.

In terms of treatment, there are several drops and drugs that can help. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on things like artificial tears, but currently there is no therapy available to actually fix the problem. If drugs don’t work, doctors can try plugging up the outflow tear ducts, but that can cause complications, such as plugs migrating and eroding into the face, requiring surgical removal. Alternatively, surgeons can just cauterize or stitch up the ducts in the first place.

There has to be a better way.

What about prevention? Dry eyes can be caused by LASIK surgery, affecting about 20-40% of patients six months after the operation. With a million LASIK procedures performed annually, that’s a lot of people, and sometimes the long-term symptoms can be severe and disabling.

There’s a long list of drugs that can cause it, including antihistamines, decongestants, nearly all the antidepressants, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, anti-Parkinson’s drugs, beta-blockers, and hormone replacement therapy, as well as a few herbal preparations.

In the developing world, vitamin A deficiency can start out as dry eyes and then progress to becoming the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness. Vitamin A deficiency is almost never seen in the developed world, unless you do it intentionally. There was a report in the 1960s of a guy who deliberately ate a vitamin A-deficient diet, living off of bread and lime juice for five years, and his eyes developed vascularization and ulceration of the cornea, which you can see (if you dare) in my Treating Dry Eye Disease with Diet: Just Add Water? video. That was better than what happened to an unfortunate woman who was the member of a cult and tried to live off of brown rice and herbal tea: Her eyes literally melted and collapsed.

There are also a couple case reports of autistic children who refused to eat anything but French fries or menus exclusively comprised of bacon, blueberry muffins, and Kool-Aid, and became vitamin A deficient. A case in the Bronx was written up as vegan diet and vitamin A deficiency, but it had nothing to do with his vegan diet—the kid refused to eat vegetables, consuming only potato chips, puffed rice cereal with non-fortified soymilk, and juice drinks. “His parents lacked particular skill in overcoming the child’s tendency to avoid fruits and vegetables.”

A plant-based diet may actually be the best thing for patients with dry eye disease, those who wear contact lenses, and those who wish to maximize their tear secretions. People with dry eyes should be advised to lower protein, total fat, and cholesterol intake, and do the following:

  • increase complex carbohydrates;
  • increase vitamin A content (by eating red, orange, yellow, and dark green leafy vegetables);
  • increase zinc and folate intake (by eating whole grains, beans, and raw vegetables, especially spinach);
  • ensure sufficient vitamin B6 and potassium intake (by eating nuts, bananas, and beans);
  • ensure sufficient vitamin C intake (by eating citrus);
  • eliminate alcohol and caffeine;
  • reduce sugar and salt intake; and
  • consume six to eight glasses of water per day.

We know dehydration can cause a dry mouth, but could dehydration cause dry eyes? It may seem kind of obvious, but evidently it was never studied until recently. Is the answer to just drink more water? We know that those suffering from dry eye are comparatively dehydrated, so researchers figured that tear secretion decreases with progressive dehydration just like saliva secretion decreases and gives us a dry mouth. And indeed, as one gets more and more dehydrated, their urine concentrates and so does the tear fluid. But one can reverse that with rehydration, raising the exciting prospect that improving whole-body hydration by getting people to drink more water might bring relief for those with dry eyes. The researchers recommend eight cups of water a day for women and ten cups a day for men.

Find more on the importance of proper hydration in my How Many Glasses of Water Should We Drink a Day?, Does a Drink Of Water Make Children Smarter?, and Can Dehydration Affect Our Mood? videos.

To learn more on other topics related to eye health, check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss

By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.

Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer’s and developing treatments to reduce them.

In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer’s patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?

Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered “a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer’s cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don’t we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging—that is, actually seeing what’s happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.

A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer’s disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.

The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn’t it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren’t getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don’t even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don’t eat the minimum recommendation for beans.

If we put people on a healthy diet—a plant-based diet—we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.

Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.

The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren’t getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.

This is very similar to the findings in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

For more details on ensuring a regular reliable source of vitamin B12:

There are more benefits to lowering your methionine intake. Check out Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy and Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction.

For more on brain health in general, see these videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: