and Dry Eye: A Natural Relationship
Put omega-3 fatty acids to work for
new millennium has ushered in significant change in just about every arena, from
personal communication systems to the global internet. While these shifts in technology
and lifestyle have been heavily publicized, they are not always universally integrated
into our culture. However, there is one area that has gained significant public
acceptance, directly impacts our practice and has been almost universally adopted:
the use of nutritional supplements and vitamins, not the least of which are omega-3
fatty acids. Interestingly, the vast majority of patients in this rising population
initiate supplementation without any advice from you, doctor.
indicate that, in addition to promoting eye health, omega-3 fatty acids play a role
in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction, as well as depression
and irritable bowel syndrome. They are also important for pre- and postnatal development
and alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
So do our patients know something
we don't? Or is this just another New Age fad? In fact, our patients are leading
the way, and we as clinicians need to catch up. The problem is
in determining which claims are clinically significant, and which are nothing more
than hype associated with an unregulated industry.
A good start
In the area of eye care, we have
two well-established modalities of nutritional treatment: macular degeneration therapy
and ocular surface disease management. The literature from Age Related Eye Disease
Study (AREDS) has been reviewed extensively. Most clinicians have adopted its guidelines
in the treatment of patients with clinically qualified macular disease. While the
AREDS recommendations are essential to the successful management of dry AMD, this
population group is a very small segment of the average practice's patient base.
Ocular surface disease, on the other
hand, is one of the most common problems in clinical practice today, occurring in
up to 25% of all patients. The incidence rate will only continue to rise as we see
the Baby Boomers start their inevitable passage through the fifth, sixth and seventh
decades of life. Demographic studies show that in the year 2030, 25% of the population
of North America will be over 65 years of age.
So, the question is: What is the
role of nutrition and vitamin therapy in this rapidly expanding area, and how can
clinicians integrate this modality into their patient care regimens? The beginning
of this trend started with research that demonstrated the cause of most ocular surface
disease to be inflammation. Pro-inflammatory Interleukin I is more prevalent in
the tear film and conjunctiva of dry eye patients than in normal eyes. In
fact, cytokine-mediated disease has
been identified as a universal etiologic agent associated with a wide range of age-related
chronic disease states such as diabetes, atherosclerosis and osteoporosis. Its role
in dry eye has now been well defined and is
associated with clinical conditions such as pre-/peri- and postmenopause, systemic
autoimmune diseases like Sjogren's, lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis and thyroid conditions,
as well contact lens intolerance and post-LASIK dry eye.
Most of you are aware of the surge
of new topical drugs directed toward the treatment of dry eye, newly developed
and research into the male hormone, androgen. While these agents are important,
one of the key elements they do not address is the role of meibomian gland disease
in chronic dry eye.
Numerous studies have demonstrated
the efficacy of omega-3 essential fatty acids (Black currant seed oil, flaxseed,
borage oil and fish oils) in the treatment of dry eye disease. In a 2000 study,
researchers demonstrated Sjogren's patients have decreased blood serum levels of
DHA, EPA and GLA, all of which are essential to the control of inflammation on the
ocular surface. Additional work with mass spectroscopy showed that omega-3 fatty
acids are the basic building blocks of healthy meibomian oils.
There are three types of omega-3
fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA, which are longer molecules than ALA,
seem to provide the greatest health benefits.
Another study identified the role
of omega-3 fatty acids in the clinically observed improvement
of meibomian oils with chronic oral therapy. The Women's Health Study, which included
34,000 subjects, showed a direct correlation between dietary levels of omega-3 fatty
acids and dry eye symptoms.
Starting at home
The American diet is far too heavy
in omega-6 and has too little omega-3 fatty acids. Recent studies show an ideal
ratio of these fats is 1:1, but American habits currently weigh in at 20:1 in favor
of the omega-6 group. This is due in large part to consumption of beef, vegetable
oils, dairy products and pre-prepared food. Given the marked imbalance, it is difficult
to create the ideal ratio with dietary adjustments alone. Instead, the use of nutritional
supplementation has become the adjunctive therapy of choice for long-term management
of chronic dry eye.
Pharmacologically speaking, this
therapy produces a marked decrease
in the presence of inflammatory mediators, which assists in returning the eye to
a state of natural tear production. It also increases both the quantity and quality
of meibomian secretions.
The majority of clinical experience
with the omega-3s is based on the use of a 2000mg p.o., q.d. dose. This can be taken
all at one time or split-up through the day, depending on a patient's gastric response.
In some individuals, the GI tract has difficulty processing the full dose all at
once and the patient can experience lower GI symptoms (diarrhea, cramping).
Unlike doxycycline, which has a relatively
rapid onset of action (2-4 weeks), omega-3 fatty acid therapy typically takes months
to demonstrate significant improvement. While this presents a challenge in some
instances, a recent- ly published study showed an increased risk of breast cancers
with chronic doxycycline therapy. This should create sufficient concern to make
omega-3 fatty acids the primary choice in all patients without contraindications
(platelet abnormalities, anticoagulant therapy and high dose aspirin therapy).
Omega-3 fatty acid therapy has become
standard in the treatment of dry eye, gives the clinician an excellent, natural
therapy that can be used indefinitely to help the patient maintain a normal, healthy
ocular surface and general overall health.
References available on request.
Thimons is a nationally and internationally acclaimed speaker and serves
as medical director at Ophthalmic Consultants.
Optometric Management, Issue: July 2005