Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, refers to a group of diseases that affect how the body processes the energy in the food you eat. These include type I, type II, and gestational diabetes.
Your body breaks down the carbohydrates and sugars from food into glucose. Your cells use glucose for energy, but they can’t take it in without a hormone called insulin.
- For type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t produce the insulin your body needs.
- For type 2 diabetes, either the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or your cells become resistant to the insulin that’s available.
In both cases, because of insulin deficiency or resistance, your cells can’t take in the glucose from the food you eat. The glucose builds up in the bloodstream, and high blood sugar over time can damage blood vessels in your nervous system, heart, kidneys, and eyes.
That’s why diabetes often leads to complications like stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, nerve damage, and eye problems like dry eye syndrome.
What Is Dry Eye Syndrome?
Dry eye occurs when your eyes either don’t produce enough tears, or the tears they produce are of an inadequate quality to lubricate your eyes.
The Common Symptoms of Dry Eye
Dry eye symptoms can include stinging, burning, a feeling of something in your eye, or a scratchy/itchy feeling. There may also be periods of excess tearing followed by periods of redness, dryness, and pain in your eye.
Occasionally, your eyes/eyelids may feel heavy. You can also have blurred vision.
Why Tears Are So Important to Eye Health
Your tears may fall as a result of strong emotions, but they also are crucial to the health of your eyes.
Tears lubricate your eyes, keeping the outer surface, called the cornea, hydrated and nourished. The layer of tears that constantly bathes your eyes every time you blink also helps protect them from environmental factors, irritants, and even germs.
What many people don’t know is that tears also play a role in your vision. They help your eye focus light as it hits your cornea.
According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), your tears are made of three layers:
- The outer layer – This is an oily layer that helps keep your tears from evaporating too fast. It helps your tears stay on the surface of the eye. The oil, or meibum, comes from the meibomian glands, which are on your eyelids.
- The middle layer – This layer is the watery part of your tears. It’s made up of proteins that nourish your eye cells. This layer is secreted from your lacrimal gland.
- The inner layer – The last layer helps your tears hang on to the water from the middle layer so your eyes stay moist. This layer comes from your goblet cells, which are on the surface of your eyes.
How are Dry Eye and Diabetes Related?
If you have diabetes, you’re much more likely to deal with dry eye at some point in your life.
In fact, diabetes is one of the biggest risk factors for dry eye.
A study from Diabetes Care found the correlation between diabetes, nerve disease, and dry eye is high. Researchers tested 99 participants – 61 had type 2 diabetes, and 34 of these had nerve disease. The remaining 38 had neither condition.
76.5% of participants with diabetes and nerve disease also had dry eyes. It also occurred in 44.4% of those with diabetes alone. Meanwhile, of the participants who had neither disease, 28.9% had dry eyes.
How Are Dry Eye and Diabetes Treated?
If you have dry eye and diabetes, it’s important to keep your diabetes controlled so your dry eye (and any other complications) can’t get worse.
If you do experience any of the symptoms of dry eye, you should consult with an eye doctor for the right treatment.
Common Dry Eye Treatments
Common dry eye treatments range from lifestyle changes to over-the-counter medications, to prescription medications, to surgery.
- Your eye doctor may recommend cutting down on the time you spend in front of screens or taking more breaks to rest your eyes. Closing your eyes for an extended period or blinking rapidly can help produce tears and spread them over the eye.
- Diet and hydration can also help with dry eye. Eating more leafy green vegetables and avoiding sugar and processed foods will help decrease dry eye symptoms and your blood sugar.
- Over-the-counter medications you can apply topically may also provide some relief from the dryness, burning, stinging, and other symptoms. These include artificial tears and ointments.
- Your eye doctor may prescribe medication to help with dry eye. If you are suffering from a lot of inflammation, they may also prescribe special eye drops.
- Surgery is an option, too. Procedures that plug your tear ducts can help keep the tears from draining from your eye. For serious cases, you may have your tear ducts permanently closed.
- Dry eye and diabetes are very common. Whatever type of diabetes you have, you’re at a higher risk for dry eye than people without diabetes.
That’s why diabetes patients need to have regular eye appointments and check-ups with their optometrist or ophthalmologist. They’ll monitor your eyes and can help treat and prevent eye problems before they can become severe.