If You Have Diabetes, Can Omega-3s Protect Your Eyes?

Studies find regular consumption may reduce retinopathy

If You Have Diabetes, Can Omega-3s Protect Your Eyes?

If you have diabetes, you may know that it increases your risk of diabetic retinopathy, one of the leading causes of blindness in American adults. It affects more than 5 percent of the U.S. population, but research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids in your diet could help protect your eyes.

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More common among Hispanics and those over age 65, diabetic retinopathy occurs when blood vessels in the eyes swell and leak, or when abnormal cells grow on the retina and eventually block your vision. 

As more people develop type 2 diabetes — and generally live longer — researchers are looking for a way to stave off retinopathy.

One good way is to keep blood sugar levels under control. And research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids, from food sources like fish and nuts and from supplements, are a powerful protector against this eye condition. 

What research tells us about omega-3s

Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and slow hardening of the arteries. In higher-risk populations, such as individuals with type 2 diabetes, the data is less conclusive.

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But some research shows that the nutrient may work to decrease the chances that you will get diabetic retinopathy. A study published  in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined more than 2,500 middle-aged and elderly people with type 2 diabetes. It found that those who consumed omega-3s regularly had a 48 percent lower risk of diabetic retinopathy than those who didn’t (after a six-year follow-up).

Scientists believe that omega-3s may help stave off retinopathy because the fatty acids protect against inflammation and the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eyes.

Vitamins from food are best

As always, it’s best to get nutrients from food instead of supplements whenever possible. And you can get the recommended dose by eating just two servings of fish a week. Those high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Salmon
  • Halibut
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Lake trout
  • Sardines
  • Albacore tuna

Not a fan of fish? There are plenty of other foods you can add to your shopping list that are high in omega-3s, including:

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  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Canola oil
  • Avocados

So, if you have diabetes, it’s a good idea to look through these lists and pick out some favorites. Then work a couple servings into your meals and snacks each week so you’re doing all you can to protect your eyes and guard against vision loss.

A note of caution

If you plan to take omega-3 fatty acids as a supplement, it’s important to note: The American Heart Association cautions against taking more than 3g capsules daily unless your doctor prescribes it. For some people, too much omega-3 fatty acid can cause excessive bleeding. Be sure to consult your practitioner.

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Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

Sue Cotey, RN, CDE, and Andrea Harris, RN, CDE, are Diabetes Educators with the Lennon Diabetes Center at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center. Sue is the Program Coordinator.
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