Dry eye disease, affecting about four million people age 50 and older in the United States, can be very uncomfortable and interfere with vision. Our current treatment options range from simple warm compresses, eye washes and artificial tears to medications and tear drainage devices.

Dry eye syndrome involves either a malfunction of the rate of tear production, the quality of tears or the rate of tear evaporation from the surface of the eye. Anyone can experience dry eye, though it is most common in women starting in their late forty’s. Symptoms can include gritty, scratchy or burning sensations, excessive tearing or production of stringy mucus.

For many, dry eye syndrome is simply uncomfortable and annoying, but for others it escalates into a vision-threatening disease.

Coffee_EyeNow researchers at the University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine have shown for the first time that caffeine intake can significantly increase the eye’s ability to produce tears – a finding that may improve the treatment of dry eye syndrome.

The research team, led by Reiko Arita, MD, PhD, was motivated by an earlier study that showed caffeine was likely to stimulate tear glands, since it’s known to increase other secretions such as saliva and digestive juices. They also knew that people respond differently to caffeine, so they analyzed study participants’ DNA samples for two genetic variations that play important roles in caffeine metabolism. Tear production proved to be higher in study subjects who had the two genetic variations.

If confirmed by other studies, our findings on caffeine should be useful in treating dry eye syndrome. At this point, though, we would advise using it selectively for patients who are most sensitive to caffeine’s stimulating effects.” -Dr. Arita

For the study, subjects were divided into two groups with one receiving caffeine tablets in the first and a placebo second, while the order was reversed for the other group. Tear volume was measured within 45 minutes of consuming the tablets and no subjects knew whether they received caffeine or the placebo. All abstained from caffeine use for six days prior to each session and used no drugs during the sessions. To be eligible for the study subjects had to be free of high blood pressure, dry eye syndrome, allergies that affect the eye, glaucoma, and other eye diseases and conditions that can interfere with tear production. The study also found that tear drainage rates were not affected by caffeine.

It’s important to see an your eye doctor if you have symptoms of dry eye. No one should suffer with this common syndrome when there are good treatment and management options. Only your eye doctor is an expert in dry eyes, so make sure he or she knows your symptoms and level of discomfort in order to provide the best solution available.