We often hear that depressed people see the world in black and white, but we know that’s not exactly true.

Depression affects more than mood and self-esteem, though. It can have far-reaching effects on the body, lowering immunity and increasing the risk of chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease.

But can it impact eye health as well? Are there any depression eye symptoms?

A growing body of research is shedding light on the association between depression and eyesight.

Does Depression Affect Eyesight?

A study involving over 10,000 adults in the United States found a significant association between depression and self-reported vision function loss. 

The study did not find an association between depression and loss of visual acuity as measured with an autorefractor during an eye exam.

However, participants in the study who had depression as measured with the 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) were more likely to report having difficulties with: 

  • Reading text
  • Seeing up close
  • Seeing steps or curbs in dim light
  • Finding an object on a crowded shelf
  • Noticing objects off to the side
  • Driving in the daytime 

The researchers also found that participants who had more visual function problems were more likely to have depression and to experience more severe depressive symptoms. 

These findings suggest that people living with depression may experience vision problems in everyday life even if their visual acuity as measured during a standard eye exam doesn’t undergo noticeable changes. 

With that in mind, this study alone cannot determine whether depression is a cause or an effect of visual function loss. It is possible that people who experience visual function loss because of other common conditions such as chronic dry eye disease may experience depressive symptoms. 

What’s more, people who are depressed may not realize they are experiencing vision difficulties and so not seek out treatment. Even when a person with depression has been diagnosed with an eye condition, they may be less likely to follow their treatment plan.

The relationship between depression and vision is complex. While it’s plausible to assume that people with eye problems can develop depression, more research is needed to determine whether depression itself can cause direct vision function loss.

Good to know: Stress is often a precursor to depression. Stress has long been associated with vision problems. We dedicated a post to the effects of stress on the body – check it out.

Why Does Depression Cause Eye Symptoms?

We see with the brain rather than with the eyes. The brain processes visual stimuli it receives from the eyes and creates sight as we know it.

Depression has been associated with brain changes including brain inflammation, dysfunction of neurotransmitters, and even reduced gray matter. With that said, more research is necessary to determine whether depression-induced brain changes could impact visual function.

A recent study found that people with depression process visual information differently. It suggests that this is related to how the brain interprets visual information (cortical processing). 

More specifically, researchers found that depressed people showed a significant reduction in contrast suppression, a function of vision involving cortical processing.

By comparison, people with depression showed no reduction in brightness induction, a visual function related to how the eye takes in visual information.

More research is needed to determine to what extent depression can alter sight. What is clear is that depression can lead to poor eye care that can in turn give rise to dry eyes and other eye symptoms.

Depression and Dry Eyes: Can One Cause the Other?

Many factors can contribute to the development of dry eye disease including environmental factors like wind and air conditioning, poor diet, excessive screen time, medication, and certain medical conditions such as autoimmune diseases.  

When a person is depressed, he or she may neglect to look after their eyes. They may follow unhealthy habits like eating fast food and not exercising. They may also end up spending long hours in front of screens, which can compound the problem. What’s more, some antidepressants may cause dry eyes.

woman in shirt and short pants reading book by herself in room with a bookshelf while feeling tired and sad

A person diagnosed with severe dry eye disease is also more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Chronic dry eyes can make reading difficult, reduce workplace productivity, and leave the eyes feeling dry and painful. The resulting discomfort and distress can lead to depression.

Depression can worsen chronic dry eye disease symptoms according to a study published in 2022. The study involved 535 participants, of which 434 were women.

Although both men and women can develop depression at any age, according to the Mayo Clinic women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression than men.

Depression and Eye Pain

Depression may cause eye pain indirectly. As we’ve seen, there is a link between depression and dry eye disease. Chronic, severe dry eye can leave the surface of the eye feeling extremely dry. It can even lead to corneal damage.

There are many nerve endings in the cornea, making it sensitive to pain. Dry eye pain can be sharp or feel like your eyes are constantly stinging. 

You may also experience burning in your eyes as a reaction to some eye drops. Commonly prescribed to people with dry eye disease, eye drops may cause an allergic reaction that leads to temporary burning and stinging sensations in the eye. 

If you are experiencing eye pain, it’s important to see a doctor to rule out other potential causes. Many different conditions can cause eye pain including corneal abrasions, eye infections, sinusitis, migraines, and toothaches.

Blurred Vision and Depression

Blurred vision is one of the most common side effects of antidepressants. It may also occur because of dry eye disease, whether because of abnormal tear production or as a side effect of applying eye drops.

Blurred vision can be a sign of glaucoma and other serious diseases of the eye. If you are experiencing blurred vision, schedule an eye exam.

A Few Tips to Ward Off Depression and Keep Your Eyes Healthy

The good news is that some of the things you can do to ward off depression can also help keep your eyes healthy. 

  • Exercise regularly to boost brain health and better manage your weight – aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet that provides your body with nutrients and helps maintain blood sugar levels in check.
  • Avoid exposure to smoke and quit smoking.
  • Don’t drink alcohol and reduce your caffeine intake as the former can worsen depression symptoms while the latter can promote dehydration and dry eye disease.
  • Spend more time outdoors with others (but do wear sunscreen and sunglasses) – it’s good for the mind and body and helps your body make vitamin D, which the eyes need to function normally.
  • Reduce your screen time and rest your eyes and mind.
  • Take a break from social media if you find yourself overusing it or feeling low because of it.
  • Create a healthy bedtime routine to ensure you get good quality sleep every night – avoid using screens late, cool down your room, and do something soothing before falling asleep like reading a book or listening to music.
  • Take an eye health supplement like SightC or Blueberry Gummies to provide your eyes with essential nutrients that may be lacking in your diet. 

Remember that these tips are not intended to replace treatment plans provided by medical professionals. Rather, they are complementary strategies that can help you feel better and improve your eye health.

The Wrap Up

Depression and vision problems have a two-way connection. One may contribute to the other in obvious but also subtle ways. 

The key to managing these conditions is to become aware of them early and address the underlying causes. It’s not easy, but it can make a big difference.

When your mind is happy, it’s easier for your eyes to feel happy too.

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