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Seeing the Difference: Primary Eyecare Services is Backing Dry January

Photo of a woman refusing a glass of wine

18 January 2024

As ‘Dry January’ continues, we look at the demonstrable correlation between levels of alcohol consumption and eye health – a connection to be borne in mind all year round.

First launched in 2013, the concept of Dry January was introduced as a way of raising awareness about the potential health benefits of reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption, while also encouraging a positive change in drinking habits. Over the past decade, Dry January has gained popularity and is welcomed by many individuals as an opportunity to kick-start a healthier lifestyle at the beginning of a new year, including reassessing their relationship with alcohol.

The Effects Of Alcohol on Eye Health

Primary Eyecare supports the often-overlooked link between reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption and improving eye health and is encouraging all our practices to talk to patients about the current campaign and how it can help to maintain the quality of their vision.

In a blog post published by an NHS optometrist on behalf of the NHS BSA, the difference between long and short term eye damage is explored, stressing that people who are heavy drinkers are at a much higher risk of experiencing both temporary and permanent adverse effects.

Short-Term Impacts

Dryness – studies suggest that even a little amount of alcohol can increase and intensify dry eyes

Twitching eyes – excessive alcohol intake can cause eye twitching or myokymia.

Slow pupil reaction – alcohol can cause the iris to dilate much slower than normal.

Damage to contrast perception – alcohol can affect the ability to make distinctions between different objects based on how light or dark they are.

Migraines – possibly accompanied by sensitivity to light and other related vision problem, migraines can be caused by drinking too much alcohol.

Rapid Eye Movement – alcohol can help people fall asleep quicker, but increases non-REM sleep and decreases REM sleep – which means losing out on the more beneficial, refreshing deeper sleep cycles.

Long-Term Impacts

Optic neuropathy – this condition can cause loss of vision,  usually painless. In addition, the disorder can decrease peripheral vision and cause difficulty seeing colours.

Vitamin deficiency – heavy drinking can affect the liver’s intake of vitamins that are needed to maintain a healthy eyesight.

Prenatal alcohol exposure – consuming excessive amounts of alcohol increases the risk of permanently affecting the developing structures of the eye in the foetus.

Cataract formation – studies have shown increased cataract formation in people who drink higher levels of alcohol compared to those who drink little or no alcohol.

Age-related macular degeneration – it is thought that excessive drinking causes oxidative damage to the retina, potentially leading to Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

Helping Patients to Help Themselves

As eye care professionals, fostering holistic well-being among our patients goes beyond assessing just their visual health. Integrating discussions about lifestyle choices, such as their levels of alcohol consumption, can contribute significantly to better eye health – both in the long and short term. It also chimes in with the wider NHS holistic health initiative, Making Every Contact Count (MECC).

Making Every Contact Count

MECC encourages practicing health and social care staff to use any and all opportunities arising during their routine interactions with patients to have conversations about how they might make positive improvements to their health or wellbeing. This approach can be very flexible, prompting a conversation at either a general holistic level or addressing specific areas of concern, such as smoking, obesity and alcohol consumption.

See our new MECC webpage here designed to help patients take informed decisions about these issues.

To see the latest NHS guidance specifically on alcohol use, including useful hints and tips for the public around cutting down or cutting out consumption, click here.

The overall objective of MECC is to help patients take more responsibility for their health and to focus on prevention. It also carried significant financial implications. As the latest version of the NHS Five Year View states:

‘If the nation fails to get serious about prevention then recent progress in healthy life expectancies will stall, health inequalities will widen, and our ability to fund beneficial new treatments will be crowded-out by the need to spend billions of pounds on wholly avoidable illness.’

Clear Vision – Clear Choices

These types of interventions, albeit light touch, are not necessarily easy conversations to have. Here are some gentle suggestions around  encouraging patients to reflect on their alcohol habits:

  • Establish trust and open communication: create an open and non-judgmental space where patients can feel comfortable discussing various aspects of their lifestyle, including their alcohol habits
  • Integrate alcohol questions into routine assessments: Incorporate questions about alcohol consumption into routine eye examinations. This helps normalise discussions about lifestyle factors and allows patients to reflect on their habits in the context of their overall health
  • Discuss the proven evidence-based links between alcohol and eye health: touch on some of the long and short term side effects, listed above, and signpost patients to sources of NHS information and advice around stopping or cutting down on alcohol. Emphasise the connection between a healthy lifestyle and maintaining optimal vision
  • Share relevant statistics and information: advise patients on top line statistics on the correlation between alcohol and eye disorders can be impactful. Sharing facts about increased risks of certain eye conditions among heavy drinkers may motivate patients to reconsider their habits
  • Encourage regular general health checkups: stress the importance of regular health checkups – not only for eye health but for a comprehensive assessment of overall well-being. Doing this can encourage patients to take a proactive approach to their health, including monitoring and managing their alcohol habits

Making A Lasting Impact

Primary Eyecare Services remains dedicated to supporting Dry January by raising awareness about the links between alcohol consumption and eye conditions. Our aim is to inspire long term lifestyle changes that extend beyond the month itself, encouraging an ongoing culture of proactive self help and a greater knowledge of the factors that influence better health and wellbeing.

By approaching the topic of alcohol habits with empathy, education, and an emphasis on overall well-being, optometrists and the wider eye health team can play a vital role in empowering patients to make informed choices that positively impact both their vision and their health.

Find Out More

To encourage and support anyone thinking about taking part in Dry January, Alcohol Change UK has published a wide range of information, tools, tips and link and apps on its website which are available here.

The NHS BSA Dry January blog post is available in full here.