5 reasons why crying is actually good for you and your eyes
24 October 2019
Why do we cry?
People cry for a whole host of different reasons, whether that’s feeling happy, sad, overwhelmed... or maybe they’re just chopping onions. We actually produce three different types of tears which are all triggered by various factors. Firstly, there are basal tears which protect your eyes from debris. These tears are always present in your eyes and keep them clean and bacteria-free, despite the odd dust particle that makes its way into your eye. You also have reflex tears which form as a reaction to irritants in the air, like onion fumes, smoke, or chemicals such as cleaning products. These tears wash out the irritants to ensure that your vision isn’t compromised. The final type of tears is emotional tears, triggered by a range of feelings. Perhaps the most common cause is sadness, but lots of us have probably experienced them for happiness, empathy, guilt and “other intense emotions”.
What’s in our tears?
It will come as no surprise that the primary component of tears is water. However, they also contain salt, fatty oils and more than 1,500 proteins. We’ve previously written about the three different layers of tears, and how any imbalance in these can lead to dry eyes. First, we have the mucus layer which keeps your eye’s moisture attached to the eye – so you’re not crying all the time! We also have an aqueous layer to hydrate the eye and flush out bacteria, while the oily layer keeps the eye’s moisture from evaporating.
You need a good balance of these three components to ensure good eye health. Ironically, if you suffer from dry eye disease, you might actually develop really watery eyes. This happens because your eyes try to compensate for the lack of one of the three components, and over-produce another element. We also produce fewer basal tears with age which is why, as you get older, you might find yourself with dryer eyes. This can also happen as a result of hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and the menopause.
What causes tears?
When your eyes feel irritated, they cause your lacrimal glands to produce tears. These glands can be found above each eye, between the outer edge of your eyelid and eyebrow. The tears produced in this instance are reflex tears and are your body’s natural reaction to wash away irritating particles or substances. Common triggers for reflex tears are:
- Onions (specifically syn-propanethial-S-oxide, the gas it releases when you cut it)
- Chemical fumes
- Screen time
- Bright lights
- Strong smells
- Reading small text or focusing your eyes for long periods
Experiencing pain can often be a trigger for tears, as crying is thought to have “pain-relieving effects” and is therefore the body’s natural response to severe physical discomfort. Similarly, emotional tears are suspected to have relaxing effects, slowing our heart rate and calming us down. We’ll discuss the benefits of these types of tears in greater depth later, but it’s clear to see that, even on a basic level, tears have the purpose of making us feel better after instances of pain or intense emotion.
What are the benefits of crying?
Crying has multiple benefits, both psychological and physiological. Each person produces between 15 and 30 gallons of tears each year with women crying on average 64 times a year, and men 17 times a year. Although no one has been able to confirm exactly why women cry more, it’s important to note than men have smaller tear ducts and that their emotional tears contain 60% less prolactin. Further research in this area is needed to discover the biological reasons for fewer male tears. Women also cry “more intensely”, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, perhaps as a result of societal expectations that men to conceal their emotions more.
There are actually social benefits that come with shedding tears. Humans are the only creatures that cry emotional tears, perhaps contributing to our status as the most social beings on the planet, with the most sophisticated language and communication. Tears have actually been found to promote social bonding, and studies show that people who cry and are comforted by friends and family actually feel better after crying than people who didn’t cry, but were still comforted.
Further to this, HealthLine note that “emotional tears contain proteins and hormones that aren’t found in the two other types of tears”. The theory is that these hormones are what help us feel more relaxed after emotional crying, or experience the pain-relieving effects from reflexive crying. Historically, crying has been seen as a social signal to indicate that you are distressed or need help so, perhaps with crying, humans have evolved into better communicators.
What are the risks of a lack of tears?
With minimal tears and the subsequent dry eyes come some risks. If you ever wanted to feel better about shedding a tear or two, just know that you’re lowering your risk of developing:
- Corneal abrasion
- Eye infection
- Corneal ulcer
- Vision disturbances
In terms of infection, the eye’s tears – with sufficient lubrication – will wash away foreign objects. With that, most infection risks disappear, mitigating potential vision disturbances too. Corneal abrasions and corneal ulcers both occur as a result of the eye not being hydrated enough, so crying – whether those are emotional or reflexive tears – can help to lubricate the eye somewhat.
Ultimately, the endorphins released by crying are designed to make us feel better, be that by relieving pain or whether it’s the “chemicals produced by our brain to promote feelings of well-being”. Tears also promote eye health, contributing to keeping dry eye disease at bay, and flushing out potential infection risks.
To summarise, the 5 reasons are:
- Washes out infection and debris
- Hydrates the eyes
- Releases pain-relieving hormones
- Releases mood-boosting endorphins
- Promotes social bonding
Don’t be afraid to shed a tear from time to time!
Back to Blog