What Causes Crusty Eyes

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 06/11/2024

Ever wake up with crusty, gunky eyes? You know, that sticky, sandy feeling that makes it hard to open your peepers? Turns out, there's a name for that - and a reason behind it.

Crusty eyes, also known as "sleep dust" or "eye boogers," are signs of something deeper in your body. And it all comes down to one crucial nutrient: vitamin A.

This post will explore the surprising link between crusty eyes and vitamin A deficiency. We'll dive into the best sources of this essential vitamin, both animal and plant-based, and uncover the sneaky factors that could sabotage your absorption.

By the end, you'll have a clear plan of action to banish those crusty eyes for good - and keep your vision sharp for years to come.

Understanding Crusty Eyes and Their Causes

Have you ever woken up with crusty eyes? That gunk that seems to glue your eyelids shut in the morning? It's a common occurrence, but what exactly causes it?

Crusty eyes are often a sign of vitamin A deficiency, which leads to dryness and thickened mucus around the eyes. But before we dive into the science behind this condition, let's examine some of the colloquial terms used to describe it.

Common Names for Crusty Eyes

Crusty eyes go by many names, depending on where you're from. Some of the most popular include:

  • Sleep dust

  • Eye sand

  • Eye gunk

  • Sleep sand

  • Eye schnooters

  • Eye buggers

Regardless of what you call them, crusty eyes are a common issue caused by various factors, including vitamin A deficiency.

The Role of Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A is essential for maintaining healthy eyes, skin, and immune function. Not getting enough of this vital nutrient can lead to a host of problems, including crusty eyes.

A lack of vitamin A can cause the mucus membranes in your eyes to become dry and thick, forming crusty buildup around your eyelids. This buildup can make it difficult to open your eyes in the morning and may even cause irritation or discomfort throughout the day.

Sources of Vitamin A

Wondering how to get enough vitamin A to maintain healthy eyes and prevent crusty buildup? The solution is in your diet. Including foods rich in vitamin A and other essential eye vitamins can help keep your eyes in optimal condition.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin obtained from both animal and plant sources. Animal products contain retinol, the active form of vitamin A, while plant sources contain beta-carotene and other carotenoids that the body can convert into vitamin A.

Animal-Based Sources of Vitamin A

Some of the best animal-based sources of vitamin A include:

  • Liver (beef, chicken, pork)

  • Egg yolks

  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)

Incorporating these foods into your diet can help you get enough retinol to support healthy eye function and prevent vitamin A deficiency.

Plant-Based Sources of Vitamin A

If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, don't worry - there are plenty of plant-based sources of vitamin A as well. Some of the best options include:

  • Carrots

  • Spinach

  • Kale

  • Red bell peppers

  • Apricots

These foods are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids that the body can convert into vitamin A.

However, the conversion rate of plant-based vitamin A precursors to retinol is relatively low, so vegans and vegetarians may need to consume more of these foods to meet their daily vitamin A needs.

Factors Contributing to Vitamin A Deficiency

While a diet low in vitamin A-rich foods is the most common cause of deficiency, other factors can also contribute to the problem. Let's look closely at some of these factors and how they can impact your vitamin A status.

Low Iron Levels

Iron is essential for the absorption and utilization of vitamin A. Low iron levels can impair the body's ability to absorb and store vitamin A, leading to deficiency.

This is particularly common in women of reproductive age, who are at a higher risk of iron deficiency due to menstrual blood loss. Ensuring adequate iron intake through diet or supplements can help improve vitamin A absorption and prevent deficiency.

Impaired Fat Digestion

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that requires dietary fat for absorption in the body.

Suppose you have a condition that impairs fat digestion, such as pancreatic enzyme deficiency or gallbladder problems. In that case, it can impact your ability to absorb vitamin A from your foods.

In these cases, working with a healthcare provider to manage the underlying condition and ensure adequate vitamin A intake through diet or supplements is essential for preventing deficiency.

Human liver illustration

Liver Issues and Alcohol Consumption

The liver plays a crucial role in vitamin A metabolism and storage. If you have liver disease or consume excessive amounts of alcohol, it can impair your body's ability to process and store vitamin A effectively.

Chronic alcohol consumption can also deplete the body's vitamin A stores over time, leading to deficiency. Suppose you have liver issues or consume alcohol regularly.

In that case, working with a healthcare provider to monitor your vitamin A status and ensure adequate intake through diet or supplements is essential.

Addressing Vitamin A Deficiency in Vegan Diets

While plant-based sources of vitamin A can be an excellent addition to any diet, vegans may face unique challenges in obtaining sufficient amounts of this essential nutrient.

Let's explore some of these challenges and potential solutions for preventing vitamin A deficiency on a vegan diet.

Challenges with Plant-Based Vitamin A Sources

As mentioned earlier, plant-based sources of vitamin A contain beta-carotene and other carotenoids that the body must convert into retinol before they can be utilized.

However, this conversion process is relatively inefficient, with some studies suggesting that it may take up to 12 units of beta-carotene to produce just one unit of retinol.

Additionally, certain factors such as genetics, digestive health, and other nutrients can impact the body's ability to convert plant-based vitamin A precursors into retinol. As a result, vegans who rely solely on plant-based sources of vitamin A may be at a higher risk of deficiency.

Solutions for Vegans to Prevent Deficiency

Despite these challenges, there are several strategies that vegans can use to ensure adequate vitamin A intake and prevent deficiency. Some potential solutions include:

  • Consuming a variety of vitamin A-rich plant foods, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and red bell peppers

  • Considering a vegan-friendly vitamin A supplement, particularly if you have other risk factors for deficiency

  • Pairing vitamin A-rich foods with healthy fats, such as avocado or nuts, to improve absorption

By implementing these strategies and working with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to monitor vitamin A status, vegans can ensure that they meet their daily needs and prevent deficiency.

Importance of Proper Vitamin A Intake

While vitamin A deficiency can lead to many health problems, including crusty eyes, it's important to remember that more is not always better for this essential nutrient. Consuming excessive amounts of vitamin A can be just as harmful as not getting enough.

Combining Animal and Plant Sources

A proper diet that includes both animal and plant nutrient sources is essential to ensure optimal vitamin A intake and prevent both deficiency and toxicity. This can help provide your body with the different vitamin A forms needed to function correctly.

Aim to incorporate a variety of vitamin A-rich foods into your diet, such as liver, egg yolks, dairy products, fatty fish, carrots, and leafy greens.

Doing so can help support healthy eye function and prevent the development of crusty eyes and other vitamin A deficiency symptoms.

Addressing Absorption Issues

In addition to consuming a proper diet, addressing any underlying factors that may be impacting your body's ability to absorb and utilize vitamin A is essential.

This may include managing digestive issues, such as pancreatic enzyme deficiency or gallbladder problems, or addressing nutrient deficiencies that can impair vitamin A absorption, such as iron deficiency.

Working with a healthcare provider to identify and address these underlying issues can help ensure that your body can effectively absorb and utilize the vitamin A you consume, reducing your risk of deficiency and related health problems.

By prioritizing a proper intake of both animal and plant sources of vitamin A and addressing any factors impacting absorption, you can help keep your eyes healthy and free from crusty buildup.

So, the next time you wake up with crusty eyes, remember - it may be a sign that it's time to take a closer look at your vitamin A intake.


Crusty eyes may seem minor, but they're a window into your overall health. By understanding the crucial role of vitamin A in eye health, you can take steps to nourish your body from the inside out.

Whether you're a meat-eater or a vegan, there are plenty of delicious ways to boost your vitamin A intake and keep those peepers clear and bright.

But it's not just about what you eat - it's also about how well you absorb it. Low iron levels, impaired fat digestion, liver issues, and certain medications can interfere with vitamin A absorption.

By working with a healthcare professional to address these underlying factors, you can ensure that your body is making the most of this essential nutrient.

So go ahead - load up on colorful fruits and veggies, savor some liver pâté, and give your eyes the TLC they deserve. With a bit of knowledge and a lot of vitamin A, you'll be waking up to clear, comfortable eyes in no time.

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