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Why Do We Cry: Tears and Their Types

Whether it’s a baby, an actor in a movie, or even somebody chopping onions, crying is something with which every person on this planet is familiar. But what causes these tears; why do people cry?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology, or AAO, states that, “Lacrimal glands above each eye produce your tears. . . . When a lot of emotional or reflex tears are made, they overwhelm the lacrimal drainage system. That’s why these tears can spill out of your eyes, run down your cheeks and sometimes dribble out of your nose.”

This certainly explains how tears originate, but what triggers this production? According to Dr. Michael Roizen, “there are three different kinds of tears: basal, irritant, and emotional.”

  1. Basal tears are the first line of defense when it comes to the eyes. They provide a constant layer of lubrication to not only moisten, but also protect the corneas from the small bits of dirt and debris with which they may come into contact.
  2. Irritant tears, more commonly reflex, tears are produced when the eyes come into contact with some form of irritating substance, which can include onions, gnats, smoke, or anything else that proves too much for basal tears to handle alone. In addition to removing foreign objects from the eyes, reflex tears can also contain antibodies to aid in neutralizing harmful bacteria.
  3. Emotional tears are secreted when experiencing strong feelings such as jubilation, melancholy, rage, or terror. Research has found that these tears, unlike basal or reflex, contain additional proteins and hormones commonly associated with stress. While no definitive reason is known, it is commonly hypothesized that after these chemicals are released, they are subsequently secreted in emotional tears to help the body maintain homeostasis.

So why do people cry? Although constantly being secreted and drained, basal tears don’t cause noticeable crying. Like basal tears, reflex tears help protect the eyes; however, unlike basal tears, they can cause noticeable crying when triggered. Emotional tears do not directly protect the eyes, but in addition to being noticeable like reflex tears, the extra substances found in them suggest that they provide some form of useful service for the body.

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