The hidden dangers of blue light
Posted on 5th February 2020 at 08:15
While it’s something we all take for granted – well, until there’s a power cut (!) – it’s easy to forget that mains electricity is a relatively new phenomenon. Or how much it’s changed the way we live our lives in a relatively short period of time. And continues to do so.
Not surprisingly, we often see this change in terms of all those technological comforts and gizmos electricity brings us. A greatly improved standard of living.
However, there’s another fundamental way in which electricity has changed our lives. One that it’s easy to overlook. It’s all to do with artificial light and how we spend the dark hours of the day.
Up until mains electricity brought us artificial light, the sun was our main source of light. True, there were candles and open fires, but they produced very little in the way of useable light. This meant that we had very little choice about how to spend our evenings. Up and about with the light, at home – often asleep (!) – with the dark.
This all abruptly changed with the advent of artificial light. For the first time, we could extend our days into the dark hours, giving us a real choice of what to do with our evenings. Both for work and leisure. And, while this brought many benefits, there’s also a price to pay for living our lives out of synch with natural daylight.
We’ve often mentioned that spending time outside each day in natural light – regardless of the weather (!) – is needed to help set our natural circadian rhythms, which are essential for good health. Without it, there can be poor / disrupted sleep / Insomnia as well as hormonal problems. However, it goes much wider than this, with a lack of natural light now being linked to many chronic health issues, particularly Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases.
In addition to this, artificial light has another very well documented effect on us and, in particular, our Eyes. And we’ve all had first hand experience of this at some time or other. The strain artificial light can put on our Eyes, making them feel more tired than usual and our vision less “sharp”.
Why is this?
Well, it’s all to do with the difference in colour – and wavelength – between natural and artificial light. In very simple terms, sunlight provides full spectrum light. In other words, it contains all the colours of the rainbow. These effectively cancel each other out to create white light, otherwise known as sunlight.
In addition, the proportions of the different colours contained in natural light varies during the day. For example, the “softer” light at either end of the day is due to a predominance of red and orange tones.
Finally, natural light also has a longer wavelength. This means that it generates less energy, making it easier – and less damaging – on the Eyes.
By contrast, artificial light doesn’t contain the full spectrum of colours, with those present depending on the bulb used. For example, LED and fluorescent lights provide mainly blue or yellow light with very little red. By contrast, the more traditional light bulbs give off mainly red light and very little blue.
This is important because the colour of the light determines its wavelength and so the energy produced. Both red and yellow light have a longer wavelength which produces less energy. Blue light, on the other hand, has a much shorter wavelength and produces more energy.
What this means in practice is that the shorter wavelength - and greater energy – of blue light gives it the greatest potential to damage our Eyes. This is because blue light damages the retinol contained within the photoreceptors in the Macular in the back of the Eye. Over time it destroys these photoreceptors and, as they can’t be replaced, can lead to long term damage to eyesight and, at worst, blindness. It’s known as Macular Degeneration, more about this in a minute.
So now the million dollar question.
Where does blue light come from?
And, if you need a clue, think of the colour given off by all your favourite gizmos… Television. Mobile phones. Computers.
The all too obvious answer is that ANY digital screen emits constant amounts of blue light. And we’ve all noticed this when they’re being used in a dark place. While we don’t want to be killjoys, using any of your favourite gizmos for any length of time – or one after another – is going to affect your Eyes. So now just stop for a minute and think about the amount of time you spend each day in front of one digital screen or another, whether at home or work…
While people would prefer not to think about it, over exposure to blue light has effects both in the short term – as Eye strain and tired Eyes – AND longer term by damaging the photoreceptors at the back of the Eye. And, for those who like to use their favourite gizmo at night in a dark room, the potential damage is much greater as there’s no other source of light to help “offset” – if that’s the right word – the blue light.
What is Macular Degeneration?
As already mentioned, the Macula is found at the back of the Eye. It’s in the centre of the Retina and is where images are focussed before being sent along the Optic Nerve to the Brain for processing. Damage to the Macula not only affects WHAT you can see but also its CLARITY.
One reason why Macular Degeneration is such a concern is that problems don’t appear as soon as the damage starts. There can be quite a time lag before problems start to become apparent and, even then, they tend to be general and easy to miss. Tired Eyes or slightly blurred vision. However, by then damage has already begun. Over time, this can cause a loss of central vision, although some of the peripheral vision may be retained.
Until recent years, Macular Degeneration was only found in older people, usually those over 50 or 60 years of age. For that reason it was known as Age Related Macular Degeneration or AMD. However, as the use of digital screens has increased, it’s being diagnosed in much younger people AND in much larger numbers. In fact, it’s estimated that more people are affected by it than Glaucoma and Cataracts put together, making it a leading cause of blindness. And, sadly, there’s currently no conventional cure or treatment to help reverse or prevent it.
What can be done to help prevent it?
With exposure to digital screens being the major risk factor, the simplest way to protect your Eyes is to limit exposure to them. This means not using them for extended periods of time and always making sure that the place you use them is well lit, to help reduce additional strain to your Eyes.
If you do have to spend a long time in front of a screen, make sure you take regular breaks. The 20 / 20 / 20 rule is a good reminder to take a break every 20 minutes to look away from the screen at a point about 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Or, as Elaine’s Optician puts it, as a good reason to simply stare blankly into the near distance for 15 to 20 seconds whenever you remember to... Or you could use it for an impromptu – and mini (!) – reset / meditation / daydream / cloud watching.
Tilt your computer screen and raise your chair, so the blue light doesn’t hit your Eyes directly. In other words, try to ensure that you’re – slightly – looking down on your screen.
Adjust the brightness setting, so the screen’s brightness matches the lighting in the room you’re in. This reduces the contrast and helps reduce Eye strain.
Make sure that wherever you’re using the screen is well lit. NEVER use them in a dark room – or bedroom (!) – as the contrast between the light coming off the screen and that in the room around you is much greater. This is particularly the case later in the day when your Eyes are more likely to be tired.
Consider using a screen filter to help filter out the blue light on ALL the screens you use.
Eat a good diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to provide the antioxidants to help protect all of your cells from free radicals and damage. In particular, green and leafy vegetables which are rich in Lutein and Zeaxanthin. These both help protect the Retina from light damage generally and UV rays in particular. Finally, nuts, seeds and fatty fish all help provide omega 3 fatty acids which are needed by the Eyes.
And drink plenty of water (!), as the Eyes are particularly affected by dehydration.
Consider taking a good quality multi vitamin and mineral supplement formulated to specifically provide support for the Eyes, such as those by Nutri, Solgar or MacuShield.
Sleep in total darkness. So, no electronic gizmos – including the television (!) – in your bedroom. Not only will this help protect your Eyes – and give them a break from artificial light – but will ensure deeper and better quality sleep. It may sound rather old fashioned but bedrooms are for sleeping…
Finally, if you can, stop using any gizmos a couple of hours before going to bed to give your body time to adjust to the – natural - darkness. Why not read a book, listen to music or a podcast or do a puzzle before turning the lights out; rather doing a last check on social media? And, yes, we know, this is a rather radical thought for many (!).
Once again, it’s the little things you do every day that make the difference. And, don’t forget that they will all help to improve your general health, as well as supporting your Eyes.
As always, the choice is yours.
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