Do your eyes frequently ache after staring at your tablet or smartphone? It’s not just the strain of looking at a small screen. It may be a sign of irreversible damage being done to your eyes—cellular damage that can lead to blindness
We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t stare too long at our screens, but is the faint blue glow from tablets and mobile phones really dangerous? According to a new study, the light from our digital devices is not only harmful, prolonged exposure can spur macular degeneration, a condition that can lead to blindness.
More than one-quarter of the world’s population spends at least seven hours per day on a smartphone, and our total time exposed to media, including computers, tablets, and TVs, has exceeded a jaw-dropping twelve hours per day. This alarming rise in screen use—and it’s growing each year—has led researchers to question the effects this trend is having on eye health.
We’ve known since the 1950s that blue light is capable of disturbing the delicate light-balance of photosensitive life forms, however science is just beginning to recognize the extent to which overexposure to lighted screens can affect the human organism. “Maintaining synchronized circadian rhythms is important to health and well-being,” says Dieter Kunz, director of the Sleep Research and Clinical Chronobiology Research Group. “Desynchronization of circadian rhythms may play a role in various tumoral diseases, diabetes, obesity, and depression.”
Recent research conducted by University of Toledo scientists and published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds a layer to the discussion of harms that can be experienced when we don’t put down the glowing screens. The study, entitled, “Blue light excited retinal intercepts cellular signaling,” examined a unique spectrum of light called blue light, the wavelength on the visible electromagnetic spectrum which has the greatest power to disturb our circadian rhythms.
According to researchers, blue light emitted from cell phones, laptops, and other digital devices causes damage to vision by triggering the formation of poisonous molecules in the eye’s light-sensitive cells. Retinal, or retinaldehyde, is a form of Vitamin A and the key molecule involved in vision, responsible for converting the energy in light photons into electrical impulses in the retina. While the cornea and lens of the eye are transparent to blue light, this light spectrum excites retinal molecules, creating condensation byproducts called lipofuscins: phototoxic, non-degradable materials that cause macular degeneration. This “blue light excited retinal” causes irreversible changes to the plasma membrane of the eye, disrupting its function and causing oxidative damage to the core of the membrane. Simply put, shining blue light on retinal kills photoreceptor cells.
What makes this finding deeply troubling for eye health is that once dead, these cells do not regenerate. Adults over the age of 50, and those with compromised immune systems, are most at risk for significant loss of vision due to the death of these nonregenerative cells. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the United States and is estimated to effect nearly 2 million people over the age of 40.
According to Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, one of the contributing researchers and assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Toledo, “We are being exposed to blue light continuously and the eye’s cornea and lens cannot block or reflect it.” What we can do, according to Dr. Karunarathne, is wear sunglasses that block both UV and blue light.
Central to this research is avoiding excessive use of digital devices. While each person must determine what “excessive use” constitutes, listen to your body and know when enough is enough. Pain in the eyes, headaches, and blurred vision are all signs that you may be suffering from too much blue light exposure.
For many people, the use of digital devices is not optional. Clearly, there is a need to protect our eyes, but what can we do besides quit our jobs, toss our devices, and move to the countryside?
How to Support Your Eyes Naturally
According to experts at the American Optometric Association, Computer Vision Syndrome, or Digital Eye Strain, refers to “a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use.” This type of eye strain causes varying levels of discomfort among individuals who use digital devices, with amount of discomfort tightly correlated to length of use each day. With many modern jobs requiring the use of computers and devices, even during off-hours, it’s no surprise that the average American worker spends as much as seven hours a day on the computer.  Add to that, the number of times a day we check phones, Facebook accounts, personal email, etc. and it’s safe to say that many Americans spend more time looking at screens each day than looking at the outside world.
There are ways to protect your eyes that don’t require abandoning your way of life. For starters, the American Optometric Association recommends “the 20-20-20 rule”: take a 20-second break from the screen to view something 20 feet away from you, every 20 minutes. Keep screens at a reasonable distance from your eyes; an arm’s-length and 4-5 inches below eye-level is considered a safe distance. Enlarge text and zoom-in to see clearly, rather than holding devices closer to your eyes. Make sure your computer room is well-lit and avoid staring at your phone or tablet while in the dark, such as lying in bed with the lights-out. When blue light is the primary wavelength penetrating the eye, it can be even more damaging.
No matter how much nutrient-dense food we consume, we only benefit to the degree that our bodies can absorb and utilize these nutrients. Therefore, improving the health of gut bacteria is an essential prerequisite to reversing vitamin-based deficiencies that can weaken eyesight. Probiotics and an organic, produce-rich diet are vital to healthy gut flora, which can help ward-off all types of physical maladies, including macular degeneration.
Increasing consumption of certain foods can help give eyes a natural boost. Carotenoids, the organic nutrient that gives carrots their orange color, are also why carrots are known for being an eye-health bonanza. Carotenoids nourish the macula, which is central to the retina and responsible for our sharpest vision. Consuming a diet that is high in beta-carotene supports eye through by providing abundant carotenoids, and the carrots don’t have to be orange to have this benefit! Other vitamins that are known to support eye health include Vitamins A, C, and zinc, found abundantly in leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and citrus fruits.
Another important dietary component of eye health is cholesterol. Recent genetic studies have shown that the presence of several cholesterol-related genes increase risk factors for age-related macular degeneration. Supplementation with niacin and fish oil can help to achieve a healthy cholesterol balance, which is recognized as being key to ensuring that the macula receives the benefits of enhanced nutrition. Consuming a diet that is low in trans-unsaturated fat and rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps the body maintain healthy blood lipids and is important for proper visual development and retinal function. Omega-3s can even improve vision by strengthening the nerves in the eye.
Consider holistic alternatives to statin drugs. The eye-damaging effects of statins may not be well-publicized, however users of statin drugs have been shown to have a 48% higher risk of pathological eye lens changes (nuclear sclerosis and cortical cataract) associated with cataracts.
Finally, do the things that are necessary to maintain overall eye health, such as blinking often, which naturally lubricates and refreshes the eyes, and clears dust and particles. Keep your devices clean, and free of smudges and dust which can increase glare. Visit your eye doctor annually, and make sure you have up-to-date prescription lenses, if required. Inquire about specialized glasses that can reduce glare from computer screens, and provide a layer of protection between your retina and the blue light.
If you can’t avoid hours of screen time, at least you can support your eye health, naturally. By consuming a healthy diet and practicing good personal-use habits, you can minimize the damage and enjoy use of your digital devices.