As an owner of an online business, it's nearly impossible for me to avoid being in front of a screen and the exposure to blue light that comes with that. I have been very mindful of the way I interact with technology in the last decade and have found several successful strategies that help mitigate the effects of blue light in particular. Being aware of the effects of blue light from screens and taking a few easy, but impactful actions to protect ourselves can have dramatic benefits. This is one of my favourite kinds of health things – where small changes can go a long way.
Of course, you don't need to be a digital entrepreneur to spend time online. The way our world functions these days, we are living in a virtual world. In some cases, this is a necessity for work and with the recent global circumstances, we use devices to maintain important connections to friends and family.
There are loads of facts and statistics about our screen time. Hold on to your hats for these numbers:
- Globally, we spend an average of 2 hours 44 minutes on social media daily
- In the last decade, our worldwide daily time spent on our phones rose from 32 minutes to 155 minutes
- Canadians spend about 6 hours on the internet and 3 hours watching television each day
- Americans spend about 12 hours daily with media such as TV, social media, and the internet
- Research estimates that Americans will spend 44 years of their life looking at screens (I imagine the same holds true for many other countries)
- In 2020 alone, global online content consumption doubled to 6 hours from 3 hours
I could go on, but I think you get the point and that would just mean more time staring at your screen reading them, so let's move on!
What Is Blue Light?
Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum we can see, along with red, orange, yellow, green indigo and violet. What makes blue light unique is it is a short wavelength with a high amount of energy, which can be taxing on the eyes, our circadian rhythms among other effects that have the potential to have a negative impact on our physical and mental health over time.
Blue Light Sources
Sources of blue light include:
- The sun (this is one of the strongest ones), but of course this source rises and sets on its own – you can't turn on and scroll the sun at 11:00 pm
- Computers (laptop and desktop)
- Mobile phones
- Television screens
- LED lights
- Fluorescent lights
- Halogen lights
- Regular old incandescent light bulbs
What's important to keep in mind is that our eyes can handle the normal exposure of sunlight though, of course, we're not meant to stare directly at it. But the artificial light that comes from electrical devices is substantially more powerful and in the case of screens, we are staring directly at it. We measure light intensity by a unit classed lux (lx). If we compare the lux measurement from different sources of light, we'll find that the light emitted from a laptop has 33,000% more lux than the full moon.
The technologies we interact with daily, and often nightly, are the ones we have to be most mindful of.
Health ImpACT of Blue Light
Some of the health impacts of blue light are:
Trouble Sleeping and Disrupted Circadian Rhythm
Blue light, especially in the evening, disrupts our circadian rhythm – our sleep/wake cycle. It also suppresses our production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Blue light tricks us into thinking it's daytime, which we don't want when we're trying to sleep. As I detailed in this post, a good night's sleep is vital to our physical and mental health.
The Toll On Mental Health
The disruption of our circadian rhythms by blue light has been directly linked to mental health, specifically depression (and this is without taking into account the actual content we are taking in from these devices in late-night scrolling adventures). In one animal study, it was found that mice that were exposed to dim light in the evening, compared to mice exposed to normal light/dark cycles had a four times increase in depressive symptoms. Another study showed that blocking blue light exposure reduced rates of postpartum depression.
Damage to the Eye Itself
Evidence indicates that blue light can cause damage and inflammation to the corneal cells, leading to dry eyes. It can also cause oxidative damage to the lens of the eye, which can play a role in the development of cataracts. Further, it's possible for blue light to induce inflammation and damage to the retina. It's basically taxing all around on the physical health of our precious eyeballs.
Interference with Eye Development in Children
Are there benefits to blue light?
It isn't all bad news. Our bodies are naturally designed to wake up with the sun and so, blue light is associated with alertness, memory, a positive mood, and improved cognition. We want to be bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning and blue light can help us with that – and positively regulate our circadian rhythm.
In fact, because blue light is so effective in waking us up, it is recommended when you wake up in the morning to expose your eyeballs to some full spectrum bright light. In the case of the long dark winters we have in Canada, that could mean turning on some lights in your home to full brightness until you can get outside (or until the sun rises) to get that exposure.
The problems arise when we are exposed to blue light far after sundown, as well as the sheer amount we subject ourselves to over time.
How to Protect Yourself From Blue Light
Again, we want that blue light from the sun as much as possible during the hours intended to be waking hours. The challenge we're facing is that in addition to natural light, we're exposed to heaps of artificial light. This includes overhead lighting to allow us to do what we need to do through the day and into the evening, but also so much screen time!
Though often the use of lighting is essential and can't be avoided, there are also loads of great tools to help reduce or block that blue light without having to sit around in the dark.
Use Blue Light Filtering Tools On Your Devices
Add blue light filters to your computer and smart phone. For the computer, try F.lux. I have an iPhone that automatically comes with Night Shift, but many other phones have either built-in blue light filters you can turn on or apps you can download.
If you use an e-reader at night, check if your device also has a night-mode that provides a red light or blue light-free option. If not, turn the light off completely and check out the options below.
Try Blue Light Blocking Glasses
There is some debate as to the effectiveness of blue light blocking glasses or goggles. Small scale studies have concluded that wearing blue light blocking glasses helps to filter out blue light, improve sleep quality and quantity, improve mood, prevent melatonin suppression, and reduce symptoms like headaches, dry eyes, and eyestrain. Other analyses conclude there isn't sufficient evidence that blue light blocking glasses are effective at preventing insomnia or improving eye health.
I have a pair of blue light filtering glasses from Warby Parker. I'm not entirely convinced they personally work for me, but I am very sensitive to screens. I know people who swear by them.
There are a lot of non-prescription and prescription blue light blocking glasses that are inexpensive, so in my view, they are worth a try!
Night Readers, New Parents, and Nursing Moms: Get A Red Head Lamp
I am a night reader – I read to fall asleep. If I wake up in the middle of the night and still can't get back to sleep, despite going through 101 different calming practices, I read. I highly recommend a head lamp with a red light option. This is also excellent for parents who are getting up in the night to feed/change/snuggle little ones back to sleep. Keeping the lights as dim as possible is essential, avoiding blue light altogether is optimal.
Grab one of these lights from any outdoor store or hardware store. Yes, I may look like I'm going on a mining excavation when all I'm doing is laying in bed reading or creeping into my son's room to watch him sleep (come on, we all do it!), but this is a low-cost winner.
Use Devices Earlier In The Day
Blue light stimulates us and improves our alertness and cognition. If possible, take advantage of that by using your devices earlier in the day and leaving the last several hours of the day technology-free. Hello, dim lighting and board games. Let's rock our evenings like it's the turn of the century. The last one, not this one.
Take Breaks From the Computer
Staring at a screen for long periods of time can cause strain on your eyes. Get up every hour and take a quick walk around the house if you work from home, or do a loop around the office. Go up and down the stairs a few times, do some lunges, do some light stretching, take a super quick 5-minute yoga break, or a walk around the block. There are lots of options and these not only reduce your exposure to blue light but also are great for your overall health!
Practice Healthier Cell Phone Use
I love my mobile phone, I really do. Use the blue light filtering settings on your phone and set them to start when the sun goes down. Discover more habits for healthy cell phone use here.
Turn Off Devices at Least an Hour Before Bed
Blue light suppresses our ability to produce melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Turn off your phone, computer, laptop, tablet, television – basically any screen – at least an hour before bed. I like to turn them off earlier than an hour before bed to avoid that extra blue light stimulation. If you like to read at night, many e-readers have blue light filter settings to reduce the amount, or you can turn off the screen light and use a bedside light. Or go all pre-21st century and read a non-digital book.
Dim the Lights or Try Blue Light Filtering Bulbs
Fluorescent lights and LED lights contain blue light. Don't leave lights on in the house at night, or dim the lights if you have dimmers on your switches. For the bedside or your living room, you could replace a few bulbs with blue light filtering bulbs.
Consume Eye-Protective Foods
Lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids found in the eye, can help to protect against blue light rays. Foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin are:
- Turnip greens
- Brussels sprouts
Sweet potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, winter squashes, and dark leafy greens all contain beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A to support vision.
Omega-3 fats, found in flax, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, salmon, sardines, and eggs (to name a few), are integral to supporting eye health. Many varieties of fish, including sardines, anchovies, salmon, mackerel trout, cod, and herring, are particularly high in DHA, an omega-3 that helps to build and support the brain and retina. If you're going to consume fish, I recommend choosing sustainable options.
The foods I just mentioned are also rich in antioxidants, which can help prevent damage and inflammation to our eyes.
Blue light isn't something that we can avoid, but we can nurture our relationship with blue light and use it smartly so it benefits us rather than detracts from our health.