You live a busy life. With the responsibilities associated with your job, family, and well, everything, you may not get enough sleep.
More than one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep—defined as seven or more hours each—on a regular basis, according to the CDC. It’s been well established a lack of sleep can increase the risk of a number of serious health issues including high blood pressure, obesity, and depression, but does it contribute to serious or long-term problems for the health of your eyes?
Lack of sleep can leave you looking worn-down and with dark circles or heavy bags under your eyes. While this isn’t an ideal look, it’s usually nothing that a good night’s sleep can’t fix. However, as doctors learn more about our vision it has become abundantly clear that a chronic lack of sleep can have significant, and in some cases lasting, effects on your vision and the overall health of your eyes.
Why your eyes need sleep
Your eyes consist of six muscles. Like any muscle in our body, they require rest in order to repair themselves. Sleep is the natural period of time for this to occur.
Interestingly, while most muscles in your body are motionless during sleep, the eyes continue to move and remain active—even when closed. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why our eyes enter into this period of rapid eye movement, or REM, during extended periods of sleep.
In addition to repairing themselves during sleep, your eyes clean and rehydrate themselves while you’re sleeping. The eyes also use this time to replenish their supply of tears.
While most doctors and optical practitioners recommend a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night, research has shown that the eye needs at least five hours of sleep in order to heal and replenish themselves enough to function and operate correctly. Anything less significantly increases the risk of experiencing a number of irritating eye conditions, including:
Serious eye health effects associated with a lack of sleep
Chronic lack of sleep doesn’t just contribute to acute eye issues like those mentioned above, it can also contribute to more serious issues, including glaucoma. Glaucoma is a progressive eye disease that occurs as a result of fluid accumulating near the front of the eye. Over time, fluid builds up and increases pressure on the optic nerve (which is responsible for transmitting visual messages from the eye to the brain).
Glaucoma is also the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in adults. Recent research from the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University, concluded there appears to be a connection between high pressure associated with glaucoma and specific cells in the retina known as ganglion cells. These ganglion cells are also thought to play a role in circadian rhythms and sleep.
Adding to this concern, sleep apnea is an associated risk factor of glaucoma, according to a report from the American Academy of Sleep Education (AASM). Sleep-related problems are estimated to disrupt health sleep patterns for an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans, according to the CDC.
Improving eye health while you sleep
While there are many health concerns associated with a lack of sleep, there are an equal number of steps you can take to improve the quality and duration of your sleep and also to protect the health of your eyes.
For example, in the case of sleep apnea, doctors often notice associated changes in the eyelids, retina, and overall vision. However, when sleep apnea is properly diagnosed and treated, the associated changes observed in the eyes and overall vision return to normal.
Other steps you can take to improve your sleep and support your overall eye health include:
Reduce exposure to blue light, especially before fed
Cell phones, tablets, and smart TVs emit excessive amounts of blue light. Although this form of light is an artificial source of blue light, it mimics the natural source of blue light, the sun. As you can imagine, exposure to artificial blue light tricks our brain and our body into thinking it’s the sun’s natural blue light and that we should be awake.
Repeated exposure to artificial blue light night after night can interfere with your circadian rhythm and throw off your internal clock, making it more difficult to fall asleep and to sleep soundly throughout the night.
To avoid blue light disruption, avoid all sources of blue light at least 30 minutes before going to sleep.
Avoid wearing contact lenses while sleeping
Recent advances in contact lens technology has allowed for the creation of disposable lenses and even contact lenses that have been designed to wear while sleeping. While the latter was primarily intended to allow for a quick snooze or for the occasional situation where you need to keep contacts in while sleeping (travel, camping, etc), there seems to be an increase in the number of people keeping these contacts in all the time.
As mentioned earlier, your eyes clean and repair themselves while you sleep. Wearing contact lenses during this time, and especially on a regular basis, has been shown to interfere with this process.
Continually wearing contact lenses during sleep also increases the risk of serious eye infection and prevents the cornea from having access to oxygen and air flow required for optimal health.
For best results, always remove contact lenses before going to sleep and never wear them longer than what is recommended by the manufacturer.
Make eye health exams a priority
Annual eye exams are not just for measuring your vision. Advancing vision technology, including tests like the Optomap retinal mapping, not only allows your optometrist to assess the overall health of your eyes, it also provides detailed information as to a number of other critical health factors, including early detection of diabetes and hypertension. Both conditions can impact sleep quality and vision health.
Quality sleep, healthier vision
Science has established a direct link between healthy sleep and healthier eyes. Not only does consistent, quality sleep allow your eyes the time needed to appropriately clean and lubricate themselves, it also reduces the risk of a number of more serious health conditions shown to affect vision, including hypertension, diabetes, and glaucoma.