Combating the Negative Effects of Too Much Artificial Light

By Tracey Dowdy

I grew up on the east coast and remember hearing “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” With the increased use of smartphones and tablets as we go to bed at night, it seems the light we really need to be wary of is blue light!

Blue light is part of the full light spectrum that we are exposed to every day through sunlight. Your body uses blue light to regulate your sleep cycle and your biological clock. Your brain uses blue light to control your thinking process, emotions, cognitive abilities and memory. Doctors use it to treat conditions such as jaundice, rosacea, acne and some mental health issues.

But like anything else, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. Our ever-increasing use of technology – and consequently our increased exposure to blue light – is impacting everything from our vision to our melatonin levels.

Impact on Vision:
Too much exposure to blue light has been linked to macular degeneration – the inability to see what is directly in front of you. What’s important to note is that these studies show the negative impact tends to be directly related to holding a screen too close to your retina. Doctors also report an increase in cataracts in younger patients and point to blue light as the cause, though more research is needed to directly link the two.

Impact on Sleep:
Because our body is accustomed to getting blue light through sunlight, nighttime exposure tricks your body into thinking it’s time to wake up. This can throw off your circadian rhythm and has the potential to affect your ability to relax and fall asleep. Lack of sleep has long been associated with health problems ranging from irritability and headaches to obesity, heart disease and a depleted sex drive.

Impact on Mood:
Our body sees blue light as an indication that it is morning and thus time to be alert, which reduces the production of melatonin. Decreased levels of melatonin can lead to depression and increased symptoms of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) or Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).

Of course, the flip side is the positive impact of blue light on individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder. For some people, studies have shown that it’s as effective in treating depression as anti-depressant medications.

So what are we to do? Simple – be mindful of your use of technology and make some simple changes that will have long-lasting benefits.

  • Follow the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, look up from your screen and focus on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
  • If you use Google Chrome as your browser, download an add-on to remind you of the 20/20/20 rule. Alternatively, you can download an app like “Remind Me Again” from Google Play or the App Store to set those reminders.
  • Keep your screen at least 20-28 inches away from your eyes, especially at night.
  • Download f.lux, free software available for PC’s or Mac products, f.lux automatically adjusts your computer screen based on the time of day. During the day, the display will contain more cool blue light, mimicking daylight, and in the evening it will automatically adjust to a warmer red-based tone, mimicking the sunset.
  • Use glasses with amber-tinted lenses which effectively block blue light, allowing your body to naturally fall asleep.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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