I’ve always been able to get to sleep very quickly. I have a good wind-down routine at night and within a few minutes of getting into bed, I’m asleep. But this changed about four years ago when it started taking me longer and longer to get to sleep, sometimes up to an hour or two.
This puzzled me greatly. Nothing of any note had changed in my life. I was happy and not worried or stressed about anything. I was sleeping in the same bed, in the same room I’d slept in for a number of years. But still, the difficulty with getting to sleep persisted, night after night.
Seeking the cause
Most people would have gone home, used the wipes, worried about going blind, and carried on. Not me. I always want to know why something is happening. Treating symptoms is never a long-term solution. Real change can only come from knowing the cause of a problem.
So, I thought to myself, what can possibly be the reason for this? My optician had offered no clues, so I did what any savvy person would do and googled “blepharitis”. This delivered many pages of information about how to treat it but still no clue as to the cause.
I persisted and eventually found an article about Daniel Ezra, a consultant ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon at London’s prestigious Moorfields eye hospital, who sees so many people with blepharitis these days that he’s calling it an epidemic. And what does he think the cause of this is? Staring at screens for many hours a day.
He estimates that 15% of Londoners have the condition, and 60 - 90% of office workers have some form of Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Symptoms are blurred vision, double vision, dry, red eyes, eye irritation, headaches and accompanying neck or back pain. He says working in an air-conditioned office exacerbates symptoms because it increases tear evaporation from the surface of the eye. Bright lighting can also be a problem.
Clearly, we are not designed to sit in sealed boxes staring at screens all day. I never use air-conditioning myself but, as a writer, I do spend long hours working at my computer and I prefer to use three screens rather than just one. I decided I needed to train myself to blink more and take frequent breaks, and this helped a little, but I still wasn’t able to get to sleep at night.
I continued my researches and discovered that CVS was just the tip of the iceberg. Far more worrying is the global rise in macular degeneration and insomnia, not just in office workers but in anyone who uses screens for long periods of time, including smartphones, tablets, laptops and other digital devices.
At that time, there was very little information about this on the internet but I did find one helpful article on the Harvard Medical School website titled Blue light has a dark side. It explained that blue light at night interrupts melatonin production, which makes it difficult to get to sleep, and advised against using screens for 2-3 hours before bedtime.
Finally I was making progress. But this still didn’t explain why I might have an increased risk for macular degeneration.
Then three months ago, I read about a study conducted at the University of Todelo, Ohio, in which researchers had found that excessive exposure to blue light from screens causes poisonous molecules to be generated in photoreceptor cells. This kills the cells and unfortunately, they do not regenerate as other cells do, which is why macular degeneration is incurable. Finally, I felt I had all the elements of the puzzle.
I’m happy to say that I still use my computer but for the last three years I’ve been able to fall asleep as easily as I always used to and annual eye-checks have confirmed my eyes are now in excellent health. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but for anyone who is interested, here are the lifestyle changes and solutions that have worked for me.
1. Good quality lighting
I had a commercial Solatube skylight installed in my home office to bring in as much natural daylight as possible. And if I have to work in the evening, I use halogen lights, never LED lights, because LEDs emit a very much higher level of blue light. Halogens use more electricity than LEDs but the light they emit is very much kinder and healthier for our eyes. They are the closest thing to old-fashioned incandescent lights which, although energy-guzzling, did no harm to our eyes at all.
2. Reduced screen brightness
I have reduced the brightness of my screens down to a more comfortable level than the default set by the manufacturer and have positioned my desk so that there is no window glare reflected on the screen.
3. Conscious blinking
I have trained myself to blink more often when working at my computer, and every 20 minutes I look away and blink slowly ten times to lubricate my eyes. To be effective, the blinking has to be done so slowly that it’s at a similar speed to nodding off while watching TV. Some opticians recommend using eye drops instead but I prefer this natural technique instead of putting chemicals in my eyes.
4. Change of focus
Every 20 minutes, I also look away from my screens for at least 20 seconds to something at least 20 feet (600cm) away. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule to help relieve eyes from rigid staring, and I find it helps. It has the added bonus that I also get some of my best writing ideas in these breaks.
5. Good posture
I sit cross-legged and vertical on a bespoke wide, comfortable chair without arms, and my screens are elevated to eye height so that I can look straight ahead without tilting my neck.
6. Regular sleep/wake cycle
I’ve become mostly a 9 to 5 gal. I don’t mean working from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm but sleeping from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am during the summer months and naturally shifting to sleeping from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am during the winter months, when the sun rises later here in Perth. Either way, I get eight hours of sleep during the maximum melatonin-producing hours of darkness. It also means I am rested enough not to need an alarm clock to wake up by or to want to lie-in at weekends, which recent research at the University of Arizona has shown to substantially mess with a person’s body clock and have possible health consequences.
7. Early morning walk
Most days, I take an early morning walk which helps to reset my circadian rhythms for the day.
8. Sleep in total darkness
The blue spectrum of electric lighting interferes with melatonin production so I never sleep with a light on in my room and use blackout curtains to block out lights from external sources. If I ever need to go to the bathroom in the night, I do so without turning on a light, and when I stay in a hotel, I usually use a small flashlight with a red bulb to help me find my way (red light has little to no effect on melatonin production).
So that’s what has helped me, but there’s no need to take my word for it. There’s now a wealth of scientific information on the internet about this.
9. Blue light filtering glasses
First, I tried installing free screen-dimming software such as f.lux and Iris. These automatically dim screens according to the time of day and claim to filter out blue light (they are the PC/Android equivalent of the Night Shift feature that Apple has introduced for their iPhones, iPods and iPads). However, the software didn’t make any noticeable difference to my eye or sleep problems so I continued my hunt.
Next, I tried blue-light reflecting glasses from an optician but they also did nothing for me. Perhaps some opticians have improved their technology since then but back in 2014, it wasn’t impressive.
Then I came across luxury blue-light blocking glasses made by Kensington. I've heard of these types of glasses produced primarily for gamers who sit in front of computers for hours each day, but never for general day-to-day use. I ordered a pair and started using them. Within days, I was sleeping normally again. It was that quick. With mounting evidence that blue light exposure can exacerbate photo-ageing, wrinkles, skin laxity and hyperpigmentation, I take my Kensington glasses everywhere I go!