By Dr. Rudrani Banik
Digital device use and screen time have long been on the rise, but now during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of time we spend in front of screens has skyrocketed. Whether we are teleconferencing for work, homeschooling, virtually connecting with family and friends, watching television, streaming, or gaming, screen time has become a necessary fixture in our daily routines.
It is no surprise that increased exposure to digital screens and the blue light, which emits from them, has raised health concerns, especially for eye health.
Blue light is a component of the visible spectrum of light – think of the colors seen in a rainbow. Out of all the different colors that make up natural light, blue light contains the most energy and it is everywhere because it is emitted by the sun and artificial light sources such as the digital screens of smartphones, laptops, tablets, computer monitors and even televisions. Blue light is also emitted by energy-saving bulbs such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
It is important to distinguish between the health effects of natural and artificial sources of blue light.
Natural blue light exposure from the sun helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm. In the morning, blue light from the sun suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which regulates sleep. The sun’s blue light signals our bodies that it is time to wake up. In the evening, the amount of blue light coming from the sun decreases, with an increase in melatonin production, letting our bodies know that it is time to wind down and get ready for bed.
This natural blue light cycle is interrupted by artificial sources of blue light from digital screens, CFL bulbs, and LEDs to which we are exposed during all hours of the day and night. Studies have shown that increased exposure to blue light during the evening hours, particularly two hours before bedtime, interrupts our circadian patterns, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
More importantly, excessive blue light exposure from digital devices has also been linked to eye health concerns, the most important being digital eyestrain, difficulty focusing, blurred vision, dry eye, light sensitivity, headache, and even neck or shoulder pain. Fortunately, there is no evidence thus far linking blue light to permanent vision loss or blindness.
Additionally, the impact of blue light on children may have a similar or greater effect on vision because their eyes are still developing and may be more sensitive to exposure. There is some preliminary data indicating that screen time may contribute to hyperactivity and decreased attention spans.
How can we protect against blue light exposure given our unavoidable dependence on digital devices and high levels of screen time? Though many people may think that blue blocking glasses or screen filters are enough, there are more powerful and natural ways to safeguard against the potential harmful effects of blue light. The two most effective ways to protect against blue light exposure are proper nutrition and supplementation.
Nature has provided our eyes with internal blue light protection – three pigments called lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin. Collectively referred to as the “macular carotenoids,” these three pigments are found in high concentrations within the macula, or central retina. These pigments act as a frontline defense against potentially harmful blue light by filtering these high-energy, short wavelengths. Out of all three pigments, meso-zeaxanthin, is the most potent of the macular carotenoids because of its powerful antioxidant capability. Essentially, the three macular carotenoids are our innate blue blockers.
Because our bodies cannot make these protective pigments, which our eyes need, we must get them as nutrients, either from our diet or from supplementation.
Lutein and zeaxanthin come from plants that are found abundantly in dark green, leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, collard greens, and romaine lettuce), yellow and orange bell peppers, cilantro, and parsley. Egg yolk and corn are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin. A rich source of zeaxanthin is the spice, paprika. Unfortunately, unlike lutein and zeaxanthin, meso-zeaxanthin is not readily found in high quantities in foods.
Obtaining sufficient amounts of the macular carotenoids from diet alone can be challenging. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10% of American adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, while only 9% of America’s youth eats the recommended amount of fruits and 2% eat the recommended amounts of vegetables each day. The lack of sufficient dietary intake in children may be even more concerning when it comes to protecting against blue light because, as evidence suggests, their eyes are still developing and, therefore, may be more at risk than adult eyes.
Recommended intake and clinical research indicate the optimum levels of lutein are at least 6-20 mg/day and of zeaxanthin are 1-4 mg/day. However, most people on a western diet usually get only 1-2 mg of lutein daily and less than 1 mg of zeaxanthin. Thus, many people are deficient in these important eye health nutrients. To make up for the gap, supplementation provides an easy way to protect the eyes against blue light exposure. Moreover, because meso-zeaxanthin is found in small quantities in food, supplementation with this nutrient is especially important.
There is a wide variety of eye health supplements available on the market and each has a different formulation, making it difficult to choose. Many only contain two out of the three pigments – often lacking meso-zeaxanthin. In doing research for my book on prevention of macular degeneration through proper nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, I’ve reviewed more than 40 of the top eye health supplements. I carefully looked at their ingredients, dosing, formulation and bioavailability.
What I discovered is an ingredient called Lutemax 2020, which provides all three of these macular carotenoids – lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin. The ingredient is a natural extract of marigold flowers and provides all three nutrients in the same 5:1 ratio as is found naturally in the diet. In addition, Lutemax 2020 has strong science to back its benefits for vision and sleep. Multiple clinical studies support the role of Lutemax 2020 in increasing the macular carotenoid pigments in the retina, protecting our eyes during prolonged digital device use, improving visual performance and improving sleep quality. A study conducted at the University of Georgia found that supplementing with Lutemax 2020 reduced eye fatigue, eyestrain, and headache frequency resulting from prolonged digital device use. Another double-blind, placebo controlled trial showed improvements in measures of vision including the ability to recover from bright lights (photostress recovery), the ability to judge distance and distinguish different objects from each other (contract sensitivity), and the ability to adjust to bright light conditions (glare performance). You can find Lutemax 2020 in a variety of blue light and vision supplements including gummy supplements, which are great for children and adults (just look for Lutemax 2020 on the ingredient label).
Our society’s dependence on digital technology has accelerated significantly during the current pandemic, with extended screen time now being the “new normal” not only for adults, but also for children. This trend is expected to continue even when the pandemic is a distant memory. It is important to be proactive when safeguarding our eyes from blue light, as well as ensuring optimal visual performance despite the demands of increased screen time. Because it is challenging to rely on dietary sources of the three macular carotenoids alone, obtaining these essential nutrients, lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin, from daily supplementation is the best solution as a frontline defense against blue light exposure.
Dr. Rudrani Banik, MD, is a board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in an integrative approach to vision health and author of, “The Macular Degeneration Prevention Protocol.” She is also a fellowship-trained neuro-ophthalmologist. Banik is the founder of Envision Health NYC, a concierge practice specializing in eye health, neurological conditions, and migraine headaches. She is Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. Banik is a member of the American Board of Ophthalmology’s Exam Development Committee and contributes to setting the standards for board certification. She has committed herself to 13 years of training at some of the finest medical institutions like Brown University and John Hopkins, allowing her to author numerous articles and present at national and international meetings.