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STORY vision

The Notorious Blue Light: Is It Really So Bad?

Blue Light
The Eye
Photoreceptors
Circadian Rhythm
Eye Damage

Introduction

The blue light that’s emitted from the screens of our personal devices, monitors and TVs has certainly earned itself a bad rep. While it can help boost our alertness, cognitive function and mood, overexposure to this light is said to cause harm overtime, especially in relation to gaming performance. But why is this? And can we do anything about it?

In this story, we’ll look at how the eye and its photoreceptors work in relation to light, the effect blue light emissions have on circadian rhythm and how you can prevent and protect yourself from it.
.01

How The Eye Works And The Role Light Plays

Our vision is vital to almost everything we do. Not only does it play a key role in our cognitive abilities but by understanding how the eye works in relation to light, we can use the lighting around us to our advantage: ensuring that we’re able to take good care of our vision and health throughout our lives.

The human eye is a complex sense organ containing receptors that react to light, intensity and colour. More specifically, it responds to the sensation of brightness, and it’s this that enables us to see in both dim and well-lit environments. 

This process works when light hits the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye, known as the retina, and special cells called photoreceptors turn it into electrical signals. These signals travel from the retina through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are interpreted into the images we call our vision.

While light helps us to see, chronic exposure to certain types of light overtime, such as blue light from our devices or UV light from the sun, can cause permanent damage to our sight, so it’s imperative that we only expose ourselves to them in moderation. For example, giving yourself breaks for extended periods in between using devices such as smartphones and laptops.

Joseph LaPlaca

Sports vision optometrist

.02

How The Eye Responds To Blue Light

Endless studies have suggested that being exposed to the blue light emitted from electronics can be harmful to our health overtime, affecting our sleep and potentially causing disease.

At the same time, blue light can have a good side - it’s said to be beneficial during daylight hours as its shorter, higher energy wavelengths help to boost attention, reaction times, and mood. Nevertheless, if our eyes come into contact with blue light at night, it can prove very disruptive to our sleep cycles. Not only that, but some scientists believe that repeated exposure can increase the risk of macular degeneration, a disease of the retina.
Still, it’s not 100 percent clear how blue light is bad for us. What we do know is that it comes down to wavelength, the amount of energy carried within it and how we are exposed to it, for example, the duration and proximity. This plays a huge role in when it's good or bad for us. Essentially, the shorter the wavelength the higher the energy, and the more potentially damaging it can be. For a rough guide, infrared light is the least damaging on the spectrum at 750 nanometre (nm), while UV light is at the opposite end, at 380nm. Blue light sits around the 400-500nm mark. 

And so, for gamers, understanding how light is structured, how modern screens work, and how the eye reacts to them can help us build a healthy lighting environment during gameplay that will have minimal impact on player performance.

Joseph LaPlaca

Sports vision optometrist

.03

How Blue Light Affects The Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythms (from Latin ‘circa diem’ meaning ‘approximately one day’) are processes, including the secretion of certain hormones or variations in body temperature, which repeat approximately every 24 hours. Certain behaviours such as our sleep-wake cycle also follow a circadian pattern. 

The rhythms are generated and orchestrated by an internal biological clock that is located inside our brains. However, the internal day of this clock is not precisely 24 hours, but a little longer or shorter. Therefore, it has to receive signals about the time of day from the outside world and be set anew every single day. 
Light is the most reliable and important factor that sets the internal body clock. It does so through specialised ipRGC cells in our eyes that derive the time of day from ambient light characteristics and pass this information on to our internal clock. 

However, as clever as that is, this renders us vulnerable to adverse effects of light, when light sends misleading signals to the body clock. When LED light from digital screens, which contains a relatively large proportion of blue light, meets our eyes, it tells the body clock that it is daytime and thus time to be awake – although we may be approaching bedtime. 

Consequently, the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, is suppressed and the light keeps us awake making it harder to fall asleep. The next morning, we may feel more tired and not well-rested having undesirable consequences for daytime performance. In the long run, circadian disruption has been linked to a higher cancer risk, depression, obesity and type II diabetes. 

Christine Blume

Sleep scientist

.04

Implications Of Blue Light For Gamers And Esports Athletes

While countless scientific reports have stated that blue light can cause damage to the eyes, what exactly are the implications for gamers and, more specifically, esports athletes who spend lots of time sitting in front of screens without taking breaks?

Firstly, let’s talk about photoreceptors. These are the cells in the retina that respond to light and are uniquely adapted to function over a wide range of ambient light conditions. However, prolonged intense visible light exposure can lead to the cells in a photoreceptor to become damaged. 

This is because the eye’s cornea and lens are unable to block or reflect the short wave, high energy frequency of blue light, meaning it passes through the cornea, pupil, lens and vitreous before it finally reaches the retina. This may explain why early research shows too much exposure to blue light can lead to damage to the primary retinal cells and photoreceptors specifically. In fact, the light intensity required for visual cell damage only needs to be 2–3 times above normal room lighting.

Overtime, this may affect vision and could prematurely age the eyes. Some studies have also found that over exposure of blue light can decrease contrast, which makes the eye have to adjust and thus work more, ultimately leading to digital eye strain. This will have significant consequences for those spending hours in front of computer screens and monitors, causing not only degeneration in gaming performance, but potentially long lasting damage to gamers’ health.

Joseph LaPlaca

Sports vision optometrist

.05

How To Avoid The Negative Effects Of Blue Light

As damage to the eye from light happens gradually, it’s important to put preventative measures in place before it’s too late. One of the most crucial approaches is by effectively managing the lighting in our environments. We can use our surroundings to guide our body clocks, which are already challenged by our digitally focused modern lifestyles. For example, understanding the different effects light can have on us during the morning and evening. 

Due to our ever-connected world, many of us spend only little time outside, meaning our body clock lacks strong guidance during the day. Additionally, many of us are exposed to artificial light, especially of the blue variety, from screens, at night time. This provides our brains with misleading information, for instance, telling our body clocks that it is still time to be awake when it’s time for bed.

Therefore, prevention is as simple as limiting the amount of blue light passing through our eyes, and making sure we are exposed to light at the right times during the day. Additionally, there are some ways in which we can help protect our eyes from the potential retinal damages of blue light.

Joseph LaPlaca

Sports vision optometrist