Eat These 3 Nutrients Daily To Protect Your Eyes & Brain From Screen Time
Do you end up with a headache by the end of a tech-heavy day? Do you struggle with blurry vision? Do you have a hard time focusing? Are fatigue and sleep disturbance the norm?
You might be suffering from blue light strain. I've been there too. As a dietitian with a virtual practice who spends a lot of my day interacting with clients on an app, engaging on social media, and writing, I'm no stranger to this myself. The irony of the fact that I wrote this on a screen and you're reading it on a screen certainly isn't lost on me!
Yes, reducing screen time can make a huge difference, but let's be real: There are screens everywhere, and depending on our profession and where we may be at in drawing tech boundaries in our personal time, that may not feel doable.
One thing you CAN do something about? What you eat. Here are some foods that may help fight blue light strain.
What is blue light? Why is it bad?
Without digging in too deep—when we look at sunlight, or "white light," we're actually looking at a combination of different colored light rays of varying energy and wavelengths. Rays with longer wavelengths generally contain less energy, and those with shorter wavelengths have more energy. Rays on the red end of the visible light spectrum have longer wavelengths, or less energy, and those on the blue end have shorter wavelengths, and therefore, more energy.
High-energy blue light rays, which we're exposed to in small amounts in sunlight and then in large amounts from devices like TVs, computer and tablet screens, and phones, can be especially damaging to the eyes. While the cornea and lens of our eyes can block other UV rays, almost all visible blue light passes right through to the retina, which is very sensitive to light. This can cause damage that leads to conditions like macular degeneration and vision loss. In the shorter term, staring at screens for long periods of time can lead to eye fatigue, headache, trouble focusing, and difficulty sleeping. Excessive nighttime exposure to screens has been shown to be especially problematic, as it can interfere with our circadian rhythm by altering melatonin secretion.
How food can help fight blue light damage.
While there is no substitute for just getting away from those screens, studies have shown that certain nutrients may help fight the effects of blue light. To give you yet another reason to go for colorful fruits and veggies, it turns out that these foods are rich sources of three carotenoids that have been shown to benefit eye health: zeaxanthin1, lutein1, and astaxanthin2. These compounds are unique in that they cross the blood-retinal barrier to actually reach the eyes and bring protective benefits to that part of the body. Xeathanin and lutein are found in high concentrations in the macula of the eye, allowing them to help block blue light from reaching sensitive parts of the inner eye like the retina. Studies have also shown that these nutrients have been associated with improved symptoms3 like headache, fatigue, and sleep disturbance.
Good food sources of zeaxanthin include green veggies like broccoli, spinach, and kale. You can find lutein in a lot of leafy green vegetables as well as in yellow and orange produce like oranges, carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash.
Astaxanthin is a red pigment that you'll find in seafood like shrimp and salmon as well as in certain types of algae. Compared to other carotenoids, astaxanthin has been shown4 to have especially high antioxidant activity, which is important for fighting free radical damage to the cells of the eyes. Studies have also shown2 it may help reduce symptoms of blue light strain.
Exactly what to eat to protect your eyes from screens.
Convenience is key for most of us when it comes to making healthy food the norm or making a habit stick. If you hear "leafy greens" and panic because you hate salad or you're not sure how to make time to prep vegetables or are worried about being on a budget, there are lots of options to suit preferences and needs that won't drain your bank account or take tons time to make.
For example, if you're concerned about greens going bad before you can use them (huge money suck, I know), you could use a heartier green like kale that will last longer in your fridge and that can be used in yes, salads, but also stir-fries, omelets, in soups and stews, and blended into a pesto sauce. Spinach is something you can easily add to a sandwich, egg dish, or soup.
Frozen vegetables can also be an awesome solution. I use frozen chopped greens all the time in soups, sautéed, and even thrown into a smoothie. Frozen broccoli is a convenient option to have on hand as well.
To help you cover your bases on the orange and yellow front, try frozen mango in a smoothie or thawed and enjoyed as a snack. Sliced bell peppers make a great vehicle for salsa or hummus. Speaking of hummus, mixing some pumpkin or butternut squash purée into your favorite variety can be an easy, delicious way to up your lutein intake.
Wild salmon as a regular part of your week is one way to work in some astaxanthin. That said, variety is important in order to avoid consuming too much mercury. Have salmon once or twice, maybe shrimp another day, and make friends with smaller fish like sardines. If you don't eat fish, incorporate algae into dishes like soups, grain and veggie dishes, and salads.
I would hope this goes without saying, but it's also key to enjoy what you're eating. If you try a new food and aren't a fan, explore some other ways of preparing it or try something similar that might offer the same benefits but that may satisfy you more. And if you really just don't like something? That's OK. What's great about these nutrients is that there are so many ways to cover your bases.
When to see your doctor about blue light strain.
While blue light strain can be disruptive, if your symptoms seem unbearable or don't improve with food and lifestyle changes over time, don't try to write it off. If your headaches are debilitating or your sleep disturbance severely inhibits your function and quality of life, touch base with your doctor to rule out any underlying health issues and to come up with a comprehensive plan to help address what you have going on.
The bottom line?
Blue light strain is an all too common side effect of modern-day technology overuse. Along with lifestyle adjustments to reduce exposure, incorporating foods rich in zeaxanthin, lutein, and astaxanthin may help you feel better and protect your eyes in the long run.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, INHC is a registered dietitian, health coach, and author with a passion for helping people simplify their wellness routine and build sustainable healthy habits. She is the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits For Managing Stress & Anxiety and The Farewell Tour: A Caregiver’s Guide to Stress Management, Sane Nutrition and Better Sleep. She also runs the Drama-Free Healthy Living podcast. A big believer in the mental and physical benefits of exercise, she is also a certified Pilates instructor.