Why Your Eyes Need You to Get More Sleep

Here’s how a lack of sleep is hurting your eyes — and what to do about it tonight.

Your eye health depends on getting enough sleep. Man with beard sleeping.

There’s a reason they call it beauty sleep — it’s really hard for your eyes to look good after sleeping bad.

The beauty industry certainly knows this. Just think about all the lotions and potions on your bathroom counter that are devoted to helping you cover up your tired eyes and fake a refreshed look.

But the impact of poor sleep goes way beyond the appearance of your eyes. Shortchanging your shut-eye can also mess up your attention span, your memory and reaction times, your heart health, your immune system — the list goes on, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 

When it comes to the health of your eyes, getting too little sleep hampers some crucial functions and leaves you more vulnerable to eye infections. 

“The eye needs at least five hours to re-moisturize at night,” says optometrist Laurie Lesser, O.D.

“The tear film is a protective coating,” she continues. “It washes away foreign material and keeps bacteria from sticking to our eyes.” According to a recent study in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, lack of sleep can disturb the tear film, leading to eye discomfort, dryness, and grittiness.

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Why Your Eyes Need More Sleep  

Sleep experts say most adults should clock seven to nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health. Yet one in three Americans get less than that, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control.

A lot of things happen when you snooze that help your eyes recover:

  • The constant lubrication from having your eyelids closed helps remove irritants like dust, smoke, and allergens.
  • Healthy new cells replace the old ones.
  • Sleep gives your eyes a much-needed break from the strain of working every second of the day.

The more hours your eyes are open, says Dr. Lesser, the more likely they'll pay the price the next day.

They’ll feel dry and itchy and look bloodshot. They might sport dark circles since insufficient sleep can cause blood vessels in the skin beneath the eyes to dilate. Your eyelids might twitch, too, since lack of sleep — often coupled with stress and too much caffeine — can cause neurons to misfire.

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Why Snoring Is Bad for Your Eyes

The most serious eye health damage tends to be tied to the window-rattling snores of sleep apnea. It’s estimated that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea—when the muscles at the back of the throat relax, interrupting breathing throughout the night—but the majority have no clue they have it.

No surprise, a blocked airway means there’s less oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. And that can cause or exacerbate conditions that can lead to permanent vision loss, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. These include the following:

  • Anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, marked by lasting damage to the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the eyes to the brain.
  • Retinal vein occlusion, which Dr. Lesser describes as “kind of like having a mini-stroke in your eye.” Yikes!
  • Swollen optic nerve (or papilledema), which can lead to blurry or decreased vision, along with headaches and nausea.
  • Glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness, is a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. Glaucoma and sleep apnea have long been linked, but in 2013 researchers at Taipei Medical University determined that sleep apnea is an independent risk factor for the most common form of glaucoma, open-angle.

“If you wake up and you’re chronically tired, but there’s no explanation for it — or your partner is telling you that you snore — it might be worth getting evaluated for sleep apnea, because it does put you at higher risk for serious eye diseases,” says Dr. Lesser.

3 Essential Sleep Tips

Interestingly, you can improve your sleep by focusing on your eyes. Thanks to the connection they have with the brain, they play a big role in how well you fall, and stay, asleep. Here’s how to prime them for shut-eye.

  • Go with 40-watt bulbs. When the retina, the thin layer at the back of the eye, senses a decrease in light, it sends a signal to the brain to produce melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel drowsy. To facilitate the you’re-getting-drowsy message, switch to low-wattage bulbs throughout your house and especially in your bedroom.
  • Create a no-phone zone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, researchers have found that the blue light from cell phones and laptops (and energy-efficient lightbulbs) has an alerting effect on the body. It basically delays the release of melatonin, which keeps you up longer. Powering down an hour before you plan to turn in for the night helps get you in sleep mode.
  • Pretend it’s Halloween. To better stay asleep, make sure your room is totally dark — if the retina senses any presence of light, it might send its wake-up signal too soon. If you can’t black it out completely, wear an eye mask.