Changes to our environment can have a major impact on our internal clock—which has a direct effect on ocular health.

Circadian rhythms are essentially the body’s control centre for sleep. It controls hormone and neurotransmitter secretion, which can impact anything from body temperature to blood pressure to alertness and, of course, sleep. Our circadian rhythm is essentially our internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and allows us to function optimally during the day. Having a balanced, well-aligned circadian rhythm plays a key role in maintaining strong mental and physical health.

Our internal clocks—or circadian rhythms—are directly impacted by environmental factors, especially light and darkness. The daily transition from light to dark is part of what readies our bodies for sleep, and vice versa. Naturally, as the seasons change and we’re exposed to different amounts of sunlight at certain points of the year, our circadian rhythms can be thrown out of whack.

Particularly with shorter days in the winter months, our sleep habits can suddenly shift—which can wreak havoc on our overall health and wellbeing.

While the impact of shorter days on our mental and physical health is widely known, few people pause to consider how an unbalanced circadian rhythm can also affect our eyes. We’re here to explain.

The influence of circadian rhythms on eye health

Studies have affirmed that circadian rhythm plays an important role in our eye health. For reasons ranging from physiological to hormonal, circadian rhythms can influence the development of various ocular issues, such as dry eye, myopia, retinal diseases, and glaucoma.

For instance, circadian rhythm has been shown to influence tear volume and sleep disorders (both of which can lead to dry eye), and it also impacts one’s chances of developing myopia—since greater exposure to light lowers the risk of becoming nearsighted. Therefore, in the winter months, when we spend more time in the dark and our circadian rhythm is misaligned, the risk increases of becoming myopic.

It’s also worth noting that our circadian rhythm directly impacts various critical functions in our body, including blood pressure—which can directly affect eye health, and the possibility of developing diseases. For instance, our circadian rhythm impacts eye pressure, and if it gets too high for too long, it can lead to glaucoma.

As such, even if our circadian rhythm isn’t directly targeting our eyes (which, in some ways, it is), an unbalanced internal clock comes with a slew of health issues, many of which can lead to ocular concerns.

In short, a shift in circadian rhythm can have direct and indirect effects on our eyes.

How light impacts our eyes

As mentioned above, stark seasonal changes—particularly as it relates to light exposure—has the propensity to shake up our circadian rhythm, which has a direct impact on our eye health. In fact, new research has shown just how strong the connection between light exposure, circadian rhythm, and eye health actually is.

“We discovered the circadian clock plays a surprisingly significant role in age-related changes in the retina,” said Vikki Weave, an associate professor of biochemistry at Purdue University. “This internal clock may be critical in advanced age to prevent retinal degeneration and maintain eye health.”

Without getting too much into the scientific stuff, our eyes are undoubtedly impacted by our circadian rhythms. Simply put, our eyes need a fine balance of light and darkness for optimal health and vision. Since too much exposure to light can erode the inner workings of our eyes during the daytime, darkness allows our eyes to regenerate and rebuild. Our eyes need a balance of light and dark in order to thrive. Disrupting our internal clock, in one way or another, can offset the balance, and put us at a greater risk of developing eye-related issues.

How to keep your circadian rhythm balanced

Optimizing your circadian rhythm during the winter months is no easy feat, but it is doable. Not only will improving your natural internal clock benefit your physical wellbeing (and eye health, too!), it will also bolster your mental health.

Here are some simple things you can do to ensure your body’s circadian rhythm is performing at an optimal level:

  • 1. Set strong routines: One of the easiest ways to regulate your internal clock is to set strong routines for yourself. That means going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, so your body can slowly adjust. Over time, your body will know when it’s time to wind down, and conversely, when it’s time to spring out of bed. Upholding routines is the most effective way to maintain your sleep-wake cycle. 
  • 2. Exercise more often: Working out offers countless benefits, including that it greatly improves sleep. Exercising regularly will allow your body to distinguish between active and resting states, which will help ensure you are getting solid sleep at night, and likewise, you feel energized during the day. The better you sleep, the more rested you feel when you wake up—and the more optimal your circadian rhythm will be. 
  • 3. Avoid overstimulation: Although exercising is great for your circadian rhythm, you should avoid physical activity, or intense mental activity, two hours before bedtime. Overstimulation—be it through intense exercise, a lively debate or caffeine—can negatively impact your ability to fall asleep, which can subsequently disrupt your circadian rhythm.
  • 4. Try caffeine alternatives: If you’re a committed coffee lover, you could be consuming too much java—and it might be impacting your circadian rhythm more than you realize. Too much caffeine (even several hours before bed), can disrupt your sleep schedule in a real way. Try swapping your afternoon cup of joe for something a little lighter, like matcha or green tea.

Of course, it’s best practice to consult with your healthcare professional if you notice any significant seasonal changes to your body and/or mood. When it comes to your eyes, it’s essential to get regular comprehensive eye exams, so any issues can be detected and resolved swiftly. Don’t delay: book an appointment at your local FYidoctors clinic today!

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