Insomnia And Vision Loss

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By Stephen Cohen, O.D. – 

I recently saw a patient who told me that her prior eye doctor told her that if she didn’t deal with her insomnia, she would develop cataracts (a clouding of the lens inside our eye) and eventually go blind. Perhaps the message wasn’t delivered so harshly, but that’s what she heard. Here’s an explanation about how sleep affects our eyes, and how insomnia can impact our vision.

Sleep is a restorative time for our eyes, after the day’s impact from environmental and other factors can irritate the surface of our eyes. That is one of the reasons why, when we don’t get a good night’s sleep, our eyes are red and uncomfortable the next day. Recent studies have also shown a relationship between sleep apnea and glaucoma, which is often called the “silent thief of sight.”

However, the comment about insomnia and vision loss from cataracts has a slightly different relationship. There is a hormone in our body called melatonin that helps us know when it is time to go to sleep. After age 40, it can deplete enough to impact sleep patterns. Melatonin is also a strong antioxidant, which helps to prevent free radical damage from UV and other sources. Therefore, if we lose enough melatonin to induce insomnia, we are also losing the antioxidant protection that also comes from this hormone. One of the causes of cataracts is long-term UV exposure, so when antioxidants (such as Vitamins A, C and E, and hormones like Melatonin) are depleted, we are more susceptible to developing cataracts. Cataracts rarely cause blindness in the developed countries of the world since there is easy access to care and treatment.

Statistically, by our mid 50’s, about 40 percent of us will have some cataract development, and by our mid 70’s, over 90 percent will exhibit cataract develop. While cataract surgery is quick, relatively painless and highly effective in restoring vision, not everyone ultimately needs surgery.

In summary, for people with insomnia, a melatonin supplement could be worth trying. While there can be a relationship between insomnia caused by decreased melatonin levels and eventual cataract development, we cannot make the leap to say that not sleeping well will lead to blindness, a fear that would certainly cause someone to lose even more sleep!

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