What happens to your eyes when you sleep?
There definitely does seem to be a consensus with most sufferers of dry eye conditions, that they experience a flare-up at night, either before they go to bed or during the night. Nothing can interrupt your sleep quite like itchiness and swelling. But why is this? Why do people experience worsening symptoms at night?
Well some have suggested that there could be a correlation between dry eyes and sleep. Now you might imagine that your eyes don’t really do that much while you sleep but this couldn’t be further from the truth!
As you may know, there are two main stages of sleep – REM and NREM.
REM: REM sleep simply refers to Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which should give you a good idea about what your eyes get up to during this phase. It’s estimated that your eyes perform up to 1,000 degrees of movement per second during this sleep stage and, on average, you experience 3-5 periods of REM sleep a night, although this can decrease with age.
NREM: The other period of sleep, NREM, is the stage during which your eyes remain motionless. It’s believed that many healing processes take place during this phase of sleep and your blood pressure may gradually lower, slowing down your circulation.
How does this affect your dry eyes?
OK, but how can these sleep phases affect your eyes? In order to answer this question you have to consider a number of factors:
Reduced metabolism: While you sleep, your blood pressure, metabolism and body temperature all drop. This is in part to give your digestive organs a rest but it can cause some problems if you suffer from dry eyes. For a start, your tear production will also experience a lull, which means your eyes won’t be receiving as much moisture as they would do during the day. Your reduced blood pressure also means that your eyes may not receive the same amount of nutrients as during the day too!
Do you sleep with your eyelids open? If you sleep with your eyelids slightly open, this can result in a number of problems. You may wake up and notice that your eyes feel inflamed and quite painful. This could be because your tears are evaporating quickly, depriving your eyes of much-needed moisture. During REM sleep, this problem can be particularly prominent as your eye movement may end up causing friction!
Do you get enough sleep? You may be aware of how sleep deprivation can affect your emotional and mental wellbeing, but it can affect your eyes too! This is because a lack of sleep can have a direct impact on your fluid circulation, which is responsible for cleaning and refreshing your eyes. You may also experience eye spasms and notice popped blood vessels due to eye strain.1 Your eyes need at least 5 hours a night to function properly and as an adult, you should be getting between 7-9 hours!
What is your sleep hygiene routine? What you do before you go to bed can have an impact on your eyes. After a hard day at work, most of us try to relax in the evening by watching television or browsing on our devices. These practices can lead not only to dry eyes, but can also prevent you from getting a good night of sleep! It’s also important to consider the environment you are sleeping in – do you use your air con or central heating at night? If so, this could also be contributing to your misery by irritating your already dry eyes.
Allergens: Finally, carrying on from the idea of considering your sleep environment, you may be more exposed to allergens at night. Pet dander, dust, and mould spores can all have an impact on your eyes, which is why I’d avoid allowing your dogs or cats into your bedroom. During the hayfever season, pollen can sometimes cling to your clothing and be transferred to your bed sheets.
What can you do to relieve your dry eyes?
If you do suffer from dry eyes at night, there are a number of simple lifestyle changes you can make that should help to alleviate your symptoms. However, if your symptoms do persist, it is important to speak to your doctor as they may be able to provide further help.
Get rid of your gadgets
I’ve already explored how your tablets and mobile phones may be the culprit behind your dry, irritated eyes, so it’s important that you take some time away from your gadgets at night, especially before you go to bed!
Not only is the light from your devices difficult for your eyes, it can affect your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Instead of rolling over in bed and watching a Youtube video on your phone, instead read a book or practice eye exercises to help relax your eyes before bed. If you really can’t bear to be parted from your devices, try to find an anti-glare screen protector that may help to reduce eye strain!
Think about your environment
The environment that you sleep in can make a huge difference to your overall sleep quality and eye problems.
During summer, you may be more likely to use the air conditioning in your room or transfer allergens such as pollen to your bed sheets. These factors can upset your eyes and deprive them of moisture, so I would make sure you are washing your bed sheets regularly and changing your clothes in another room.
Try to minimise your use of the air conditioning at night – normally temperatures drop during this time anyway and in a country such as the UK, it’s often unnecessary. In winter, you perceive your central heating as a godsend but just as with your air conditioning, your central heating can dry out your eyes and your skin, so do only use it in your bedroom if you really have to!
Finally, dust spores and pet dander are also prime culprits so, as cute as your pooch may be, please don’t let them jump up on your bed! Try to ban your cats and dogs from your bedroom and make sure you are getting a circulation of fresh air into the room.
Lubricating your eyes can help to relieve some of your symptoms. I would recommend trying natural eye drops that are specifically formulated for dry, irritated eyes.
Our A.Vogel Eye Drops are great for itchy, tired eyes that are in need of some moisture. They contain extracts of Euphrasia, also known as eyebright, a herb that has been synonymous with eye treatments for hundreds of years.
You can use these drops as you require them, although we generally recommend 1 drop in each eye 4 to 5 times a day. If you’re also looking for a supplement to support your eye health, you could try our Vision Complex, which features a special blend of lutein, zinc, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin!
Use a warm compress
Using a warm compress might be a particularly good idea to prevent rapid tear evaporation and it is ideal to try before going to bed. A warm compress not only helps to relax your muscles, it also inspires the glands on your eyelids to produce more lipids.
However, it’s important to consider the type of warm compress you use. Never use a commercial heat pack as these can be quite prone to leaking. I would stick with the traditional method – a clean cloth and lukewarm water – never use hot water! Soak the cloth, wring it out and then place it over your eyes.
You can keep it over your eyes for 15 minutes. I’d also try using a warm compress in the morning too as it can be quite refreshing and a good way to prepare your eyes for the rest of the day!