Wearing eye patches may help improve sleep and cognitive performance

Wearing eye patches may help improve sleep and cognitive performance

Your bedroom may not be as dark as it should be. Even by closing our eyelids, light from the TV or hallway can enter our retinas and damage our health and mental acuity the next day.

The harmful health effects of nighttime light exposure are staggering.

Research shows that even relatively dim light—roughly equivalent to hallway light—while we nap can have surprisingly profound physiological effects, such as increasing heart rate, shortening the duration of important sleep stages, and increasing insulin resistance. For older adults, any exposure to light at night has been linked to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: wear an eye mask while sleeping.

Wearing an eye mask to sleep is “very basic and simple,” says Viviana Greco. She conducted research on this topic as a postgraduate student in neuroscience and psychology at Cardiff University and now works at the neuroscience non-profit Neuronatch. “At the same time, it can bring huge benefits.”

Effects of eye patches on cognition and health

“Light at night tells the brain ‘danger, danger'” because the brain doesn’t expect it. Phyllis Zee, a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said this may speed up the brain’s autonomous “fight or flight” system, making it easier to enter deep sleep. more difficult. .

Zee also said that because many people work indoors, they get less bright light during the day, which can make people more sensitive to light at night.

But several studies show that simply covering your eyes at night can make a difference. Research conducted primarily on hospital patients trying to fall asleep amid the flickering lights and hum of medical equipment suggests that wearing eye masks (and earplugs) can improve subjective sleep quality. Another study found that wearing an eye mask helped pregnant women improve the quality and duration of their sleep compared with other pregnant women who received better sleep brochures.

Now, a study published in the journal Sleep reports that wearing an eye mask at night can improve memory and alertness in the morning. The study included two experiments.In the first experiment, 89 participants aged 18 to 35 wore eye masks to sleep for two weeks in the summer when the sun rose as early as 5 a.m.

One week, they wore eye patches that blocked out the light; another week, they wore a mask with eye holes (similar to those worn by cartoon thieves) so that the light wasn’t blocked.

Subjects were asked to go to bed at the same time every night, abstain from alcohol and strenuous exercise, and sleep with the curtains open. Crucially, no one had ever slept with a blindfold on before.

They had five nights a week to acclimate to the eye patches, but in the morning after the sixth and seventh nights, Greco and her colleagues gave the participants a battery of cognitive tests.

Tests have shown that wearing a regular eye patch improves memory – participants were able to remember more pairs of words. Wearing eye patches also improved their reaction times on standard vigilance tests. There were no differences on the third test of motor skill learning.

In a second experiment, 35 participants wore EEG headbands in addition to eye patches to monitor their sleep.

While wearing eye patches did not alter their overall sleep, participants’ performance on memory tests was positively correlated with the amount of time they spent in slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep known to be important for memory.

“This is a really good study that shows you the impact of light on sleep,” Zee said. She said the study is novel because it shows that blocking light at night can improve daytime performance, which is associated with slow-wave sleep.

While the study found no subjective changes in participants’ sleep quality, this may be because the individuals in the study were very healthy, so the results may not be easily generalizable, Zee said. Nighttime light may be more harmful to people with poor health conditions, but they may benefit more from eye masks; others may find wearing a mask too uncomfortable.

Overall, she said, the study suggests that light-blocking eye masks are a practical solution for people who may have difficulty sleeping in dark environments, such as those with children, nightlights or street lights.

How to manage lights at night

Look for an eye mask that is comfortable and fits well. Greco provided study participants with an eye patch with an elastic band for easy adjustment. She said she prefers softer, more comfortable fluffy stuff. You can also check out the 2023 Well+Being Gift Guide for eye mask (and earplug) recommendations.

Make your bedroom darker. Turn off irrelevant lights. Zee said she had covered the lights on the device with electrical tape. Blue light should be especially avoided.

Put away electronic devices. It will help you avoid notifications and other distractions. You’re training yourself to learn “this is your bedtime, try to go to bed,” said Greco, who puts her phone and laptop in another room to avoid distractions.

Try blinds or blackout curtains. Zee said she only wears an eye mask when sleeping on a plane but has blinds at home. (Zee says she has a blind that opens electrically in the morning without having to get up.) Blackout curtains can also be helpful, although they can make it difficult to get morning light.

Get more light during the day. Reducing nighttime light exposure is just part of a healthy, light diet. “As a doctor, I tell my patients that if they can’t be in darkness at night, then make sure they’re getting more light during the day,” which can partially offset the harmful effects of nighttime light and improve sleep, Zee says. .

Do you have questions about human behavior or neuroscience?e-mail [email protected] We may answer this question in a future column.

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