Woman rubbing eyes in denim jacket

Got dry, itchy eyes? It’s probably because you’re not sleeping enough, experts say

Posted by for Wellbeing

If you’re carrying eye drops around with you, then maybe it’s time to start assessing the quality and quantity of sleep you get every evening, explains dry-eyed writer Lucy McGuire.

We all know that gritty feeling you get in your eyes after you’ve stayed out too late the night before. Perhaps you forgot to remove your mascara; maybe you only got four hours’ sleep, or – horror of horrors – you slept with your contacts still glued to your eyeballs. Your eyes feel sore and itchy, and every strobe of light is startling and uncomfortable. 

Now imagine waking up with that sensation every day. When an optician diagnosed me with “dry eyes” recently, I wasn’t too worried at first (after all, it sounds pretty tame, right?). I’m a hay fever sufferer, I work at a computer, and as a mother of two young children, a full night’s sleep is rare. It’s hardly surprising my eyes aren’t in tip-top condition. 

But while dry eyes (or “dry eye disease” as it’s also known) may not sound serious, my recent eye check opened my eyes – literally and figuratively – to the short and long-term effects of neglecting your eye health. If left untreated, dry eyes can contribute to blurred vision and, in my case, the need for prescription glasses

Dry eye disease, which is often caused by long-term sleep deprivation, can also lead to serious damage to the cornea. Mr Mohammad Dehabadi, an oculoplastic fellow at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital, explains: “While most dry eye cases are mild-to-moderate and can easily be treated with the help of your eye care professional, if left untreated, it can lead to increasingly permanent damage and scarring of the cornea, which will ultimately lead to permanently reduced vision.

“If severely dry eyes go untreated, it can lead to sight-threatening infections or even the loss of an eye.” 

What is dry eye disease and how can you get it?

Everyone has tear-producing glands in their eyes. Your eyes get dry when they don’t produce enough moisture or there’s excessive loss of moisture. This causes irritation and inflammation of the eye surface and sometimes perforation of the cornea.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says it’s unclear how many people suffer from the condition, but they do know it’s more common in women. Our hormones (as with everything) play a role in making us more prone to dry eyes during certain points in our menstrual cycle, during pregnancy and over the course of the menopause

Black woman rubbish her eyes at work
Sometimes, we can't control the factors that make dry eyes worse - but we can aim to sleep more.

What are the symptoms of dry eye disease?

The key symptoms of dry eyes are itchiness and soreness. Your eyes might also feel gritty, as if there’s something in your eye like a tiny piece of dirt or a hair.

You might also experience:

  • Eyes becoming red
  • Feeling sensitive to light
  • Blurred vision
  • Watery eyes (which is a result of the tear film not clinging to the eyeball)
  • Twitching eyelids

How does poor sleep make us more vulnerable to dry eyes?

While hormonal changes can make us more prone to dry eyes, seasonal allergies, wearing contact lenses and taking certain medication can also put us at risk. Lifestyle factors such as prolonged screen time, smoking, drinking alcohol and, unsurprisingly, air-conditioned offices may also make you more prone to the disease.

But sleep also plays a massive role. Scientists from Xiamen University and Harvard Medical School found that a lack of sleep is a major risk factor for dry eyes and associated diseases. Their 2022 study, published in Stem Cell Reports, found that lack of sleep could potentially speed up stem cell activity in the cornea, leading to a thinning of the cornea and a reduction of important antioxidants in the tear film, as well as long-term loss of corneal stem cells.  

But it’s not just that poor sleep might cause the issue – sleep deprivation is also a symptom.

“Much like the brain, the eyes need an adequate sleep window to repair and replenish the balance on the ocular surface,” says Mr Dehabadi. “Studies have shown those who regularly have poor sleep quality and quantity are more likely to suffer from dry eye disease.

“Interestingly, a large population study in the Netherlands recently showed a significant reduction in all measures of sleep quality in patients with higher levels of dry eye disease symptoms, indicating that severe dry eye disease may actually impair good quality sleep, leading to a vicious cycle.”  

How to treat dry eyes

The good news is that dry eyes can be easily treated. If you’re a hay fever sufferer, get yourself some anti-allergy eye drops over the counter. Lubricating eye drops or “artificial tears” also help soothe and alleviate any recurrent burning or itchiness, helping reduce the risk of further damage or infection. As ever, make sure you get a proper diagnosis from your doctor before you seek treatment. 

It’s also important to practise good optical hygiene to prevent conditions like this from cropping up. Dr Inna Lazar, a US-based optometrist, spends her time educating her 52,000 Instagram followers on the importance of eye care. “Certain health conditions cause dry eyes, however, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, increasing omega-3 consumption, eyelid hygiene, and screen time awareness are huge players that can be adjusted,” she tells Stylist.

“As for sleep deprivation, this is a tough one,” she adds. “Lack of sleep will affect how your eyes feel and cause eye redness, so I always recommend to my young patients to use preservation-free artificial tears and reduce contact lens wear (or switch to single-use lenses) if you can.”

It’s difficult to offer a one-stop-shop solution to poor sleep or total sleep deprivation (especially when it’s caused by forces beyond your control), but what is clear is that you can do things to support your eye health while you try to get your sleeping patterns under control. It may be time you paid your peepers a bit more attention to avoid slipping into dry eye territory.

Images: Getty

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