Fruit flies might be the harbingers of our technological destruction.
They're the modern-day equivalent of a canary in a coal mine.
That's because a new study reveals that these insects age rapidly, die prematurely, and suffer brain damage all from exposure to something we, as humans, choose to surround ourselves with every day.
Longtime readers know I've sounded the alarm on blue light for years. To recap, blue light is part of the whole white-light spectrum (the light we see).
But within the white-light spectrum sit different wavelengths that appear as colors – red wavelengths are the longest and blue-violet are the shortest. The shorter the wave, the higher the energy carried by the light. That's why blue light is troublesome. It carries more, potentially dangerous energy.
Blue light is known to upset our circadian rhythm, robbing us of restful, restorative sleep. Our circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour long cycle that regulates our body's processes, like sleep. Interfering with it takes a severe toll on our health, creating undue stress and inflammation.
I've also written before about how blue light permanently damages our eyes. Last year, we saw a paper on this in Scientific Reports...
To break it down, our retina is a layer at the back of our eye that reacts to light. It triggers our optic nerves to signal to the brain what we're seeing.
One way the retina responds to light involves a chemical called retinal. It's a molecule that changes shape when exposed to light.
Here's the scary part... These researchers exposed retinal within retina cells to different wavelengths of light. The blue light twisted the retinal so much that it couldn't change back to the untwisted form. Worse, the buildup of the twisted form damaged the membrane of the retina cell, causing the cell to die.
In other words, too much blue light actually kills the cells in human retinas. One more point the researchers tested: it's not just our eyes in jeopardy. Retinal moves through our bodies, so it can affect different cell types. The researchers tested other cell types as well, including heart cells, nerve cells, and even cancer cells. All the cell types experienced the same result – overexcited retinal killed the cells. And the destruction of these cells in the eyes could lead to blindness.
But this latest fruit-fly study took this research one step further...
In the lab, the researchers bred flies that didn't have eyes.
That sounds creepy, but it revealed something important... Even these flies without eyes had changes in their brains from exposure to blue light.
Think about that... They didn't need to see the blue light to have damage to their brains.
What's more, the test flies experienced 12 hours of LED light and 12 hours of darkness. They had damage to their brain neurons and changes in behavior such as losing the ability to climb the walls of their enclosures.
But there were two other groups of control group flies... One was kept in 24 hours of darkness and the other had light, but with the blue light filtered out.
The LED flies? They also lived much shorter than either of the other groups.
The researchers believe this links back to the way blue light interrupts the circadian rhythm. We need our bodies to stay on a cycle to regulate everything from sleep to hormone production to regenerating our cells. Any breakdown will cause us to age prematurely... as these flies showed us.
What's more, the flies in the study started to avoid the blue light. It sounds like they're a lot smarter than us.
Now, we're a far cry from fruit flies. But these little guys play an important role in research because they do have some systems in common with humans. We've learned a lot about genetics from these flies. And we should consider this new study a wake-up call to reduce your exposure to blue light.
The problem is that blue light is everywhere.
We're exposed to blue light through sunlight. That's part of how sunshine helps you feel more awake. But in the retina study, sunlight didn't elicit the same damage.
One theory is that our lens blocks some blue light, like the kind we'd get through sun exposure. It's increasing the blue light from artificial sources that seems to cause the trouble. That's why we see problems from devices that emit higher levels of blue light than other wavelengths. However, our eyes are still sensitive and able to burn which is why we still recommend sunglasses.
Anything with light-emitting diodes (LED) or compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs emits higher blue-light levels too... including digital displays on things like alarm clocks.
But more than other light waves, blue light comes through our electronics. Every time we glue our eyes to a flickering screen, we're taking in blue-light waves... televisions, computer screens, tablets, and especially cellphones.
Today, you can't go anywhere without seeing folks absorbed in their phones. How much time we spend on our phones varies by study, but experts peg it at about two to four hours a day. That's too much blue-light exposure.
So here are a few ways to reduce your exposure:
- Swap out your LED or CFL light bulbs with incandescent ones.
- Keep all electronics out of your bedroom – including the TV. And shut off electronics at least an hour before bed to get your body relaxed and ready for sleep.
- Turn on blue light filters on all of your screens. Most cellphones, laptops, tablets, and computer monitors have these options. You can find out how to turn them on, here.
- Make mealtimes screen-free. This is a big one because we lose the time to connect with others over a shared meal.
We've written before about the importance of social interaction as a way to stave off loneliness and dementia. But relying on the distraction of a phone at the table negates these benefits. An easy fix? Make a rule not to allow phones at the table.
Another problem – staring at screens (including televisions) while eating leads to distracted mealtimes. Distracted eating means you'll mindlessly gorge yourself on too much food. Practice mindful eating without any screens. Engage with family and friends or simply enjoy some music and take the time to savor your meal.
What We're Reading...
- Something different: A look at the tales behind Halloween's traditions.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 31, 2019