What's Keeping You Up at Night?

If you want to sleep, turn off your electronic device.

The light-emitting devices might be keeping you awake!

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac Leod, PhD

 

It is well established by now that staring at your phone, iPad or computer screen before going to sleep may delay your “real sleeping” time. The continued exposure to light excites the receptors in your eyes and therefore your brain, sending the signal that you must stay awake longer. This might not be a problem if you enjoy laying around in bed, tossing from side to side, but most people have to get to work early or have other commitments that haunt them the morning after a bad night of sleep. Insomnia is actually a serious disease; the lack of mindful dreaming can have a negative effect in your daytime life, and can result in poor performance at work. A recent study, published in the SLEEP journal, showed that reducing sleep from 8 hours to 4 hours makes memories less accessible in stressful situations.

 

Last December, a study in Boston added more evidence to the hypothesis that blue light negatively affects the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Dr. Chang and collaborators published in PNAS that the use of blue light emitting electronic devices before bedtime reduces a person’s alertness and interferes with their circadian rhythm. In this basic study they compared the effects of reading from a light emitting device verses from a paper book. They found that these e-readers delayed sleep for up to an hour compared to the old-fashioned paper books.

 

A recent study, published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms also tried to answer the question: can access to artificial light modify our sleeping patterns? Their answer was YES, it does! Sounds pretty legit, right?

 

Dr. De la Iglesia and collaborators studied two native communities in the north of Argentina: the Tobas and the Qom. These two indigenous communities share similar sociocultural and ethnic heritage, but one difference between them is that only the Tobas have access to electricity. Therefore, the Qom community regulates its lifestyle with natural light, like our ancestors before the almighty Mr. Edison’s invention.

 

The researchers provided the participants from both communities with motion-tracking wristbands to follow their activity during both summer and winter seasons. They found that in the summer season the Tobas had a tendency to get less daily sleep, about 43 min per day, than those living under natural light conditions. Not surprisingly, this was due to a later daily bedtime and sleep onset in the community with electricity, but a similar sleep offset and rise time in both communities. In the winter, the Qoms slept around 56 min per day more than those with access to electricity, and this was also related to earlier bedtimes and sleep onsets than the Tobas. They concluded: “The access to inexpensive sources of artificial light and the ability to create artificially lit environments must have been key factors in reducing sleep in industrialized human societies.”

 

But reading the conclusion you learn something else: the Toba community had TVs. This caused them to stay awake even later.

 

How do you get that pleasant sleep? To listen to lullabies… soft melodies ranging from 60 to 80 beats per minute. Take a warm bath, if body temperature drops before bedtime. Another option is to pay extra attention to your breath: focusing on how air moves through your body can relax you and can reduce stress. My favorite solution is to meditate! At least try – a lot of people accidentally fall asleep while trying to meditate anyways ;).

 

If you are a device-addicted insomniac, at least decrease the brightness of your screen. Tonight, have a nice encounter with Morpheus and remember that the rest of the human race will appreciate not dealing with a cranky sleepless person tomorrow.