Do not disturb: The secret to a good night's sleep
With all that life throws at us each day, from work deadlines to family commitments, getting enough sleep can be difficult. But research highlights just how crucial a good night’s sleep is for our health - quality sleep is as essential to survival as food and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cited insufficient sleep as a public health problem: people with sleep deficiencies are at a higher risk for health complications ranging from heart disease to high blood pressure.
Our smartphones are our most faithful companions, resting next to us or even under our pillow every night when we go to sleep. We tend to scroll through social media or check up on emails just before we sleep, and do the same on waking. YouGov revealed that two thirds (65%) of us use our phones in bed before going to sleep, and a staggering 45% (!) do so after waking up in the middle of the night. Whilst we rely on technology to make life better, one domain where it’s making things worse is that of sleep. Experts have shed light on why this habit is a detriment to our quality of sleep at night.
All day, our smartphones deliver a tantalising display of information, entertainment, light and colour. Sleep expert Dr Walia explains that a high level of stimulation just before sleep leaves our brains highly engaged and – ultimately – more awake. Our minds stay active for a prolonged period after even a quick check of our smartphones before sleeping. Social media posts and important emails can trigger a host of emotion, thoughts and anxiety: we feel energised when we interact with others, or stressed out reading a worrying news headline. This increases our sleep onset latency (prolongs falling asleep), and crucially delays REM sleep. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, our brains create new neural connections that are vital for the consolidation of memories and learning. Rubin Naiman from the Center for Integrative Medicine says that smartphone use before bed is contributing to a “silent epidemic of REM sleep deprivation” which is driving growing health-care concerns.
And what about the blue light emission from our smartphones? This artificial light cleverly mimics that of daylight. Whilst this helps us feel more alert during the day, its impact continues at night, making a good quality night’s sleep more difficult to achieve. Research points to a correlation between blue light exposure and reduced levels of melatonin, a hormone responsible for the regulation of our sleep cycle. Blue light’s suppressing effect on melatonin affects our body’s internal clock and throws off our circadian rhythm (the body’s system for sleeping and waking during a 24-hour day). These clever systems are crucial for regulating our sleep cycle, but they can’t differentiate between natural daylight and the artificial blue light from our phones. At night, our melatonin levels should increase in anticipation of sleep, so a drop in levels of melatonin can lead to fatigue, irritability and insomnia the next day.
Experts from the National Sleep Foundation recommend a ‘technology curfew’ – no screen time from 30 minutes before bed, making the switch to an old fashioned alarm clock, and keeping your phone out of arm’s reach overnight. If a quick scroll through social media before sleeping is irresistible, Apple’s ‘night shift’ setting limits the amount of blue light your phone emits, and allows users to adjust their blue light schedule to fit their sleep pattern.
This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First published on 29 April 2020
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Cleveland Clinic
Valley Sleep Center
Center for Integrative Medicine