This past New Year’s Eve, my neighbor pulled out his iPhone and showed me an app he was using called Fitbit. It tracks activity levels during the day and also approximates sleep time, allowing you to follow trends over time. The irony of talking about sleep was not lost on me on a night when most people don’t get enough, but it also got me thinking about the good and bad of technology in the bedroom.
I will freely admit that unlike Dr. Gogo (who posted a blog on using Mobile Health Apps to Diagnose Heart Problems), I am a technophobe. Beyond calls and texts, my “smart phone” is basically used for playing solitaire. But, technology has clearly inserted itself into every part of our lives, and one could blame, in part, technological advances for the pervasive lack of sleep in America today.
It is estimated that we as a nation sleep about 20 percent less than our forebears did a century ago. Edison and the incandescent light bulb are easy targets, but recent studies have shown modern inventions play a role, too. The National Sleep Foundation 2011 poll revealed that 95 percent of persons surveyed use some type of electronic device (television, computer, or cell phone) within the hour before bedtime at least a few times a week.
These devices can prevent sleep as they mentally stimulate us and produce light, which is our main environmental cue to wake up. Among younger individuals, about half are surfing the Internet before bed, and one in ten are awakened after they go to sleep by a call, text or email – nightly. Hearing Facebook alerts all night long is clearly not a recipe for quality sleep.
Sleep medicine research makes it clear that sleep is very important for your overall health. Chronic sleep deprivation affects cognition, memory, mood, and can have ill effects on your immune and endocrine systems, among others. Sleep is a biological need that we can ignore a little easier than, let’s say, thirst or the urge to go to the bathroom, but the consequences of sleep deprivation are no less important to our proper functioning.
While we can blame technology at least partially for loss of sleep in modern society, there are technologies out there that aim to improve our sleep. Many smart phone apps provide relaxation techniques and help people figure out how much they are actually sleeping, which is a good start, as in my experience most people don’t really know. In the sleep center, we also rely heavily on technology for the diagnosis and treatment of many sleep disorders, like sleep apnea (PAP therapy) and circadian rhythm disorders (light therapy).
Whether you use an app or a piece of paper, I think if you’re not feeling rested, it’s good to log your sleep time over a few weeks to see if you’re getting the 7-8 hours of sleep a night the average person needs. Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep – no electronics allowed. And give yourself some time to wind down from a hectic day and process your day by journaling or talking with a loved one. No matter your opinion on technology, I think most would agree you can’t work out life’s real problems with a computer. Excluding Wikipedia, of course. Here’s wishing you a good night’s sleep.
Garrick Applebee, MD, is a sleep medicine physician at the UVM Medical Center. He is also medical director for the Vermont Regional Sleep Center.