Much attention has been given in recent years to the risks of sleep apnea and its impact on health and loss of sleep quality, but there is a much more influential factor contributing to sleep loss, affecting nearly every home in the United States. You’re using it right now: Household light, especially that emitted by electronic devices has a noteworthy impact on your sleep and may be contributing to sleep loss – and even harming your overall health.
While individual sleep needs vary from person to person, it is generally recommended to get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. When interviewed, 35 percent of Americans reported they got less than 7 hours of sleep on an average night, and 63 percent report not getting enough sleep throughout the week.
Much of this sleep loss is due to increased use of communications and electronics, such as cellphones, television, computers, and tablets. Ninety-five percent of Americans report using electronics within an hour of bedtime at least a few times a week.
What is the significance between the use of these technologies and how you sleep at night?
Our body’s internal clock is dependent on light exposure to signal our body that it’s time for sleep. Extended use of light beyond dusk suppresses melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that regulates our sleep wake cycle. Melatonin is responsible for the onset of drowsiness, muscle relaxation, and reduction of core body temperature which all signal the body it’s time to sleep.
Before the advent of technology, we were dependent on the natural light to determine our sleep schedules. With increasing use of technology, we have created artificial day that extends far past what nature ever intended and is delaying our body’s signals for sleep.
It’s Not Just About Sleep Quality
Suppression of melatonin negatively impacts our sleep by causing delays and interruptions in our natural sleep cycle, leading to changes to mood, increased risk of anxiety, stress, and depression as well as insomnia and sleep phase delay.
The effects are not limited to just our mood. Research indicates sleep loss can lead to significant cognitive delays, such as delayed reaction time, impaired decision-making, memory loss, and increased risk for automobile and workplace accidents.
Sleep loss may also put individuals at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and impaired immune system function. Recent research also shows links between sleep loss and increased incidence of breast and prostate cancer.
How to Sleep Better
Fortunately, there are many ways to keep light from affecting your sleep.
- Two hours prior to bedtime, start dimming the lights in your home to allow for the natural production of melatonin.
- Light-blocking curtains and blinds are recommended especially in the bedrooms and can significantly reduce excess light from your room.
- Use of an eye mask will also help to avoid light pollution at bedtime.
- Ideally, your room should be as dark as you can make it. If a nightlight is necessary, try switching to one with a red bulb as the wavelengths of red light are shorter and have less impact on melatonin production. Nightlights optimally should be kept in hallways outside of the bedroom, rather than the bedroom itself.
When it comes to electronics, there are apps for many devices such as f.lux, which will filter the amount of blue light a screen emits in relation to the time of day. You may find this feature already installed on some newer devices, such as the Kindle Fire. These apps will help to steadily reduce the blue light from screens when used in early evening hours. As difficult as it may be, all electronics should be put away an hour before bed. This includes turning off the television!
Hopefully these tips will spare your snooze button and have you rising on the right side of the bed each morning.
Brandie Brooks, RPSGT, is a polysomnographic technologist at the Sleep Program at the University of Vermont Medical Center.