Why Your Smartphone is Messing With Your Sleep

Why Your Smartphone is Messing With Your Sleep

Humans have a circadian rhythm built in. Our circadian rhythm is tuned to relax or become energetic based on the natural light from the sky (the sun vs the moon and stars). In our age of digital and artificial lights, however, the circadian rhythm frequently gets interrupted. Lights from phones and computers are considerably less bright than the sun but considerably brighter than the moon and stars.

When our circadian rhythm senses that it's dark and it's time to relax, a gland in the brain lowers blood pressure, glucose levels, and body temperature to make us sleep more restfully. When our phones and tablets and eReaders are producing light somewhere in between that of the sun and the moon, however, our circadian rhythms get confused. The brain doesn't produce the right amount of chemicals to prepare the body for sleep, cool the body temperature, lower the blood pressure, and do a host of other things.

What's more, the digital screens on our computers, smartphones, and tablets emit a light called blue light (it's in a different place on the light spectrum than natural light). Our brain actually reduces the amount of sleep-inducing chemicals even further when it sees blue light from a screen as compared to when it sees, say, a regular night light.


So What?

Outside of feeling sleepy after reading on your tablet before bed, why should it matter to you that your sleep is getting interrupted? Many studies have found that interrupting the sleep chemicals in your brain can actually lead to a slew of other health problems beyond just making it harder for you to fall asleep.

Most studies indicate that exposure to dim light at night in short term can lead to depression, and in the long-term, can even lead to cancer. A study over a period of several years suggested women exposed to dim light at night were 22% more likely to develop breast cancer.

Additional risks include weight gain (because of increased likeliness to snack at late hours), heart problems, premature aging, and dulled immune system response.

New Tricks

Habits, especially habits that have become part of your nightly routine, are extremely difficult to break, but you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I'm always looking through my phone before bed - it's when I catch up with Twitter, Vine, Buzzfeed, and Reddit. It's relaxing, but beyond that, I realize that it's boring to simply lay in bed and try to fall asleep if I don't have funny 6-second videos to look at. Having entertainment before I go to sleep has become my method of relaxing.

Some of my friends have their phones at their sides all night to communicate with a long-distance lover or friend before falling asleep. It's a comfort thing, which makes sense - comfort is relaxation, and relaxation leads to better sleep.

What we're forgetting in general, however, is that we don't need to make ourselves relax. And here is the conundrum with our affinity to our phones and tablets; the reason we feel the struggle to relax is that while we are trying to settle into cozy drowsiness, our brains want to focus on our phones, preventing our bodies from entering their natural relaxation patterns.

Here is a simple list of ways I plan to commit to using my phone less before I fall asleep. These are some of my ideas:

  • 1. Invest in an alarm clock (so that I don't need to have my phone right next to my bed).
  • 2. Plug my phone in to charge overnight somewhere where I can't reach it - out in the hallway, on the other side of my room, or even downstairs.
  • 3. End my conversations at night. My generation (millennials) have a habit of having constantly-ongoing text message conversations that don't end when someone falls asleep but carry on into the next day. I'll have four new texts on my phone when I wake up in the morning because I simply passed out in the middle of a conversation. It's not impolite, it's understood. If someone stops responding late at night, they'll probably answer you in the morning. This adds to my need to have my phone on me when I'm falling asleep. The conversations don't stop when it's time for bed. When I'm going to bed, I can send the message that I'm signing off for the day, walk away from my phone, and be blue-light-free while I'm falling asleep. We don't need to be on our phones 24/7, we've just come to believe that we do.

I'd love to hear about ways you have (or ways you plan to) reduce your use of technology before bed. Leave a comment on this blog post with your thoughts.

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Source: Dvorsky, George. "Why We Need to Sleep in Total Darkness." Io9. N.p., 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.