I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s not that I toss and turn all night. Far from it. Once I fall asleep I’m out for the count. The problem is this: I just can’t fall asleep! I kid you not, I can’t think of the last time I went to bed before two of three in the morning. I know that sounds absurd, but it’s the truth. I can’t live like this anymore, obviously. So, my mission to figure this out has begun. I don’t drink a lot of caffeine, and I’m not all that stressed out, so what could it be?
I was lying in bed the other night when I got an idea. You know those moments when you’re about to do something your mom wouldn’t approve of, and you can almost hear her voice in your head saying NO? I had one of those moments. Only this time, I could hear my mom’s voice saying what she used to say to me all the time in high school when I’d complain about a poor night’s sleep or being tired in the morning: Tali, it’s all that computer and phone stuff you do before bed. The light from the screens is bad for you! It messes with your sleep. I heard a story about it on NPR! Yeah okay, Mom, I’d say. I didn’t really buy it. I couldn’t see how a little light could mess with my sleep that significantly. But what if there was something to it? So, I did a little investigating.
It turns out, moms really are always right.
Apparently, the artificial light that certain devices emit could be screwing with the brain chemicals that induce sleep. I can’t think of two things most people care about more than sleep and their phone—needless to say, there has been a great deal of research conducted considering this connection. Here’s an interesting study I found by a group of researchers at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This study looked at the effect that looking at an Apple iPad for either 1 or 2 hours had on participant’s melatonin levels. Melatonin is one of those chemicals that induce sleep. The pineal gland (a gland located deep in the center of the brain) produces this hormone at night. Basically, it signals to your body: it’s nighttime, go to sleep! It has been hypothesized that exposure to light at night can delay or even prevent this production of melatonin, and subsequently make falling asleep really difficult.
Let me explain how this works a little more:
All animals and plants have built in circadian rhythms that are adjusted to fit their individual environment by the external cues around them. One of the most important of these cues being LIGHT. The brain’s circadian clock is located in the superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus, and uses these external cues to set itself within a few minutes of Earth’s 24-hour rotational cycle. Melatonin production is almost entirely dependent on the correct functioning of this circadian clock. Melatonin production typically begins around 8pm or 9pm and stops around 7am or 8am. So, if you mess with the clock, you mess with the melatonin ( “How Sleep Works”).
So, anyway, the study I mentioned above was interested in seeing if melatonin levels were actually being effected by technology. In short, 13 participants viewed Apple iPads at full brightness. Before being given the device, as well as 1 and 2 hours after exposure, saliva samples were taken from the participants (used later to analyze melatonin suppression, or lack thereof). The findings are interesting, and probably pretty troubling for all you late night Netflix watchers out there. Essentially, the iPad (or any light-emitting device) is not your friend. A 2-hour exposure to the tablet led to measurable, and statistically significant melatonin suppression in participants. The technologies we all know and love emit optical radiation at short wavelengths that just so happen to be close to the peak sensitivity of melatonin suppression—how convenient. It’s quite simple: if you delay your bodies sleep signal, you delay sleep!
My goal for the next week is to shut my computer, and turn off my phone at least an hour before going to bed. Here’s hoping I get some sleep!
“Sleep – How Sleep Works – Circadian Rhythms.” Sleep – How Sleep Works – Circadian Rhythms. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. http://www.howsleepworks.com/how_circadian.html
Wood, Brittany, et al. “Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression.” Applied ergonomics 44.2 (2013): 237-240.