Sleep is the foundation of good health, including your mental health. A poor night’s sleep starts the day off at a deficit. It’s like a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back.
The problem is that most people don’t know what’s causing their poor sleep. They may think it’s stress, or feeling over-worked, or troubles in a relationship. All of those things could very well contribute to a poor night’s sleep.
But an overlooked aspect of poor sleep is the proliferation of computer screens in our daily lives. Your phone, TV or computer may be the cause of your sleeplessness.
Melatonin is an important component in our body’s physiology. The pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms. And circadian rhythms are a key component to balance in our lives and our sleep patterns.
If you mess up your circadian rhythm, you mess up your sleep. That’s why when you fly across many time zones, you feel out of whack for a day or two until your body resets itself. Those are your circadian rhythms righting themselves. Blue light from computer and phone screens appears to suppress melatonin production at night, which in turn confuses your circadian rhythms (Brainard, et al. 2001; Czeisler, 2013).
We’ve previously discussed research showing that the light from e-readers may harm the quality of your sleep. Artificial lighting in general can impact your sleep patterns. Rat studies have also come to the same result: light at night or before bedtime impacts your sleep patterns.
There’s now little doubt among researchers that a link exists between screen exposure at night and sleep quality. The data from many small-scale studies all point to the same relationship between light before or during bedtime and disrupted sleep. Light from electronic devices — whether it’s from your phone, a TV screen, a tablet or your computer, even as long as three hours before bedtime — will make it harder for you to get to sleep, or harm your sleep quality.
Help Your Sleep: Turn Off the Light
Sleep problems appear to be most likely related to a specific wavelength of light — blue light typically in the 446-477 nm spectrum. Every modern screen we use in our daily lives emits a ton of this kind of light. During your waking hours, it’s actually a good thing, because it helps keep you alert and attentive.1 At night, however, it’s the last thing your brain needs.
There are a few solutions to the problem. One is super easy — turn off any light (including nightlights) in your bedroom at night. Don’t check your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night. And limit screen time before bedtime as much as possible (which may be difficult or nearly impossible for most people).
The second solution is to have your screen shift its color patterns so that it doesn’t actually produce blue light. There’s a piece of software called f.lux for computers that shifts your screen into an orange, warmer color spectrum, doing away with the blues. In mid-January, Apple announced a similar feature will be available in iOS 9.3. Unfortunately, most people’s TVs and e-readers don’t yet have this feature. But perhaps in due time they will.
The third solution is to consider wearing amber, blue-light blocking glasses at night. In a small 2009 study, researchers found a significant difference between the group of people who wore such glasses compared to those who wore control glasses that didn’t block blue light wavelengths (Burkhart & Phelps, 2009). “At the end of the study, the amber lens group experienced significant improvement in sleep quality relative to the control group and positive affect.”
I still stand by my advice from a year ago, if you find you’re suffering from sleep problems:
If you’re among those people who take their phone or tablet to bed to read, give your bedtime routine an electronics vacation for a week (including backlit e-readers and even the TV in the bedroom).
At the end of the week, has your sleep improved at all? If so, you may have your answer — and a clear path to better sleep in the future.
Brainard GC, Hanifin JP, Greeson JM, Byrne B, Glickman G, Gerner E, Rollag MD. (2001). Action spectrum for melatonin regulation in humans: evidence for a novel circadian photoreceptor. J Neurosci. 15, 6405-12.
Burkhart K, Phelps JR. (2009). Amber lenses to block blue light and improve sleep: a randomized trial. Chronobiol Int., 2, 1602-12. doi: 10.3109/07420520903523719.
Czeisler, CA. (2013). Perspective: Casting light on sleep deficiency. Nature, 497. doi:10.1038/497S13a