Of all the common advice given to promote healthy sleep, the caution against using electronic devices such as computers and cell phones right before bed can be the hardest to follow. If you’ve been busy at work or school all day, or you’ve been taking care of your family, the evening may seem like the perfect time to catch up on your social media, watch a few YouTube videos, or even get ahead on some work for the next day. Doing that, however, stands to sabotage your chances of getting a good night’s rest in key ways.
Computers and cell phones emit blue light, and this shorter-wavelength light is more powerful than other wavelengths in resetting your body’s internal clock toward wakefulness. Our bodies evolved to set our sleep patterns based on the natural light of the sun; when you introduce artificial light at all hours, the natural pattern of wakefulness and sleep is disrupted. Because the retina is particularly sensitive to light in the blue wavelengths, exposure to electronics and LEDs is especially problematic.
To begin with, blue light suppresses melatonin production. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps to regulate the sleep cycle. It is present in low amounts during the day, but slowly begins to increase later in the day, finally peaking in the middle of the night. Exposure to blue light in the evening resets this cycle, making melatonin production peak later.
In addition, as part of your normal sleep rhythms, your core temperature also drops by 1 to 2 degrees. This decrease helps you get to sleep and stay asleep throughout the night. However, blue light prevents this natural decrease in temperature, illustrating the degree to which it disrupts normal patterns.
What does this mean in terms of how you sleep? First of all, this interference with your natural sleep cycle means that it takes you longer to fall asleep when you do go to bed. During the night you experience less REM sleep, the stage of sleep associated with dreaming and thought to provide important benefits for stress reduction, memory, and mood. You also wake more frequently during the night and wake up in the morning feeling less rested.
To prevent these effects, you should limit your exposure to electronics in the hour or so immediately before bedtime. If you must use your cell phone or computer in the evening hours, use blue-blocking filters or glasses to reduce your exposure. You can also help to reset your sleep rhythms by making sure you do get exposure to bright light early in the day, when its stimulating effect can help reduce daytime sleepiness. Paying attention to your routines can help you reset to a more mindful schedule that promotes healthy rest.
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