Under ideal circumstances, you should spend roughly a third of your life sleeping soundly. But few of us actually get the quantity and quality of sleep we need. The problem of sleep deprivation is so bad that in the United States it’s considered a national epidemic. Forty million Americans have a recognized sleep disorder and an additional 20 million experience occasional problems sleeping.
Poor sleep does more than make you feel lousy the following day. Sleep is directly linked to health. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Those who report poor quality sleep also report poor quality health.”
Lack of quality sleep can lead to a long list of both mental and physical health issues. Even one bad night will affect your mood, energy, mental clarity, and judgment. Chronic insomnia increases your risk of dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Poor sleep is linked to anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, as well as sharp increases in accidental injury and even death.
Inadequate sleep even affects you down to the level of your DNA. Just a single week of insufficient sleep has a dramatic effect on gene activity. One study showed that sleeping only 6 1/2 hours per night for one week altered the activity of 711 genes.
The Change From Natural To Artificial Light
Until 100 or so years ago, our lives were ruled by the sun. We got up with the chickens and spent evenings sitting around a fire or in dim rooms lit by oil lamps or candles. Then came the invention of the electric light bulb — the death knell of darkness. Now most of us spend most of our waking days bathed in artificial light. We entertain ourselves watching brightly lit televisions and computer monitors. Even if we take a break from electronics to read a paper book, it’s illuminated by artificial light.
Total darkness is pretty much a thing of the past. If you’ve gotten up in the middle of the night, you’ve surely noticed that every room in the house is lit up like a Christmas tree — TVs, routers, modems, computers, digital clocks, kitchen appliances, smoke detectors, outlet strips, digital clocks, and even electric toothbrushes emit a glow. Our towns and cities are awash in light 24/7. Darkness is so imperiled that there are organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association that work to protect night skies for the health of humans and wildlife. The end of darkness is having serious ramifications on our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
How Blue Light Disrupts Sleep
Humans (and most other organisms on earth) evolved to exist in a 24 hour cycle of light and darkness. But artificial light, especially the light emitted from electronic devices, is disturbing our natural biorhythm. The circadian rhythm that governs our sleep cycle gets confused by too little natural light during the day and too much exposure to unnatural light in the evening.
According to sleep expert Dr. Michael J. Breus, “Scientists have discovered that when it comes to sleep disruption and circadian rhythms dysfunction, not all light is the same. Different wavelengths of light appear to have different degrees of effect. In particular, blue spectrum light has been shown to be especially disruptive to sleep, and to circadian function. Blue spectrum light is found in higher concentration in some energy-efficient LED and fluorescent light bulbs. High concentrations of blue-wavelength light are also emitted from the LCD screens of digital devices. Studies show exposure to blue-spectrum light at the wrong time of day has a greater effect than other light spectra on suppressing the natural release of melatonin.”
In a nutshell, artificial light, especially the light emitted from the electronics we love including televisions, iPads, computer monitors, and smartphones, are destroying our sleep. According to a poll released by the National Sleep Foundation, 95 percent of Americans use one of these devices within an hour before going to bed. This light is absorbed through the eyes, which sends a signal to the pineal gland that it’s daytime and time to halt production of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep cycle regulator. Although all wavelengths of light suppress melatonin production, the pineal gland is particularly sensitive to light in the blue range.
Using a tablet such as an iPad seems to be the worst device to use before bedtime. Research shows that two hours of iPad use before bedtime reduces melatonin levels by 22 percent. Tablet use is more detrimental than watching TV or looking at a computer monitor since tablets emit shorter wavelength radiation and are held closer to the eyes. They are also worse than smartphones since they have larger screens but are held at similar distance. And these are the devices most likely to wind up in bed with you as the last thing you do before retiring.
One study that compared reading a paper book with reading on an iPad before bed concluded that, “iPad use increases the time it takes to fall asleep, decreases rapid eye movement (REM, or dreaming) sleep and decreases feelings of sleepiness in the evening as well as alertness the next morning. The use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning.” (This may be one of the reasons Steve Jobs did not allow his children to have iPads!)
What’s Wrong With Melatonin Supplements
If melatonin production is the problem, the simple solution would seem to be taking a melatonin supplement. But there are some problems with melatonin supplements. First, there is nothing natural about melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a hormone that used to be extracted from the pineal glands of animals (i.e. cow brains) but now is a man-made chemical. While melatonin is sold as an over-the-counter sleep aid in the U.S. and Canada, the rest of the world treats melatonin less casually, making it available by prescription only.
Dr. Kirk Parsley, a physician, former Navy SEAL, and sleep expert for the U.S. Navy, expresses concern that melatonin is sold in such high dosages. According to Dr. Parsley, the body normally produces 300 micrograms of melatonin between sunset and sunrise. He calls melatonin supplements “one big bolus” since they can contain 3, 5, and even 10 mg of melatonin per dose. Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, says that melatonin supplements have side effects, are not safe to take with some medications, and are advised only for short-term use. Melatonin cannot be relied on as a sleep aid forever since it loses effectiveness over time.
Simple Tools To Get To Sleep
For all these reasons, increasing your body’s own melatonin production is a much better long-term strategy than taking supplements. The simplest way to boost melatonin levels is to get more natural light exposure during the day and reduce artificial light exposure at night. Getting more natural light during the day isn’t that hard. A 15 minute walk in the morning and at lunch time is a great place to start. Fortunately, there are some pretty ingenious workarounds for reducing blue light exposure at night without giving up your electronics.
While you can buy blue light filters for each of your electronic devices, this can get expensive. Instead, you can download f.lux software to your computer for free. This program automatically changes the quality and quantity of light of your computer screen by the time of day, making it dimmer and warmer (i.e. less blue) in the evening. It’s now also available for iPhones and iPads. Or you can browse through Google Play and find dozens of free blue light filter apps such as Twilight and Night Filter.
Even your light bulbs emit some blue light, especially LED and fluorescent bulbs. To filter all sources of blue light, pick up a pair of orange or amber tint glasses. You can easily find a pair on Amazon for around $10. They can be worn alone or over prescription glasses. They can even be used by kids. In fact, the first studies on blue-blocking glasses were performed on teens. This is a very low-tech solution to a high-tech problem!
A new high-tech way to minimize blue light emitted by light bulbs is a programmable lighting system that works with your smartphone, like Philips Hue or GE Align. You can set the lights to automatically adjust to give off less blue light as the evening goes on.
As you can see, there is no need to sit in the dark or give up your electronics to minimize sleep-disruptive artificial light. It’s a problem that can be fixed by making a few minor changes, most of which cost very little or are even free.