We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most crucial elements for maintaining good health.
While we sleep, our bodies perform a range of essential biological functions that help with everything from brain development, cardiac function and body metabolism, to recovering from injuries and illness.
But while modern lifestyles leave less time for sleep than ever before, modern technology is also being blamed for its effect on the quality of sleep we do achieve.
Rhythm of life
A person’s body naturally follows a daily cycle – or circadian rhythm – that tells it when to be awake and alert and when to become drowsy and prepare for sleep.
This feeling of drowsiness is caused by melatonin, a special hormone designed to make you feel sleepy. Melatonin production is regulated by our internal body clock, which in turn is affected by exposure to daylight and darkness.
When the brain registers less light coming through the optic nerve in the eye, it signals to the body to increase the production of melatonin in preparation for sleep.
Melatonin levels then start to drop when we wake up in the morning and are exposed to daylight, allowing us to be alert and productive throughout the day.
But modern lifestyles are starting to impact on our body’s ability to follow these natural circadian rhythms.
Technology in particular is being blamed for our lack of sleep, with studies showing that logging on before bed could be stopping you from nodding off when the lights go out.
Smartphones and electronic devices can play havoc with a person’s circadian rhythms because they prolong our expose to light, which in turn can trick our brains into thinking it is not yet time to sleep.
A dose of the blues
It’s not just the exposure to light, but the type of light emitted by these devices, that is to blame.
Light comes in different coloured wavelengths and not all have the same effect on our body clocks.
Technologies such as smartphones and tablets, and other artificial light sources including energy-efficient LEDs, send out blue wavelengths of light.
While they are beneficial during daylight hours because they help boost attention, reaction times, and mood, blue light waves are the most disruptive type of light when seen at night.
Researchers from Harvard found that compared to green light, blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much.
While feeling tired after a bad night might not seem like such a big problem on the odd occasion, both the short and long-term effects of not getting enough sleep can be quite serious.
A lack of sleep can lead to concentration issues in both children and adults, affecting our ability to think, learn and remember facts, as well as our reaction times and overall mood.
A huge problem in the classroom for teachers dealing with sleepy students, tired workers can also be a massive issue for employers as they are less productive and potentially more prone to making mistakes or having an accident.
Regular insufficient or poor sleep is also thought to potentially contribute to long-term health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and poor mental health.
Switch off before bed
It’s not all bad news though, with a few easy techniques allowing you to lessen the effect of technology on your sleeping habits.
The first thing to do is reduce the amount of time you’re spending on your smartphone or electronic devices before bed, with studies suggesting that switching off two to three hours before you go to sleep will have the optimal effect.
If you can’t stand the thought of putting down the phone or laptop for that long, there are also a number of apps such as Apple’s Night Shift Mode for the iPhone and f.lux (https://justgetflux.com/) computer software that have been designed to adjust the light tones to remove blue light from the screen based on the time of day.
Another option is to wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses when using your electronic device, as they effectively block all blue light waves to ensure your brain doesn’t suppress melatonin production.