Need some shut-eye? Then give those eyes a rest from screens

Story by Jamie Lampros
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Oct 29, 2012
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Want a good night’s sleep? Lay off the electronics before tucking into bed.

Today’s gadget-obsessed world is causing us to lose sleep, according to new research. Before all of these electronic devices came on the market, we were getting up to 10 hours of sleep — compared with fewer than seven hours today.

In a study published in the journal Applied Ergonomics, researchers from the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that a two-hour exposure to electronic devices with self-luminous “backlit” displays prior to bedtime causes lowered levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, which might lead to delayed sleep, especially in teens.

Volunteers in the study read, played games and watched movies on an iPad, iPad2 or a PC tablet for various amounts of time while the amount of light their eyes received was measured. Those exposed to two hours of bright tablet screen light at night had a 22-percent reduced melatonin level.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland at night and under conditions of darkness. The hormone serves as a “timing messenger,” according to the study, signaling that it’s bedtime.

When exposed to light, especially short-wavelength light, melatonin production slows down and can even cease, according to the research. Not only can this disturb one’s sleep, but it also can increase the risk for diabetes and obesity, as well as other serious diseases.

“Technology developments have led to bigger and brighter televisions, computer screens and cellphones,” said researcher Brittany Wood in a press release on the study. “This is particularly worrisome in populations such as young adults and adolescents, who already tend to be night owls.”

Dr. Navin Varma, a South Ogden neurologist, said blue light is a known wake promoter and, physically, devices that have a lot of blue light keep us awake.

“Their content is also habituating,” he said. “Contacting or pretending to contact other human beings is a positively rewarded behavior in our brain. As that drive is amplified by the ease of superficial contacts, we are driven to have more of those contacts. So, biologically these devices give us reward-punishment reinforcement for poor behaviors.”

Thus, we fall into habits that distract us from addressing other issues and problems, Varma said.

“Psychologically, we are creatures of habit. If we develop poor habits, they will damage us,” he said.

3 hours before bed

Jody Fowers, a nurse practitioner at Layton Family Medicine, said more research is needed, but she recommends turning electronic gadgets off at least three hours prior to bedtime.

Sleep is regulated by our brainstem, where our “reticulating activating center” is located, she said.

“Light and sound activate our RAC,” she said. “Activating the RAC stimulates our brain and tells us that it is not time to go to sleep. With this in mind, I recommend that we do not use our gadgets, bright alarm clocks or television to go to sleep or to wake us up.”

Risa Bell, a registered respiratory therapist at the Center for Sleep at Davis Hospital and Medical Center, said 10 percent to 15 percent of American adults have a serious sleep deficit, and at least one-quarter of adults have occasional sleep problems.

Bell said sleep loss can be caused by exposure to electronic devices, but is also a symptom of a number of disease processes.

“We live in a fast-paced society and ever since the invention of the light bulb, our days do not begin and end with the rising or setting of the sun,” Bell said in an email interview. “Too little sleep can inhibit productivity and the ability to remember and process information. More importantly, lack of sleep can also lead to serious health consequences, including increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, increase in body mass index and obesity, increase risk of diabetes and heart problems, and increased risk for depression, substance abuse and some psychiatric conditions.”

Get some sleep

Though there is no magic number for the number of hours of sleep a person needs each night, the National Sleep Foundation suggests an adult should receive between seven and nine hours. Children between the ages of 10 and 17 should be getting up to 9 1/2 hours of shut-eye, and kids between 5 and 10 should be getting 10 to 11 hours of sleep.

“But a better test is daytime sleepiness or alertness,” Varma said. “If one’s sleep or lack thereof gets in the way of waking activity, something is wrong, but that something may be a gadget, TV, wrong choices in lifestyle or a medical issue.”

Researchers say until more circadian-friendly gadgets are invented, it’s best to turn them off or dim them as much as possible prior to bedtime.

Local experts say there are several things you can do to prepare for a good night’s rest. In addition to shutting down the tablet, they recommend relaxing with a nice warm bath, reading a book and drinking a glass of warm milk.

In addition, make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. It should be dark, quiet and cool. Do not exercise too close to bedtime; don’t eat a large meal within two to three hours of bedtime. Give up smoking; avoid alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime. Sleep on a good-quality mattress and comfortable pillows, and try to establish a consistent sleep schedule.


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