Digital Detox — How Reducing Technology Use Can Improve Sleep

Most of us would agree that technology has changed our lives for the better.  The internet and video conferencing give many people the opportunity to work from home and safely distance from others to stay healthy — especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. Communicating, via email, facetime and social networks, as well as access to virtual educational materials and training are other benefits.

But what about sleep. Can technology and the use of electronic devices negatively impact our precious sleep? The simple answer is yes. And restorative sleep is critical to overall health.

The Benefits of Consistent, Quality Sleep

The brain needs regular, quality sleep to function at its best. When our brain functions well, health benefits include:

  • Reduced risk of disorders like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.
  • Reduced anxiety and irritability.
  • Optimal learning and performance.  
  • Removal of toxins from the body.
  • A strong metabolism and immune system.
  • Regulated hormones.
  • Muscle recovery and repair.

Stage 3 is the deep sleep and restorative phase of sleep, which many sleep experts consider to be the most physiologically important phase. During Stage 3, our bodies release human growth hormone (HGH), which is vital to cellular renewal, and tissue is repaired. It’s when we experience the most bone and muscle growth. It’s also when the immune system is fortified.

When we experience proper sleep, we spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night. But, using electronics close to bedtime can disrupt this important phase of sleep.

Bright Light and Melatonin

Melatonin is a natural hormone the body produces to regulate its circadian rhythm – also called the body clock – the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is produced when light dims, which signals the brain that it is time to sleep. Conversely, bright light tells the brain that it’s time to wake up. Daylight and darkness strongly influence the production of melatonin and, hence, our sleep patterns. Therefore, an excess of light at night can affect your circadian rhythm and disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. 

The rate of sleep disorders and resulting health problems is higher among people with irregular exposure to light.

Other types of light, like that coming from electronic devices, also affects our sleep-wake cycle. Blue light is a type of visible light that mobile phones, tablets, computers, and televisions emit when they’re in use. This light, with a wavelength between 400-495 nanometers, can make the brain think that it’s daytime and suppress the production of melatonin.

Going to bed (as many people do) with a cell phone at their fingertips, and using a tablet, laptop, or television in their sleep environment or, worse, from their bed can upset their body clock. This can have serious detrimental consequences on the quality of sleep, affecting their mood and resulting in negative health issues.

A good rule of thumb is to discontinue screen use two hours before bedtime. 

Disrupted Sleep

The use of technology close to bedtime has a profound impact on the human body, from eye strain to lack of human contact in favor of social media, to sleep disturbances that affect the quality of life. Whether “active” — such as when you respond to a text message — or “passive,” like listening to music, reading e-books, and watching movies, stimulation caused by technology can disrupt sleep substantially.

When sleeping next to a cell phone or computer, sounds and blinking lights can cause unwanted awakenings. Text alerts about news stories and software updates may be welcome during the day, but not at night.

Reduced Sleep Duration

Using devices for work or play can delay when you go to sleep. Sometimes, people can’t avoid using technology in the evening. It may be they need to prepare a presentation for work or write a paper for school. In those cases, which hopefully are the exception rather than the norm, switching a screen from blue light, which is brighter, to softer colors can help somewhat. Some devices enable these changes. While bright light keeps the brain alert, dimmer lighting signals the brain that it’s time to sleep.

Difficulty Falling Asleep

The brain stimulation resulting from exposure to technology results in increased alertness in brain waves and makes it harder to fall asleep. When our minds are filled with information, knowledge, and thoughts before bed, our brains want to process that information instead of winding down.

To wind down and prepare to rest, it’s important to put away electronics and have a predictable bedtime routine. Good habits that promote healthy sleep include:

  • A relaxing walk at dusk.
  • Reading a book before bed.
  • Bathing before bed.
  • Brushing your teeth.
  • Putting on cozy pajamas.
  • Retiring before 11 p.m.
  • A room temperature set at 68 to 72 degrees.

A comfy bed and sleep environment are essential. Surround yourself with things you love, like plants, pictures of loved ones and soft colors. Blackout shades, an eye mask and a noise-cancelling machine or app can help keep a room dark and quiet. I also recommend a breathable mattress, sheets, and blanket or comforter that wick away moisture, and airy, buoyant, and breathable pillows that are made of natural materials.

Keep Electronic Devices Out of the Bedroom

Electronic devices at our fingertips are tempting to check and use. Even a TV in the bedroom can result in sleep deprivation. It’s best to keep these things in other areas of the home and to leave the bedroom associated mainly with sleep. When the bedroom is associated with sleep, research has shown that people fall asleep faster.

The use of nighttime electronics close to bedtime can result in greater instances of daytime sleepiness as well as health problems.

Can Technology Have a Positive Impact on the Quality of Sleep?

In fairness, I have to admit that technology may also help improve sleep in some cases – if its use isn’t too close to bedtime. I recommend decreasing “screen” time at least an hour before bed, but, like anything, technology is not all bad – even when it comes to sleep. Watching a favorite comedy show can be a good thing. Studies have shown that laughter in the evening actually increases the production of melatonin and makes you tired.

In one study involving breastfeeding women, for example, participants were divided into two groups, some watched a funny program and others watched the weather in the evening. Researchers analyzed the women’s breast milk and found higher levels of melatonin in the milk of the women watching the comedy. While comedy may have a positive effect on sleep, it’s important to note that not all TV is created equal. Steer clear of violent or upsetting material.

Blue-Light Blocking Glasses

If you do watch television before going to bed, blue-light blocking glasses can help. Researchers agree that blue light from devices like a computer and television hold back the body’s production of sleep-inducing melatonin. Blue-light blocking glasses have specially crafted lenses, which, although the evidence isn’t conclusive, may block or filter out the blue light given off from digital screens.

Blue-light blocking glasses also may protect your eyes from glare and can help reduce potential damage to the retina from prolonged exposure to blue light.

Like anything, what works for one person, may not be at all helpful for another. So, when it comes to technology — even watching a humorous show — pay attention to how the use of electronic devices affects your quality of sleep.

Proper sleep is essential to overall health and well-being. Ensure your sleep routine and environment are conducive to uninterrupted sleep of 8 to 10 hours per night for optimal health and happiness. For many, that may mean eliminating exposure to technology and electronic devices one to two hours before bedtime.

 

Authored by Ingrid Prueher, Holistic Sleep Coach