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How Electronics Affect Sleep: Blue Light, Melatonin, and Sleep

When it comes to environmental degradation, the spotlight is often on land and sea pollution, sometimes sound pollution, but rarely on light pollution.

However, the impact of excessive electronic lighting is profound.

The extent to which light pollution affects us extends beyond washing out starlight, hampering astronomic endeavors, disrupting ecosystems, and negatively impacting our health and mental well-being. Even indoors, the proliferation of electronic devices in our homes can create a similar or even worse impact on our welfare.

One aspect of our lives where the brunt of this impact can be felt the most is sleep.

If you’ve done even a little bit of research into improving your sleep quality, the chances are that you have come across the recommendation to limit the use of electronics, especially around nighttime.

But why? How do electronics use affect our sleep? How do we limit our gadgets’ impact on our rest time and, by extension, our overall well-being?

How Electronics Affect Sleep

How Electronics Affect Sleep

Image Source: Terry Cralle

If you are one of the ninety-five percent of Americans who admit to using some screen-powered device within an hour of hitting the sack, you may be ignorant of the impact this nighttime habit has on your sleep.

First off, the 95% figure is no surprise. In reality, we were amazed that the ratio did not inch closer towards 100%. Today’s society is powered by technology, always-on connectivity, and near-instant access to limitless information and entertainment.

Hence, it is unsurprising that this unlimited access and the increasing proliferation of technological gadgets in our lives combine to create a situation where we can’t ever let our electronic devices out of sight, even in bed—a practice that is terrible for sleep.

For many people, the problem is one of the habits and self-control.

However, for many others, the issue stems from not fully understanding how these devices can hamper your rest and recuperation.

Gadgets inhibit sleep by stimulating you both psychologically and physiologically, increasing your alertness and making it harder for you to relax at night.

Consequently, the sleeper may have to deal with issues like delayed sleep onset, lower amounts of REM sleep, and waking up with extreme morning grogginess and fatigue.

The physiological impact digital devices have on sleep stem from the fact that the blue light they emit impedes melatonin (a hormone vital for inducing sleep onset) production and thus throws your internal body clock off-center.

On the other hand, on the psychological front, the activities we perform, and the content we consume on our devices can excite our minds, leaving us far less sleepy than we should be.

This impact extends to both adults and kids alike.

Melatonin Suppression

One crucial way through which electronic devices can affect our sleep is through the emission of blue light.

Blue light waves are some of the most potent stimuli input into our body’s circadian process. An unnatural exposure to this wavelength of light can throw your body’s internal clock off balance and mess with your sleep schedule and sleep quality.

In one keystone 2011 study, researchers found that exposing subjects to room light (that contain blue light) before bedtime led to a suppression of the sleep hormone, melatonin, reducing the duration of its production, and delaying the onset of melatonin synthesis.

Consequently, exposure to this type of light can disrupt your circadian rhythm, indirectly delaying sleep onset and detracting from sleep quality.

The researchers carried out this study with the help of 116 healthy volunteers aged 18-30. These participants were exposed to room light in the 8 hours preceding their bedtime for five consecutive nights.

The findings from this study exposed the fact that light can exert an intense suppressive effect on melatonin levels, distorting your body’s internal delineation of night and day.

Hence, using electronics that produce light, especially blue light before bed, could potentially disrupt a series of bodily processes that affect critical systems like sleep, glucose homeostasis, thermoregulation, and blood temperature management.

What is Blue Light?

When you break natural sunlight—or any “white light,” into its components, you get a light spectrum that includes several types of visible light rays with different wavelengths as well as some invisible ultraviolet radiation.

Warm colors like red and orange appear near the top of the spectrum, having the longest wavelength but carrying the lowest energy.

On the other hand, blue light (commonly used as a group term for blue light, blue-violet light, and violet light) appears near the tail end of the spectrum, having some of the shortest wavelengths (380-58nm) but packing the highest amount of energy.

The reason blue light has such a profound impact on our sleep is how we have evolved to process it.

Blue Light, Melatonin, and Sleep

When it comes to managing light exposure, like with most other aspects of our existence, the body does its best to protect us from harm.

With the human eye, the cornea and the lens pack anterior structures that are super effective at blocking out short-wave high-energy ultraviolet rays, preventing them from reaching the retina—which is quite light-sensitive.

However, this otherwise efficient structure performs abysmally when it comes to blocking out blue light, and this is for a good reason.

Our circadian rhythm is especially sensitive to ultraviolet light rays with short wavelengths. Since blue light is one of the only options in this category that reaches the retina, it follows that blue light is at a prime level of importance when it comes to influencing bodily functions like sleep.

When you combine this knowledge of how the eyes work with short wavelengths with the fact that blue light can suppress melatonin, making us less sleepy, it is easy to understand why electronics can profoundly impact sleep.

Compared to natural sunlight, electronic screens produce a meager amount of high-energy visible light.

However, the fact that these devices are often near our faces can increase how much of this type of light we absorb. Plus, we can continue using electronic devices even after sundown, creating a constant stream of unnatural blue light that can artificially suppress melatonin, delay sleep onset, and detract from sleep quality.

Also Read: Melatonin Benefits: What You Need to Know

What Can You Do?

To protect yourself from the unnatural blue light that electronics emit and keep your melatonin levels optimal at nighttime, consider:

Setting Up a Nighttime Curfew

Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to cut it out from the root, which implies limiting your nighttime use of electronic devices. A good rule of thumb is to set a fixed cutoff time, at which you turn off all electronic devices that can harm your sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you stop using your tech gear 30 minutes before bed, but we will throw in an extra thirty minutes for good measure.

Putting an end to your tech use an hour before bed is feasible for most people with a little schedule rearrangement.

Use Blue Light Blocking Tech

With the rising awareness of the negative impact blue light exposure can have on sleep, the technological sector has risen to the challenge.

Today, most modern electronics with screens feature a “night mode” that dims the display and minimizes blue light emission. You can set your device to this mode every evening (most devices have an automatic option) to protect your eyes and your sleep schedule from blue light.

Alternatively, you can go the extra mile by incorporating other forms of blue light blocking tech into your devices and nighttime routine.

Blue Light Blocking Glass

Know more details on Amazon

Popular options include:

  • Blue light blocking apps like lux and Twilight
  • Blue light blocking glasses
  • Blue light blocking screen protectors

Increasing Alertness and Cognition

While the previous section makes it seem like melatonin suppression is terrible, that is not always so.

During the day, we need melatonin to be suppressed, as you do want to be feeling sleepy while you are carrying out your vital daily task. This need is a logical explanation for why our eye structure evolved to absorb as much blue light from the sun as possible.

According to one study, exposure to blue light can lead to significant melatonin suppression, in conjunction with an increase in alertness levels, faster cognitive reaction times, and an improved ability to sustain focus.

All of these positive impacts of blue light absorption are fine and dandy during the day, but at night, they could spell the dearth of sleep.

The use of electronics in the evening, especially around nighttime, can significantly raise alertness and cognition at night when we need it the least, delaying sleep onset and impairing sleep.

Furthermore, smart devices like phones and computers promise an endless supply of media, entertainment, information, and access to productivity. While this access can be a godsend for improving the quality of our lives, it can constitute a severe problem with sleep.

Smart devices can keep your psychologically stimulated and engaged some bedtime, leaving you in a mentally active state that is anathema to sleep.

Another way smart devices can mess with our nighttime alertness levels is with the constant interruptions that come with notifications. According to a 2017 study on smartphone addiction, this issue can mess with your brain’s chemistry, leaving you feeling more anxious, distracted, and stressed—mind states that can have severe, far-reaching negative impacts on sleep.

What You Can Do?

All of the potential solutions for dealing with blue light we highlighted in the section on melatonin suppression will also help to reduce the impact your electronic devices have on your levels of alertness and responsiveness at night.

Other tips you can employ to help ease the excitement, anxiety, distraction, or stress that can stem from the use of smart devices include.

Deal with Notifications Permanently

With every notification chime, our attention instantly shifts to our mobile or laptop, which constitutes a real problem. This dopamine-seeking behavior can quickly become addicting, leaving you with a constant FOMO as you always expect your next hit.

Once this behavior pattern becomes deeply rooted in your subconscious, you remain in a state of slight anxiety that can detract from your quality of life and severe hamper sleep.

You can fix your notification anxiety once and for all in one of two ways:

  • Disable device notifications: this is the fastest way to get rid of any notification addiction. Turn them off for good, and only see what’s up during breaks. In a few days, you’ll begin to appreciate your new peace, and your sleep schedule will thank you.
  • Group your notifications into time slots: if method 1 is too extreme for you, consider checking your mobile notifications on a preset schedule. You can train yourself to adhere to any plan you are comfortable with, including every hour or every 2 hours.

Get Rid of the Distraction

At nighttime, even an inactive smartphone on your bedside drawer may be enough to keep your mind engaged.

Thinking about 101 questions you can quickly answer by jumping on Google, or the many opportunities for social interaction or work that exist on your devices may be enough to keep your mind active and delay sleep onset.

Consider keeping the distraction out of your bedroom. Placing your smart devices in another room when you are going to bed can help your mind check out of gadget use mode.

Don’t Consume Exciting Content

Watching thrilling movies, binging Netflix shows, or reading inciting threads on Facebook at night are all actions that can leave you with a train of never-ending thought that can potentially impede sleep.

Consider limiting your nighttime entertainment to less polarizing content. A familiar movie, or better still, a mundane paperback, can be the perfect recipe for relaxing your mind.

Improve Your Nighttime Routine

One of the fastest ways to get your mind off your devices is to opt for an even more enjoyable activity. Consider adding delightful and relaxing pursuits like warm baths, slow-sipping herbal decaf tea, or listening to some fresh slow jams to your pre-sleep schedule.

Also Check out: How Long Before Bed Should I Turn off Electronics?

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