We live in a technological age.
Most of us carry a cellphone in our pocket just about every waking minute of our lives, and whether we’re working, relaxing, or winding down for the night, the average American spends over 11 hours each day glued to some kind of screen.
That’s over two-thirds of our waking lives!
And while the pros and cons of so much tech use are of course very much open to debate, there’s one area where we are most definitely suffering from overusing our devices.
I’m talking about our sleep.
Although many may try to use phones, TVs, computers and tablets as a way to settle down for the night, a huge amount of recent research points to the harmful effects of electronics on sleep.
Electronics lead to less sleep and lower-quality sleep across the board, and for a lot of us, it’s probably time to rethink the way we handle bedtime.
The Problem With Light at Night
A lot of the problem comes down to the amount of light most electronic devices admit.
The human body is designed to wake up and go to sleep in response to the rising and setting of the sun.
For most of human history, after all, there simply were not that many sources of light at night short of the campfire and the moon.
The chemical melatonin is actually nicknamed the “darkness hormone” because of its close ties to light levels: the amount of it in our bloodstream starts to increase after sundown, reaching a peak sometime in the small hours of the night.
It appears that our brains release melatonin in response to decreased light.
When our bodies see darkness, they think it’s time to go to sleep.
When our bodies see light, on the other hand, they think it’s time to wake up… which is exactly where the problem lies.
Most electronics give off way more light than our brain is meant to deal with at light, which can lead to all kinds of issues in our sleep cycles.
Using electronics before bed often results in it both taking longer for us to settle into the REM sleep and in less time spent in REM sleep overall.
This results in us feeling much groggier come morning, even if we’ve blocked out an appropriate amount of time for sleep!
Why Electronics Are Especially Bad
Now, all those issues with melatonin levels are liable to come up any time you’re dealing with bright lighting in the nighttime, whether you’re looking at electronics or not.
However, the LED screens of our phones and computers actually have one more trick up their sleeve than typical artificial lighting: blue light.
Although researchers still aren’t 100% sure why, the shorter light wavelengths emitted by electronics tend have more serious effects on sleep than other kinds of light.
Because of this, if you feel that you absolutely have to use some electronics before going to bed, it’s best to turn your screen as dim as possible.
These apps will keep your devices from emitting blue light waves, thus negating some of electronics’ most harmful effects.
You can also try getting an old-school Kindle Paperwhite or a similar device, since these emit much less blue light than most other electronics.
How Overstimulation Hurts Sleep
Even if you find a workaround for your electronics’ light, however, you’re still not completely out of the woods when it comes to your sleep.
The problem here just comes down to basic psychology: digital devices get you fired up when you should be powering down.
Whether you’re playing a videogame, responding to work emails, or just watching an entertaining show, your electronics are basically telling your brain there’s a reason for it to still be awake.
This is true of pretty much anything you’re likely to be doing on your device before going to bed – even if you think it’s getting you ready to go to sleep!
It takes most people much longer to start getting tired when using electronics at night, and it’s all too easy to let the minutes and hours slip away before you remember you’re supposed to be getting to sleep.
All in all, electronics are usually a pretty misguided option if you’re trying to nod off.
How to Handle Electronics Around Bedtime
Most experts recommend steering clear of electronics for at least half an hour before bedtime.
For best results, however, it’s best to start turning them off closer to two hours before you’re hoping to get to sleep.
This is when the brain really starts releasing melatonin in earnest!
What should you do during those two hours instead of looking at a device?
In general, any calm, relaxing activity is a pretty good choice – especially if you make a habit of it.
Your body loves to key in on patterns, so any relaxing bedtime ritual you can work into your schedule will help you keep your sleep cycle well under control.
Some people might enjoy having a hot shower, while other find a nightly habit of meditation or prayer highly effective in improving sleep.
Others might find success reading – although you’ll have to take care not to get too engrossed in your book!
Something to keep in mind is that even if you’re not using electronics in particular, certain environments and activities can produce pretty similar effects.
Avoid bright lighting, especially from fluorescents.
You’ll also want to keep away from stressful activities as much as possible (although obviously there are some times this will be easier than others).
Some experts also recommend keeping electronics out of the bedroom altogether, since this both cuts down on the temptation to look at your phone throughout the night and helps your body associate your bedroom with nothing but sleep.
An Alternative to Cutting Out Electronics
Now, if cutting down on your electronics that much seems like too much of a hardship to bear, there’s still some hope for you and your sleep cycle.
According to a 2014 study published in the journal Sleep Health, increased exposure to bright light during the day can bring about many of the same positive effects as decreased exposure to bright lights closer to bed.
Seeing more light during daylight hours between 8 in the morning and 5 at night leads to better sleep and fewer sleep interruptions throughout the night.
This is especially true if you’re seeing that sunlight in the morning, between 8am and noon.
Although increasing darkness at night still certainly matters, the important thing seems to be creating a clear contrast between morning and evening light levels.
Try going outside more in the morning or at lunch.
You might be surprised in the kind of difference a little fresh air and sunshine can make!
Other Ways to Improve Your Sleep
Of course, even if you follow all of these options to the T, there’s still a chance you might still find yourself having trouble getting to sleep at night.
Insomnia is a very real problem for an enormous number of Americans, and there often isn’t any silver bullet when it comes to finding a way out.
In addition to excessive electronics use, another common cause of sleeplessness is an uncomfortable sleep environment.
Most experts recommend sleeping in a dark, cool environment – around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, to be precise.
These low temperatures allow your core temperature to decrease the way it needs to in order for you to get to sleep!
Another possible reason for low-quality sleep is a low-quality mattress.
If you’re not allowing yourself a comfortable sleeping surface, it’s pretty much impossible for you to get a good night’s sleep.
Your body needs to be able to relax as much as possible at night, without any nasty aches and pains.
Although investing in a new mattress is something most of us would probably rather avoid if at all possible, mattresses really can go a long way to improving both the quality and the quantity of your sleep.
Other easy tricks for improving your sleep life include sticking to a regular bedtime and wakeup time, limiting activities on your bed to just sleep and sex, and getting more exercise throughout the day.
If you’re still having trouble sleeping after trying all of that, you may want to consider visiting a sleep specialist or trying out melatonin pills.
Above all, the most important thing is it realize just how important your sleep really is.
Better-quality sleep can improve your life in just about every way, but you need to put in the time and effort your body is asking for.
Don’t compromise on your sleep.
Figure out what you need to do to get the amount of shut-eye you need, and results are practically guaranteed.
So put down that cell phone, shut off the light, and start taking your health seriously.
You can live without your electronics.
You can’t live without your sleep!