Sleep – Kind of a Big Deal

By Dr. Tim Latham

“Though sleep is called our best friend, it is a friend who often keeps us waiting!” – Jules Verne

Nestled among the classic lifestyle-related words of wisdom that our parents told us (i.e. eat your green beans, wash behind your ears, look both ways before crossing the street, etc.) is the 8 hours of sleep per night rule. Although the specific amount of sleep does vary slightly depending on your age and health status, science has confirmed that 8 hours/night is a pretty solid rule to live by for adults.

Despite being essentially paralyzed when we’re sleeping, there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Our brains are busy consolidating memories and clearing out waste products while growth hormones circulate to help rebuild our muscles after exercise and repair wounds. In regards to your short-term health, sleep scientists have proven that being overtired is basically the same as being drunk. Poor sleep has been linked to a host of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, early cognitive decline and obesity. So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.

One of the major players in the game of sleep is a hormone called, melatonin. Produced in a pea-sized portion of your brain, known as the pineal gland, it’s job is to make us feel drowsy in preparation for sleep (amongst other important roles). Think of melatonin as a way to keep your biological clock ‘in tune.’

The activity of melatonin is highly dependent on exposure to light, giving it the nickname of the, “Dracula of hormones.” When the sun is up, melatonin levels are down. When the sun goes down, melatonin levels go up. Simple, right? Melatonin had a pretty straight forward job for most of human history but like many good things such as newspapers, class reunions, and the VCR, 21st century technology has thrown a wrench in the mix. LED’s (light emitting diode) present in devices such as televisions, cell phones, tablets and laptops give off light in the blue wavelength which mimics that of the sun, disrupting melatonin production. In essence, because our brains are still receiving blue light when we view these devices at night, they still think the sun is up.  Therefore, melatonin is not released at the same rate and we don’t get as much of that drowsy, “I need to go to sleep” feeling.

In a perfect world, we would start to unplug when it gets dark out and allow our bodies to establish a happy and healthy sleep-wake (circadian) rhythm. Unfortunately, there are just too many emails, text messages, reality shows and Instagram posts that we MUST SEE after hours and our melatonin regulation suffers. Sure, you could head to CVS and grab an over-the-counter melatonin supplement as a form of self-administered hormone therapy but there’s actually very little scientific evidence to support its use for sleep-related issues.

Fortunately, tech companies have caught on to the issue of blue light exposure and have made software upgrades that allow you to switch into Night Mode. If you haven’t already done so, run a quick Google search and learn how to switch into Night Mode on your device. However, if you insist on watching Game of Thrones re-runs and making funny faces at the new Snapchat filters in bed and DON’T have a Night Mode eligible device, consider wearing amber-tinted glasses at night. They’re the same size as a standard pair of sunglasses and they work by blocking exposure to blue light. As a general rule of thumb, it’s more important to wear them when you look at your phone or tablet because you hold your phone closer to your face but it’s a good idea to get used to wearing them anytime the sun is down.

Sleep is a natural and incredibly complex phenomenon that has a major impact on our short and long-term health. The tech devices-blue light-melatonin connection presents just one of a number of sleep-related issues but it has the potential to make a big difference in your quality of rest. Do yourself a favor and be friends with blue light during the day and enemies at night. Put down your devices several hours before going to sleep, shift your devices into Night Mode and/or consider investing in some $8 amber-tinted glasses. The glasses aren’t going to win you any fashion contests but you will be giving yourself a shot at a good nights sleep which will make you less of a cranky friend/co-worker/spouse in the morning.

Stay tuned for more sleep hygiene tips in future posts.
Read more from Dr. Latham here.
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