Ahh, sleep. That ever-elusive state we keep chasing as our lives fill with tasks and obligations. Doesn’t time seem to speed up the moment you get home for the evening? Those hours between work and bedtime go so quickly. When you think about your game plan — IF you think about your game plan — does it seem reasonable to fit in everything you need to do before your head hits the pillow each night? Do you budget in time to unwind before bed? Do you honor your intentions for your evening?
Those few hours before bed are precious, but how we spend them is sometimes not up to us … or is it? Is there a baby crying? A neighbor calling? Did you bring work home with you? Is the sink full of dishes? Laundry? Will it ever end? How much control over our evenings do we really have? And what could be gained from recognizing our own power in our everlasting struggle to get enough zzz’s?
Sleep Better Series
Over the course of the next couple of posts, I’m going to address some of the challenges we face in getting enough quality sleep and how a lack thereof might be affecting our health.
Today, we’re talking about how technology could be playing a role in:
- Fewer hours of sleep each night
- Lower quality of the sleep you are getting
- Weight gain
And we’ll wrap up with a few suggestions for reducing the role technology plays in the last few hours of the day.
Friday, we’ll talk about some strategies for:
- Taking control of your evening
- Creating an environment in your bedroom conducive to falling asleep and staying asleep
- Creating a mindset and lifestyle for better sleep
Light and Sleep
We all need different quantities of sleep, but what’s nearly universal is our need to prepare to have a good night’s sleep. We need our bodies to work with us in our pursuit of better quality sleep – it’s not all about quantity!
Question: Does your late night ritual involve the TV? Facebook? Candy Crush? Texting?
In her 2000 book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival (affiliate link), T.S. Wiley argues that we’re expose to too much stimuli, mostly in the form of light (including cell phone light), too close to bedtime to properly prepare for sleep. She draws connections between our ever-decreasing (and ever-crummier) sleep and our increasingly long days resulting from our technologically lit-up nights. She even makes a claim that these “long days and short nights” are tricking our bodies into believing that we’re in a perpetual state of summer, and therefore a perpetual state of “storing for the winter” (read weight gain). Our bodies haven’t evolved quickly enough to offset the massive lifestyle changes that have come with technological advances – more on that in a second. My point right now is that the way we spend our evenings in those few hours before bed could very possibly affect the sleep we get each night.
Quality and Quantity
In 2011, The National Sleep Foundation released the results from the Annual Sleep in America Poll Exploring Connections with Communications Technology Use and Sleep. They share some very interesting findings:
The poll found that 43% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on weeknights [emphasis added]. More than half (60%) say that they experience a sleep problem every night or almost every night (i.e., snoring, waking in the night, waking up too early, or feeling un-refreshed when they get up in the morning.)
About two-thirds (63%) of Americans say their sleep needs are not being met during the week. Most say they need about seven and a half hours of sleep to feel their best, but report getting about six hours and 55 minutes of sleep on average weeknights. About 15% of adults between 19 and 64 and 7% of 13-18 year olds say they sleep less than six hours on weeknights. (source)
Are those numbers crazy to you, or do they sound familiar?
Wiley tells us that our ancient ancestors used to sleep 4,370 hours a year. That’s almost 12 hours a night, compared to our current <7 hours! We’re getting fewer hours of lower quality sleep, and there could be a pretty universal reason for it.
Research by Michael Gradisar, PhD, Flinders University (Australia) parses out the difference between “passively received technologies” and “interactive” ones before bed. Watching TV or reading by a light is passively receiving technology. Playing a video game, texting, or chatting on social media are interactive, which require more brain power. Gradisar hypothesizes that the latter could cause a greater sleep disruption than the former. (source)
“Invasion of such alerting technologies into the bedroom may contribute to the high proportion of respondents who reported that they routinely get less sleep than they need.” – Charles Czeisler, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital
In short, those activities I mentioned earlier — the ones that you do on your phone — are a very likely culprit if you’re having trouble sleeping or waking up exhausted.
Endless Summer and Weight Gain
Summer is one of my favorite seasons, but an endless summer could be causing us serious problems.
Long days and short nights of summer in our natural world precede colder, darker months of famine. Our bodies evolved to crave sugar and store fat during the summer months to ensure that we’d have enough fat to survive a winter famine. This translates physiologically to rising insulin levels and sugar cravings.
The longer we are exposed to light, the longer cortisol (a stress hormone) is produced in our bodies. The longer we produce cortisol, the more water we retain, the more midsection body weight we gain, and the less melatonin (a chemical essential to proper sleep) we produce.
The less sleep we get, the less effective our immune systems are, and the less we’re equipped to fight off diseases from the common cold all the way to rogue cancer cells.
Endless summer means endless overload for our bodies and almost guaranteed weight gain.
All that dieting, all that exercising, all that calorie counting goes out the window if you don’t get enough sleep. Why fight an uphill battle?
Unplug Your Evenings
Separating yourself from your personal device long before your head hits the pillow sounds impossible. After all, our phones are now our connection to nearly everything except the person sitting next to us (and maybe even that person too — boy am I happy that Scrabble phase is over!). The advice I’m going to share might not come naturally at first, but if you just give it a try, you might be surprised at what you find.
Leave your phone in a different room at night.
Or at the very least put it on silent and plug it in on the opposite side of the room. Try not to be looking at your phone as you climb into bed at night. The bright light from the phone doesn’t belong in bed with you, nor do the beeps and pings of texts and emails. The NSF study I mentioned earlier reports that about 20% of generation Y and Z’ers are awakened by a phone call, text, or email multiple times a week. Try using a regular alarm clock or at the very least disabling notifications on your phone at bedtime.
Turn off your computer and the TV at least an hour before bed.
Related to the point above, but taking it a small step further into the hour before bedtime, this tactic reduces exposure to bright lights and extra stimuli as you’re winding down. With all the awesome TV that’s available to us these days, it’s tempting to watch all the way up to the second it’s time for bed. Shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are stressful to watch, however, and that stress can affect our ability to fall asleep — even though it’s fiction. Wrapping up the TV watching and web surfing (on the computer or the phone) an hour before bed would be ideal. Consider charging your phone with the sound off in another room an hour before bed to avoid the temptation.
Now it’s your turn! Do you have any suggestions for tuning out technology before bed? Share in the comments below.
Stay tuned for more suggestions for sleeping better coming up on Friday.