Is Losing our Screens the Answer?
We all know how it feels to be sleep deprived! It is costly in terms of personal wellbeing, productiveness and efficiency – and conversely we know how much better we feel after a good night’s sleep!
So why is it so difficult for so many of us to enjoy a night of sound sleep, and to wake refreshed in the morning?
The ideal amount of sleep is an individual thing, but as a rule of thumb it is believed that between 6.5 and 9 hours of sleep is optimal. Any less and you risk being sleep deprived, and perhaps surprisingly, too much sleep can also signal problems, for example, oversleeping is a common symptom of depressive conditions.
Of course there can be a variety of reasons leading to poor quality of sleep, including overwork, general stress, unsettled babies and children, menopause, financial stress, the ill-health of yourself or a loved one, to name but a few.
However, today I want to explore the impact that our preparation for sleep can have on sleep quality, and I refer to this as our ‘sleep routine’.
There are two parts to the sleep routine: firstly it is important to ensure that your room is comfortable for sleep. That means ensuring that you have a comfortable mattress that suits your postural needs, a pillow that suits your neck, the right warmth of doona or blankets, and appropriate ventilation in your bedroom.
The second part deals with how you prepare for a night of sound sleep – or the lead up to bed, which is also extremely important. What we need to aim for is to gently allow our body to unwind from the day, to begin relaxing, letting go of stress, and thereby preparing ourselves for peaceful, sound sleep.
Whilst preparing our body for the notion of comfort associated with sound sleep, there are some common ‘comforters’ that can impede our sleep, and we need to avoid these close to sleep-time.
These include exercise, caffeine, alcohol, and screen exposure.
We all know the importance of regular exercise for both mental and physical wellbeing, and exercise also helps to promote sound sleep. However, the time of day that you choose to exercise can have a huge impact on how well you sleep. What some people think is that exercise tires them and is therefore good preparation for sleep. However, the fact is that exercise stimulates your body, wakening it, which is not ideal when you are preparing yourself to relax and sleep! So aim to give yourself a break of around two hours after you have finished exercising, before you head for bed.
To unwind in the evening with a comforting hot drink is pleasant and soothing – and may seem like an ideal way to unwind. But this depends on what you drink! Be mindful that caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system and whilst it affects different people in different ways, research by the Mayo Clinic has suggested that excessive amounts of caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability, and restlessness. It is therefore generally considered best to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks in the evenings, especially coffee or energy drinks. Tea is a better choice, especially green tea which is said to have approximately one-third of the caffeine of coffee.
Others may find sitting and relaxing with an alcoholic beverage a great way to unwind, and some might believe that alcohol helps them to fall asleep. Whilst this has been found to be true in many cases, it has also been found that these people are more likely to sleep deeply for a while, but then experience disrupted REM sleep. This means that they miss out on many of the restorative elements that we are seeking in sleep, which impacts them during the day, leaving them feeling drowsier, having poorer concentration, and generally feeling fatigued and sleep deprived.
Hence in spite of the relaxing and unwinding effect people may experience together with the initial impact of alcohol seeming to promote sleep, the interruption to REM sleep effectively means they are sleeping less. So be mindful of the amount of alcohol you consume, especially if you are aiming for sound, restorative sleep.
Screen exposure, and more specifically the blue light emitted from screens, has become a modern day issue in terms of sleep quality and general health, and given the impact technology is having on everybody’s life, this is a problem that needs to be better understood and no doubt more widely researched. By screens I am referring to televisions, mobile phones, tablets and computers.
There are several reasons why screen exposure is detrimental to sound sleep.
The first impact on sleep is the cognitive stimulation that engaging in any screen activity can have, whether it is watching a TV show, responding to an email or catching up with social media. Although some TV shows can be relaxing, and people might argue that emails and social media are about communication with friends, too often these activities are giving our brain the wrong messages. Rather than winding down and relaxing, this stimulation winds us up to greater alertness. This in turn creates more stress to the body, which then produces more of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with the process of sleep.
The second issue with excessive screen time is that the blue light emitted from screens also interferes with the circadian rhythms of the body which sync to our 24 hour clock cycle, thus throwing our cycle off course.
The third concern is that screen light interrupts the brain’s natural production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness, and is important in helping us sleep. This gives our body the message that we are not ready for sleep, so less melatonin is produced, further delaying the ability to fall asleep.
So should we ditch our screens completely?
This is a source of great consternation amongst many family members, especially when teenage children are concerned! Adolescents seem to loathe the research around the impact of screens on sleep and general health, because for them, their device – usually their phone or tablet – is their main source of entertainment and communication.
With this in mind I think it is best to be sensible and look at what habits and routines we can establish, whilst keeping current research findings in mind. It is clearly sensible to limit screen time – especially before bed. In addition, phones should not be too close to your head, especially when sleeping, so one solution is to leave your phone outside your bedroom at night. As well as preventing late calls from interrupting your sleep, there is less radiation around you. If you use your phone as an alarm, you can set the volume higher so you will hear it, or if you really need your phone nearby, set it to flight mode to prevent cellular radiation at night.
In an effort to combat these negative impacts of screen light on our sleep routine, it is now considered best to avoid exposure to screens for an hour or two before sleep. This has an upside as screen time can easily be replaced with board games (such as scrabble and the like), which is great for family interactions, or reading which has many benefits to growth and learning, and in some cases seems to be becoming a forgotten skill!
These are some basic routines that can help you prepare yourself for the best sleep possible. Of course it goes without saying that getting to bed at a reasonable hour regularly, and ensuring that you have at least 6.5 or 7 hours sleep will go a long way to ensuring that you awaken feeling more refreshed and ready for the day.
Here’s to a night of sound sleep……