Are you dreaming of more and better sleep? You are not alone. Many of us have trouble sleeping. In fact, the National Institute of Health cites 50-70 million Americans have chronic or intermittent sleep disorders, and most have not seen doctors about their sleepless nights. Instead, we chalk up our regular bouts of sleeplessness to the rigors of day-to-day life, the aging process, stress and diet, and our genetics. While those ideas might certainly be to blame in part, we also often overlook a possible cause of missing sleep: technology.
First though, the benefits of sleep are often understated, and ironically they are perhaps best understood by those who get very little sleep. We have heard that adequate sleep affects our physical and mental health, safety and longevity, but in what ways?
For one, immune function and metabolism are positively affected by adequate sleep. Well-rested people cite illness less often than their exhausted counterparts. People who sleep well while trying to manage their weight generally experience far greater body fat loss than those who are regularly sleep deprived. Adequate sleep has also been shown to reduce inflammation, improve physical performance in athletes, and increase cognitive function. Students who sleep well get better grades in school and experience sharpened attention.
Sleep also lowers stress hormone levels and helps stabilize emotional health. Those who sleep well cite depression in far fewer numbers than those who do not. Adequate sleep also improves motor skills and hand-eye coordination, a fact not lost on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who cites "being tired" as the number-one reason given for fatal single-car wrecks. Regular, adequate sleep is even associated with a longer life span.
Now, new studies show that sleep is basically how we clean house, so to speak - getting rid of all the neural byproducts created during our day and restructuring the information we need to keep - in effect, declutttering our workspace. Getting adequate sleep plays an essential role in learning new information such as names, dates, faces, facts, specific events - in short, forming memory. Such strengthening and reorganization of thoughts and memories can also spur creativity by clearing space for new ideas to take shape.
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How much sleep do we really need?
Newborns 16–18 hours a day
Preschool-aged children 11–12 hours a day
School-aged children At least 10 hours a day
Teens 9–10 hours a day
Adults (including the elderly) 7–8 hours a day
*Stanford and Brown studies corroborate that the body's sleep cycles shift with age. Additionally, teenagers require later bed times and later rising times, while adults sleep and wake earlier overall.
Dr. Chris Chaney, a double board-certified physician in Sleep Medicine at White-Wilson Medical Center and the Medical Director at the Emerald Coast Sleep Disorders Center, underscores these guidelines: "The most important [sleep deprivation] issue is related to total sleep duration. We are a very busy population with work and social constraints. When things get busy, sleep often is sacrificed. The average sleep need is 7.5-8.5 hours per 24-hour period. However, we know from studies that people who sleep too much (> 10 hrs) and too little (<5 hrs) have an increased cardiovascular mortality. There seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ at 7 hrs, and I encourage all my patients to shoot for that amount."
So while we know sleep is important, studies show we are getting significantly less of it than past generations. How can this be? We have far more leisure time and overall wealth than our most recent ancestors. The time available to sleep has increased, but our ability to sleep has decreased. So, what could be contributing to our modern-day insomnia? Numerous studies cite technology as playing a major role in our shifting sleep patterns.
Dr. Chaney explains, "Evolution of technology has overall led to increased sleep disruption. Examples of this date back to the invention of the light bulb. With artificial light, people were more inclined to stay up later and work longer at the expense of sleep. More recently televisions, cell phones, etc. have made the situation worse. All this technology can lead to a later sleep time and prolonged sleep phase (making it harder to wake up in the morning). The light from television screens (or any device) can also prolong a person’s sleep phase, leading to decreased total sleep time."
In fact, a Technology and Sleep poll conducted in 2011 by the National Sleep Foundation showed that 95% of those surveyed use some type of electronic like a television, computer, video game or cell phone at least a few nights a week within the hour before bed.
So, what can we do about such widespread overexposure to technology? Experts advise "disconnecting" one to two hours before going to bed. Knowing when to turn the devices off is the most important tool in promoting restful sleep. As Dr. Chaney says, "Television should not be used to ‘lure’ you to sleep. It is better to watch TV in another room until you are ready for sleep. Also, do not leave your cell phone or iPad in the bedroom unless it is off because texts and emails that come in at night can disrupt sleep."
For the vast majority of sleepless adults, the damage is already done. Many people fall asleep nightly to their televisions or computer screens. So, what to do? How do we "reset our clocks" to begin getting adequate sleep? Dr. Chaney advises,"If you find yourself not being able to get to sleep at bedtime and find it hard to wake in the am, you may have a delayed sleep phase. Early morning light exposure at your needed wake time can help you to advance your sleep phase, but it needs to be done gradually. For instance, if your sleep phase is two-hours delayed, you may need to advance it by 30 min every 1-2 weeks. Ironically, recent technology such as the Fitbit has increased awareness of our sleep patterns, and I have some patients who have improved their sleep hygiene because of the data from a Fitbit."
The more technologically advanced we become, the more imperative sleep will be for recovery and function. The more rapid-fire information we are compelled to process, the more we will benefit from adequate sleep. Technology may be disrupting our sleep in a general and overall way now, but it also may have the power to help us if used thoughtfully.
Of course, if you still find yourself counting sheep in the dark, the classic solutions should not be overlooked; for example, you may indeed need to buy a new mattress.
Just don't Google it before bedtime.