October 10, 2013

Sleep Problems: Computers Don't Help

I’ve seen so many articles about SLEEP ISSUES recently – via my email inbox or the mail-slot on my front door – I decided to begin a weekly series on the subject. After all, there are millions of us who struggle with insomnia, and it’s a particular problem for people with Parkinson’s, like me.

Today I want to discuss how using computers may affect our sleep. You’re looking at this blog right now, so . . . I’m talking to YOU!

The Light from the Screen
Through millions of years, our species has evolved by working during the day – hunting, gathering, growing food – and resting at night. As a result, our bodies developed the habit of producing the hormone melatonin when darkness falls. Melatonin induces drowsiness. So night comes, and we want to sleep. It’s a system that has served our species well for a long, long time.

Electric lights made life easier for us, and – it turns out – more complicated. The pattern that worked for millions of years – and for which the incredibly complex human body made special adaptations – was turned on its ear, with houses filled with nighttime lights.

Scientists tell us something else: the less sunlight we get during the day, the MORE we’re affected by melatonin-suppressing artificial lights at night. A million years ago, we’d have spent the entire day outside, in the sun, taking care of business. Now, we spend way too much time inside, further confusing and disrupting the natural sleep cycles developed through the millennia.

The "Blue Light" Culprit
It gets worse. The particular kind of “blue” light emanating from the backlit screens of our computers, iPads, notebooks, Kindles and other e-readers has an especially suppressing impact on our body’s creation of sleep-inducing melatonin. The blue light from these bright LED screens increases alertness, delays the onset of sleep, and diminishes the quality of sleep.

As the time for bed approaches, we SHOULD be gearing down mentally, being quiet and relaxed. Instead, many of us – yours truly included – use the time to do stimulating things that keep precious sleep at bay: reading email, logging on to favorite news sites, checking FaceBook and Twitter accounts, and – perhaps most sleep-damaging of all – playing video games (at least I don't do that!).

And we’re pursuing these stimulating online activites by the glow of melatonin-suppressing blue light! How on earth do we ever manage to fall asleep at all?

So, What to Do?
While we still don’t know the long-term efects of blue light on health and sleep, doctors and sleep experts offer a variety of suggestions for people having trouble falling and staying asleep:
  • Try NOT using computers and other electronic devices with LED screens at least an hour or two before bedtime.
  • Do relaxing things before you go to bed. Read a real paper book. Puzzles work for some people.
  • If you must use a device with an LED screen, turn its brightness way down. You can read these things in dark bedrooms at their lowest brightness settings.
  • If issues persist, ban the devices from bed altogether. 
  • Though evidence is slim, some people find that amber-tinted glasses help block blue light, thereby improving sleep.
  • Low-doses of melatonin sometimes facilitate sleep onset. Check with the doctor.
Got a useful technique that help you use the computer AND sleep well? Please feel free to share a comment.

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Here are several other articles about sleep and computers that may be helpful:


Irina said...

Hello John, I just read few of your posts, I am very impressed by your strong will to LIVE! Very impressed!
My father was diagnosed with PD in 2010 at age 74 :( - its terrible! Perhaps, I don't understand him much, he constantly repeats:" I can't do a thing! " I am very surprised that he doesn't really want to fight the disease. Can't recognize him! He never was like this before, it's very devastating to see how he is fading...
John, you are awesome! I wish you to continue to be strong - Good luck! You are very much inspirational!

gleeson1929 said...

I had a bad time after I was first diagnosed. I was on the verge of selling my house and moving into a senior residence which would have greatly diminished the quality of life I've had for the past four years which I've spent continuing to live in the house and neighborhood i love. What I didn't know at the time is that depression often accompanies the onset of Parkinson's and I was an example of this You might want to check this out re your husband

Thanks Irina for your kind compliments. Comments like yours re-energize me.

What impressed me most at the World Parkinson's Congress in Montreal last week was seeing the determination by both patients and caregivers to make the best of the cards they'd been dealt. Best wishes to you and your husband as you begin this journey.

John P.S. You might want to think about a support group. Mine has been a big help. And I've heard caregivers say the same about their support groups.