Sleep can be a frustrating topic for many. Nearly half of us aren’t getting enough, and even if we are, the quality isn’t great.  Some reasons for a lack of sleep are out of our control, like my toddler who still wakes up three times a night. There is one area, though, that we can control. Simple changes in how we use electronics can result in better sleep. And who doesn’t want that?
Electronics usage these days is pervasive, especially in the evening hours. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who double checks Instagram just one last time. Or stays up late to watch another episode. Or tries to clean out the inbox before it starts filling up again in the morning.
Are these simply twenty-first century habits, or are they potential health issues?
A recent study found that the effects of blue light (light emitted from screens) on sleep is worse than those of caffeine. Most of us wouldn’t dare have coffee right before bed, but we don’t think twice about using a device up until the second we are ready for sleep. Here’s why it is important that we do start to think twice about electronics in the evening.
A (Brief) Summary of Sleep
Our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by two processes, circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis.
Circadian rhythm is a roughly 24 hour cycle that regulates alertness levels of the body, along with other physiological processes, like hormone release and body temperature. It is coordinated with the light and dark cycles of day and night.
The body has a master clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus, that controls the circadian rhythm. The clock sits just above the optic nerve and receives information about incoming light from the eyes. This is how the circadian rhythm stays coordinated with day and night. During the day the SCN sends alerting pulses throughout the body and in the evening, as there is less light, it alerts the pineal gland to secrete the hormone melatonin, which causes drowsiness.
The rhythm alone, though, is not enough to put us to sleep at night. The second process, sleep-wake homeostasis, makes sure we have a good ratio of wakefulness to sleep. It determines the accumulated amount of recent sleep and acts as sleep ‘timer’, where the pressure to sleep builds as wakefulness accumulates.
So when do we sleep? As wakefulness accumulates throughout the day, we fight off the pressure to sleep as our circadian rhythm is still aroused, sending it’s alerting pulses. In the late evening, however, the circadian rhythm secretes melatonin instead, at the same time the sleep timer is making the body desire sleep. At this point, we are in the sleep window.
The Impact of Electronics on Sleep
Many electronic devices use LED back-lighting technology to help enhance viewing experience. LED works by emitting significant amounts of blue light, which is one of the shortest wavelengths on the visible spectrum. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy produced, making blue light one of the most high-energy lights our eyes are able to see.
The high-energy natural blue light, what makes the sky appear blue, has many positive effects on the body. It helps regulate our circadian rhythm (by providing light during the day), heightens reaction times, and elevates moods. 
The problem is with our increasing exposure to the artificial blue light in computer screens, smart phones, tablet devices, e-Readers, flat screen televisions, and energy-efficient fluorescent and LED lights. While any artificial light at night can throw off our circadian rhythm by triggering alertness rather than triggering the secretion of melatonin, studies have shown that this is especially true for high-energy blue light. 
Just how bad is blue light?
A double espresso, consumed three hours before bed time, will delay the SCN from producing melatonin by forty minutes; the effects of blue light are more than DOUBLE that, at 85 minutes.  The circadian rhythm is adjusted nearly an hour and a half by artificial light in this study.
This doesn’t mean that sleep was pushed back forty or eighty five minutes, as the study was looking at melatonin levels and not time to fall asleep. However, a study from 2013 found that caffeine at bedtime or three hours prior to bedtime reduces total sleep (time to fall asleep plus waking during the night) by one hour. We don’t know for sure that the same would be true for blue light exposure, but it seems plausible.
Worse Than a Bad Night of Sleep
While it might seem that a bad night’s sleep is worth reading the last chapter on an e-reader, the disruption of circadian rhythm and lower levels of melatonin is worse than just a slow start the next morning. Preliminary research is beginning to suggest that low melatonin may be connected to disease states such as diabetes and cancer. 
And outside of low melatonin, a lack of sleep in general has been studied in connection with many, many health issues, including depression and heart disease. Type “sleep deprivation” into PubMed and you will see more than 10,000 results returned.
This is not to say that staying up to watch Game of Thrones is going to result in a cancer diagnosis down the road. What is important to note is that our constant access to blue light is new for humans and we don’t know the implications at this point.
We do know that sleep is important to health and that artificial blue light significantly impacts the sleep-wake cycle. It seems reasonable, if not prudent, to take steps to reduce the amount of blue light prior to sleep.
4 Simple Tips for Better Sleep with Electronics
Luckily, there are a few very simple ways to reduce blue light, and find better sleep, that are proven to be quite effective.
1. Pick a time to shut down.
Decide on a time each night that you will stop using electronic devices. Ideally this time would be as the sun sets, but most experts suggest at least thirty minutes, if not sixty, prior to bedtime. I try to be asleep by 10pm and cut off electronic use at 9pm. While I’m not perfect, I do notice a big difference in my sleep quality when sticking to the rule.
Not sure what to do with your free time? Read a (paper) book, journal, pick up a craft, cuddle (the G- and R-rated versions both work), have a conversation, prep meals for the next day, play a card or board game, meditate…
2. Install software to reduce blue light on your electronics.
There will be times that you are unable to avoid being on a device in the evening. Having software installed to reduce blue light is one way to lessen the impact.
My husband and I both use f.lux, a free software available for your computer, that changes the colors on your screen based on the natural light in your geographic location.
f.lux is difficult to install on a phone or tablet device, but there’s good news for Apple users. In the upcoming iOS 9.3 update, a feature called Night Shift will work just like f.lux for your iPhone and iPad. You can set it to automatically adjust at sunset and sunrise or set a custom time. For more info on how to use Night Shift, click here.
It may take you a few days to get used to the evening colors, but I suspect that, like us, you will notice a difference in your sleep with the reduction in bright light.
To my knowledge there is no study that shows the effect of f.lux specifically. However, there is research that shows deliberately adapting the color palate of a phone app to reduce short-wavelength light emissions significantly cut back on the amount of blue light emitted. 
3. Wear orange tinted glasses in the evening.
They are beneficial even if you are following steps one and two, as energy efficient fluorescent and LED lightbulbs both emit blue light and most of us have these in our homes. Orange tinted glasses are a good solution if you must be on a device in the evening.
I personally wear this pair because they fit over my regular eyeglasses. You can find the glasses on Amazon for less than $10. They are ridiculous looking, but they do make a difference in my sleep quality, most noticeably in how long it takes me to fall asleep.
4. Get outside during the day.
The biggest input to your circadian rhythm is the light and dark cycles of day and night. Give your rhythm the feedback it needs to stay in sync by getting outside during the day, preferably in the morning. The more sunlight early in the day, the more in sync your rhythm will be, and the better your body will be set up for producing melatonin in the evening.
What do you think? Will you try to reduce your exposure to blue light? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments if you try any of these better sleep strategies!
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I'm a believer that we shouldn't have to compromise our health in the name of beauty. Or performance in the name of safety.