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How does technology affect our sleep?

15th February 2012 Print

There are many advantages of current technology, such as keeping in touch, working on the move and even being able to shop and date online, but some scientists are considering what implications this technology has on lives.

Technology and Sleep

One of the main concerns around technology is its impact upon sleep, especially with many people suffering from poor sleep or lack of sleep. For those who spend most of the night tossing and turning on their comfy double mattress, trying to identify why their sleep is bad, it is doubtful that many will consider that technology could be the cause.

The Body Clock

Many people now go to bed watching TV, surfing the web and using a smart phone or an eReader, not realising the potential that these have to disrupt sleep. Sleep disruption occurs because the body clock is affected. This body clock, or to give it its scientific name, circadian rhythms, is regulated by hormones.

People have biologically adapted over many years so that their lives are coordinated with the 24-hour rotation of the Earth. The body clock aligns to this clear night and day routine. These circadian rhythms do not just regulate sleep patterns, as they also regulate metabolism and behaviour.

The hypothalamus in the brain controls circadian rhythms and it seems that light is one of the biggest controllers of the body clock. When sunlight wanes at the end of the day, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pineal gland to secrete a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin not only reduces activity, but also causes the feelings of sleepiness.

One of the easiest ways to disrupt the body clock is with jet lag. Those who are blind from birth or those who work night shifts also suffer with body clock disruption.

The Impact of Technology on the Body Clock

Not only do people going to bed often feel mentally alert, because they have just spent an hour sorting emails or chatting online, but the light generated from devices such as phones and laptops is confusing the body clock.

This artificial light not only causes the body to wake up, but it also reduces the release of melatonin. This means that both the body and the brain think that they need to stay awake, rather than prepare for sleep.

A number of people not only check messages or emails before going to sleep, but also leave devices switched on overnight, increasing the risk of being woken up when a message comes through.

Minimising the Impact of Technology on Sleep.

People should try to avoid using technology in their beds and switch off devices some time before, using the spare time for unwinding. Some devices also have the ability for dimming, preventing as much light from being emitted from the screen. Leaving the phone downstairs at night is a good way to minimise the impact of technology, particularly for teenagers, who tend to message during the night.

Because light is important for controlling the body clock, when waking up on a dark morning, a light should be switched on immediately. Some people also set a light on a timer to come on before they wake up. All of this can help to keep the body clock working as it should be.