We might think that we’re getting enough sleep. But the quality of our sleep has slowly deteriorated over the decades. It all started with the invention of the light bulb, which made it possible to stay active and productive long after sunset. Then with TV, computers, video games, DVDs, tablets, and smart phones, it became easier to do just about anything from the comfort of our own home – and even our own bed.
Now, we’re a society where long hours are lauded and sleep is viewed as an indulgence. Some of us even brag about how little sleep we require. The truth is, most adults need at least eight to ten hours of quality sleep per night. A reasonably athletic person will probably need even more than that. Sleep is the one universal restorer of physical, mental, and emotional health. Inadequate sleep has been linked to cardiovascular disease, depression, hypertension, blood sugar problems, and excess weight.
Unfortunately, we tend to sacrifice sleep in favour of socialising, working, reading, or entertainment. In the hours before bed, many of us find ourselves in front of a TV or computer screen. And screen time doesn’t even stop there – because when we finally do hit the hay, we lay in bed texting, sending emails, or surfing the net.
Screen time in the evenings is a major problem for our sleep regulation systems. Our brain’s sleep centre is cued by ambient light. During the day, our brain receives all colours from the sun – red, orange, yellow, green, and blue wavelengths. In the evening, however the angle of the sun in our atmosphere means that the shorter wavelengths of light (blue and green) are blocked out, leaving us with red and orange light that signals the end of the day.
TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens emanate a lot of blue light – which is interpreted by our brain as “daytime light” and disrupts our natural sleep regulation systems. Add to this the problems of streetlight filtering into our bedroom, or light from alarm clocks and night-lights. Even electric lights will emanate some blue light, although much less than screens – which is why simply reducing screen time at night will reduce blue light exposure in the evenings and improve sleep quality.
In most instances we’re still able to sleep, of course, because of our accumulated sleep debt (this is the same reason we can nap in the afternoon). However, we don’t experience truly restorative sleep. We wake up still tired or groggy, which we are able to mask with caffeine and/or processed sugar.
If you’ve ever gone camping without electricity, you know what truly restorative sleep can feel like.
So how can we improve our sleep quality? Here are three easy ways:
- Avoid screen time for at least 30 minutes before sleep. Preferably an hour. But anything is better than nothing. This time could be used for other non-screen activities – gentle yoga, journaling, or reading a book (an actual book, not on an electronic device!)
- Replace blue light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom. Most standard bulbs emanate some blue light – and the low energy bulbs are the worst culprits here. Use red or orange bulbs instead – you’ll still have enough light for activities, and your brain will naturally wind down with the “evening” light.
- Use blackout curtains in your bedroom to block out streetlight. A much cheaper alternative is to use an eye mask. Earplugs can also be helpful if there is a lot of street noise.
Ash is a behaviour consultant and clinical neuropsychologist, with a passion for holistic wellbeing and plant-based living. With over ten years’ experience in the health, developmental, and medical fields, Ash incorporates coaching principles to assist clients who are seeking to achieve health and wellness goals, attain more balance in their lives, improve emotional stability, overcome addictive behaviours, and increase levels of happiness and fulfilment. She is committed to continual and ongoing self-development, and she has personal interests in fitness, yoga, travel, integrative nutrition, and alternative medicine.
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